Ahead of the international premiere of SXSW Grand Jury Prize-winning film Peace Officer at Hot Docs tonight (April 27), directors Scott Christopherson (pictured below, left) and Brad Barber (right) talk to realscreen about their documentary on the militarization of police in Utah, and how they investigated a national issue through a local lens, told from the perspectives of victims’ families and the authorities involved.
Two and a half years ago, former Davis County, Utah sheriff Dub Lawrence approached filmmaker Scott Christopherson after a local softball game to ask for some help editing video. He was investigating the 2008 shooting death of his son-in-law Brian Wood, and had a wealth of unedited archival material and police footage acquired from Freedom of Information Act applications.
Wood had been killed by a SWAT team following a 12-hour stand-off, during which the troubled man – who was armed and had barricaded himself inside his pick-up truck – was coaxed out by tear gas and flash grenades, and ultimately tasered and shot dead.
Since the incident, the 70-year-old Lawrence – who helped form the local SWAT team 30 years earlier – has not only set out to reveal the truth about the shooting, but also investigate a host of other ill-fated local SWAT raids and shootings involving officers.
“After the softball game meeting, I went to his hangar three or four times and he showed a lot of footage you see in the film, that he’d gathered over the years,” Christopherson tells realscreen. “There were all kinds of gruesome photos of autopsies and all kinds of stuff he had taken apart and analyzed. He taught himself how to use Final Cut and had created a meticulous analysis of his son-in-law’s death, and that’s what blew me away: how much evidence he had, how meticulous he was, how obsessive he was.”
The timely Peace Officer- co-directed by Christopherson and Brad Barber, both Brigham Young University alumni who met at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 – takes on the militarization of police forces in Utah through a handful of cases that reflect broader national issues of violent SWAT raids and sovereign immunity laws used in connection with the War on Drugs.
Aside from the Wood shooting, the film – for which all U.S. and international rights are available, with Submarine Entertaining handling sales – introduces cases involving no-knock search warrant laws, such as the Todd Blair incident, in which the Utah man was shot and killed when police, after bursting into his home in a raid, encountered him brandishing a golf club; and Matthew David Stewart, who – allegedly believing he was confronting robbers – shot and killed a police officer and wounded several others when his home was raided.
What is telling about the film – which picked up the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Austin’s SXSW film festival last month – is its lack of extensive commentary on the political motives informing the War on Drugs and militarization of police. Instead, Christopherson and Barber tell their story using interviews with both the families of victims as well as a number of local police and sheriffs, who provide the perspective of authorities.
“The types of stories I respond to the most as an audience member are the ones that are personal and specific and I find it easy to look at broader issues through a specific story,” says Barber. “Sometimes the most universal stories can be the ones that get most specific and authentic and personal.”
The directors discussed with realscreen their decision to narrow the lens on police militarization, how they acquired footage and other source material for the film, and the timeliness of Peace Officer following last summer’s Ferguson shooting and Eric Garner case.
Brad, what was your first impression of Dub when you met him?
BB: He had this room set up in the hangar with all the evidence and photos on the wall. So all those interview shots of him in that long corridor with all those images on the wall, those were the first things we shot. Meeting him for the first time I was completely blown away and I told Scott, “This is even bigger than I imagined. This is going to be an incredible story,” and I think Scott knew that as well.
At the time, how familiar were you both with the issue of militarization of police in Utah?
SC: Initially, I was by no means an expert in this topic. And we didn’t set out to make a film about the militarization of police. Initially, it was more we found out that it was fascinating and then, as we began filming and shooting, other cases began happening – the other cases you see in the film. And then over two and a half years, we realized that, look, there is this big issue and if it’s happening here, it’s probably happening everywhere. And sure enough Ferguson really confirmed that suspicion for us, and put in the national spotlight that this was indeed everywhere.
BB: We have noticed it as people who’ve lived in Utah before; it seems to be in the news kind of disproportionately a large amount of time. Utah never struck us as a place where you’d hear about a lot of SWAT raids but it seemed like you’d hear these things on the local news about some pretty shocking examples of people getting shot or tased or attacked in some way. Scott and I were drawn to Dub primarily because of what a fascinating story he had and then we got drawn into the larger issues as we learned more together with him.
