A good balance of heart and science, this exposé on the silent rise of the militarization of police has the potential to start a movement.
Peace Officer (Hot Docs Review)
It only took 10 minutes for Detective Jason Vanderwarf to get a search warrant to enter the home of Matthew Stewart, an Army vet growing a personal supply of illegal marijuana in his Ogden, Utah home. It’s up for debate if he knew the plain-clothed officers who broke into his home were police, but the unshakeable fact is that the raid left an officer dead and several other men (including Stewart) severely wounded. It’s one of four instances of alleged excessive force by police officers that directors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber set their lens on in their compelling and all-too-timely documentary Peace Officer.
The crime scene looks a bit like a makeshift version of a Mission Impossible set. But instead of a grid of complex lasers for Tom Cruise to limbo over and under, crime scene investigator William “Dub” Lawrence has zig-zagged red and yellow string every which way (red indicating rounds fired by the police officers and yellow representing rounds fired by Stewart). After demonstrating projection angles and examining blood splatter, Lawrence, on his knees in the bathroom says, “If we calculated it right, the bullet would have fallen all the way to right here.” With a big grin on his face, he pulls out a bullet from under a hole in the wall. Noticing the distortion and skin fibers on the bullet and knowing who was standing where, he determines Officer Vanderwarf was shot by friendly fire—not Matthew Stewart. OK, so CSI wishes it was that compelling.
But this is real life, and not many people find the consequences entertaining. And what this scene demonstrates, finally, is logical evidence separated from the grief and anger that (perhaps, rightfully) colors a lot of the debate on this subject. It’s one thing, as many documentarians do (I’m looking at you, Michael Moore) to be angry and critical of a system. It’s another to prove it’s flawed with an equal dose of science and compassion. This even-keeled, logical exposé on the silent rise of militarization will certainly find an audience in a generation craving for an untainted source of information.
The filmmakers have an invaluable tool in Lawrence, who not only is a contract crime scene investigator but is also a former police officer and sheriff, and even more bizarrely, was the man who founded Utah’s first SWAT team. This same institution would go on to kill his son-in-law, Brian Wood, back in 2008. It’s become a personal obsession of Lawrence to sort out the case, and others like it, and having worked on a number of high profile cases (including breaking the Ted Bundy case), he’s unusually qualified. Also grounding the documentary is a fair share of history and archival footage dating even before SWAT (the film particularly points out the U.S.’s War on Drugs, and how our gradual reliance on no-knock raids began back in the Nixon era). Well-researched, considerate to both sides, and seamlessly edited to carry a trio of stories in an engaging way, Peace Officer is just about everything we can ask for from a social change-motivated documentary.
There is a huge difference when filmmakers do their homework and when they don’t. The colossal amount of information never feels slow because we’re recreating these scenes from half a dozen perspectives at some times—the parents, the police, the suspects, the prosecutors, journalists, legal action groups, and, of course, Lawrence with the science. We have media footage, police cam footage, and recreations that are graciously not at all cheesy, probably because they have the professional touch of an investigator, rather than the dramatic edge of an actor. For their first feature-length documentary, Barber and Christopherson, along with editor Renny McCauley, have created three (and later four) cohesive and compelling interweaving story lines.
The only place where the narrative feels forced at all is in a couplet of scenes in the film’s later third where Officer Jared Francom’s parents are shown revisiting the scene of their son’s death (he was fatally shot by Matthew Stewart), and the subsequent scene where Lawrence recalls a tragic story about his uncle, a police officer, dying as a result of injuries sustained on duty. Clearly, at this point we’re trying to make the good ol’ “police officers are doing their job most of the time” counterargument—a good and an important point, especially in a deeply human documentary—but it does come off feeling a bit intentional and less seamless than the rest of the film.
Perhaps getting in both sides of the story came a little too late (for instance, we start with the Brian Wood case, but never hear from the cops involved there). It’s a hurdle as a filmmaker when interviews are denied, but well-researched or not, this film’s bias feels clear. When we do get the opposite side, as with Detective Jason Vanderwarf (who suffered a bullet wound to the face, and doesn’t seem at all thrilled about the medals he received for the Matthew Stewart raid), it makes both sides seem human. And what a beautiful argument his inclusion makes in the film: Without the filmmakers explicitly having to make the argument themselves, he seems to be the symbol that excessive force isn’t just hurting the suspects, but the guys wielding the weapons as well. There’s nothing like a hole in a young officer’s face (by Lawrence’s estimates, shot by friendly fire) to put a hole in the argument that these weapons protect police. The reason the film maintains its integrity, and indeed the weight of its argument, is that it never points fingers at individual people, but rather at whole institutions. That’s crucial and somewhat new to this discussion. A good balance of heart and science, Peace Officer has the potential to set one heck of a ball rolling. Let’s hope it does.