“Sometimes peace is purchased with violence.”
– Sheriff Jim Winder, Salt Lake County, Utah
William “Dub” Lawrence founded the first SWAT team in the state of Utah back in the 1970s. Thirty years later, that same SWAT unit killed his son-in-law, Brian Wood, during a controversial standoff in Farmington.
The new documentary film Peace Officer chronicles Lawrence’s quest to uncover the truth surrounding his son-in-law’s shooting. The film poignantly reveals the evolution of policing in America from “protect and serve” to “command and control.”
“In Peace Officer, Dub’s long-term obsession with bringing to light the truth behind his son-in-law’s killing is punctuated by his investigation of other recent officer-involved shootings and SWAT team raids in quiet neighborhoods just miles from where Brian was killed. Several of these cases are related to aggressive no-knock search warrant laws typical across the country.
“These events are contextualized within a growing national phenomenon of violent SWAT raids and governmental immunity laws gone amok in the War on Drugs.”
The film opens with first person accounts of the standoff between Brian Wood and police in Farmington, It reveals a situation that gradually spun out of control as officers escalated the violence. Jerry Wood said he begged police to let him talk to his son.
“I kept telling them I knew I could calm this situation down.”
Police refused, telling Jerry, “We’re in control.”
“All of a sudden you see this mentality of aggression that is just overwhelming, and once this machine started going in that direction, there didn’t seem to be any way to reverse it, change its direction or slow it down. It seemed to move into a military operation at that time.”
Jerry Wood’s words vividly illustrate the change in mentality that occurs when police become warriors, armed with military gear, high powered weapons and tanks.
Law enforcement apologists insist police utilize heavier weapons and tactics because they confront a different kind of criminal than officers faced back in the 70s. “It saves lives.”
But this doesn’t get at the root of the problem. What caused this change in the nature of crime? What is driving this?
The answer is simple – the “War on Drugs.”
In the early 1970s, Pres. Nixon fired the opening salvo.
“We must wage what I have called ‘total war’ on public enemy number one in the United States – the problem of dangerous drugs.”
While Nixon declared war, it was Pres. Ronald Reagan who kicked it into high gear. Spending on the drug war tripled and in the 1980s, and 37 federal agencies entered the fray.
SWAT teams were initially created to respond to rare and extreme events such as hostage situations, active shooters and riots. But by the 1980s, police were regularly deploying SWAT as an investigative tool, sending heavily armed officers in the dead of night to execute search warrants. They often utilize a procedure called a “no-knock raid.” Police break into the home without making any kind of announcement or identifying themselves as officers. In the 1970s, SWAT was called out a few hundred times a year across the U.S. That number increased to 3,000 times per year in the 1980s. In 2005, law enforcement agencies deployed their SWAT teams more than 15,000 times.
The film also highlights the case of Matthew Stewart. He shot and killed an officer, and wounded several others, when police crashed into his home to execute a warrant after an informant tipped them off to a marijuana grow inside the house. Stewart suffered multiple wounds in the shootout and was later charged with murder. He maintained he was didn’t realize it was a police raid and acted in self-defense.
Dub Lawrence’s investigation revealed sloppy police work during processing of the scene and significant inconsistencies in law enforcement’s version of the story.
Stewart later committed suicide in his jail cell.
Journalist Randy Balko said we should question the entire premise of the War on Drugs and its impact on policing in the U.S.
“Militarization is not just SWAT teams. It’s also the mindset. It’s this idea that it’s perfectly appropriate to storm somebody’s house at night for plants…
“Is it appropriate that 100 to 150 times per day in this country we send cops armed like soldiers, barreling into people’s homes, usually at night to enforce consensual, non-violent crimes? Is that an appropriate government action? Is that an appropriate use of force?”
Salt Lake City County Sheriff Jim Winder revealed the mindset of police when it comes to deadly force. He said sometimes police are perfectly justified in taking the life of an unarmed person.
“Whether they are armed or not is not the question. The question is: what is the perception of the officer at the time?”
That sounds reasonable, and most Americans probably agree. But Balko raises a poignant question: why do police get a free pass when initiating violence, but the average person like Stewart doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt? Why do we expect him to wake up from a dead sleep and instantly perceive that police have crashed into his home; that it’s not intruders intent on killing him? When cops make a mistake and kill somebody who isn’t really a threat, they always receive forgiveness because of fog – uncertainty – it’s reasonable for them to feel threatened. The person on the receiving end never gets that benefit.
“If you reach for a gun or something to defend yourself, you’re done. You’re probably going to die.”
Peace Officer will make you think. It doesn’t bash police. Far from it. Dub Lawrence still seems proud of his career in law enforcement, and expresses respect for police and the job they do. But the film vividly exposes the transformation of law enforcement that has occurred since the inception of the War on Drugs. It raises a lot of questions about the current policy – questions that have sadly become obscured by racial politics and unthinking police worship.
These questions drill down to the very nature of government power and its role in our lives. They are questions we all need to ask.