How did you approach getting the police on board with the doc?
SC: Getting access to the police officers was a challenge. There was one commander of that Matthew David Stewart SWAT raid and we called him several times. He wasn’t as responsive and eventually he warmed up. And then I ended up meeting with 12 officers that were involved in the Matthew Stewart raid and we talked about what are our goals were for the film and that we really wanted to hear from the police perspective and what it was like to be in their shoes. And then two out of those 12 agreed to be in the film, as far as police officers go, and then you see the sheriffs. Several of them were willing to speak, but we had to do several pre-interviews or pre-meetings with them beforehand, and then they ultimately agreed to be on camera.
The doc is very relatable in its focus on specific cases. Was this a conscious decision – telling only these stories instead of widening the lens too much?
BB: I was always most interested in Dub as a character and his unique perspective was one we could legitimately try to midwife into a film, if that makes sense. The idea of trying to open up that lens and trying to encompass every little element of the history of what brought us up to this point – we did try to provide some context in the film – but to me it felt like it would be so much more interesting and authentic to see it through a real person’s story, and in this case one that really serves as a microcosm for a lot of larger issues as a lot of recent events have unfolded in the U.S.
SC: Definitely it was a conscious decision. There are so many elements that are at play with the issue of militarization of police, with different areas of the country that are affected differently. And obviously African American males are disproportionately affected. So part of it was we knew Dub and we had access to him and his world, and for me as a viewer – like Brad was saying – I emotionally connect to human, individual stories and I always tend to listen or understand better when I understand big issues that are through the lens of someone I can relate to, of someone who is real.
You must have been working on the film when Ferguson happened, and the Eric Garner case. Did it bring up the discussion of race and how you wanted to tackle it in the film?
BB: Since Dub was the main character in the film, most of the film follows his journey and it just happens that in Utah there aren’t many African Americans, or [other] minorities. So the chances weren’t great that he was going to interact with a person of color here in his story, and which we were focusing on. But as events in Ferguson and elsewhere unfolded, we did feel it was important to acknowledge and contextualize the thing that Scott just mentioned – this is something that just happens so much more often in communities of color that it felt weird not to at least give a nod to that or a recognition of that even if it wasn’t part of Dub’s primary story…The context I’m referencing is when we talk to the folks from the American Civil Liberties Union specifically. They mention some of those issues around Ferguson and elsewhere.
Was it challenging to incorporate the police footage as well? Did you run into any difficulties obtaining that material?
SC: You have to deal with a lot of folks to get some of that footage. As Dub mentions in the film, there is an act called the Government Records Access and Management Act… that can be a really long process. Citizens have – at least in Utah – the right to ask access to those government records. It can also be costly, but eventually you’re able to obtain them. And I think we lucked out. It helps give the film a visual backbone. Some of those clips were leaked to the media. You see the Todd Blair shooting, which I think at one point was in The Huffington Post, so that was nationally prominent. But the other stuff, we worked pretty hard to get it.
Is there anything you’ve noticed in the film’s reception at SXSW and Full Frame that you hope to see in Toronto as well?
BB: I hope that people bring away two things: anyone that’s felt disenfranchised when they see a systematic problem like this, I hope they feel inspired by what Dub has done and what he’s doing. And the other thing I hope people get out of it is, anyone that feels tempted to villainize the entire law enforcement community in Canada or the U.S. or anywhere else, I hope the film gives them an opportunity to empathize with people who are risking their own lives to protect those that they serve and maybe see some of the complexities in a system that’s failing us and not try to demonize individual people so much.
SC: I would echo those and say I really want communities to discus this issue in a humane way where they find ways to find empathy for police officers and citizens on the receiving end of SWAT raids, or the culture of militarization of police. One of the goals for me has always been that I’d love to affect policy by hopefully making both citizens and the lives of officers safer. Maybe the officers don’t need to be put in these situations in the first place. If there was a way to engage an audience so they can discuss and improve their communities and make it safer for everyone, I think Dub is a very nice person to carry that torch and be the figurehead for that discussion of these issues.
- Peace Officer premieres tonight at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre 4 at 7 p.m. EST/PST. It will next screen on Tuesday (April 28) and Thursday (April 30). Click here for more info.
- Check out a trailer for the doc below: