“Peace Officer” hunts for solutions to cop-civilian tensions

William “Dub” Lawrence knows more about the current tensions between cops and citizens than most people – and with extensive personal experience from both sides of the debate. As a former Utah sheriff, Lawrence helped create the state’s first SWAT team in 1975, serving over 16,000 warrants without a problem.

“My SWAT team never killed anybody,” Lawrence said. “We defused. We neutralized. We negotiated. We worked through these life-threatening situations, and the whole time I was there, my team never killed anybody. We didn’t have a single officer reported hurt or a civilian reported hurt.”

Thirty years later, however, the very SWAT team he helped bring to life would be responsible for his son-in-law’s death during a standoff – one arguably escalated by the team sent in to ostensibly calm the situation. With few others willing to look into the handling of the controversial debacle, Lawrence himself began investigating and assembling a case – not only for his son-in-law, but for other nearby officer-related shootings as well. He ended up investigating 29 scenarios over the course of a decade. In 24 of the cases, Lawrence found the officers’ actions appropriate, but in the remaining five, there were significant question marks in the evidence.

Those question marks, his journey and, most notably, his eye-opening findings are profiled in Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson’s debut documentary “Peace Officer,” the Milwaukee Film Festival’s centerpiece selection showing tonight at 7 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre (Lawrence is expected to be in attendance for the screening). The project may have started all the way back in 2012, when the directors first met the hard-investigating Lawrence, but its timing now is just right – when the subject is right in today’s headlines and in desperate need of real discussion.

“The film is a great tool, and these guys have done such a great job,” Lawrence said, laughingly adding that, “they told me the film would be 25 hours long if I had done it.”

The results have been nabbing rave reviews and festival awards – namely at the SXSW Film Festival, where “Peace Officer” won both the Audience and Grand Jury awards for documentary features. The praise arrives not just for engaging an urgent, ripped-from-today’s-headlines discussion, but doing so with a surprisingly even hand.

“That’s my approach anyway: all the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Lawrence said. “We tried to rise above the temptation to make it anti-police or just to point out the bad only. What we’re doing is toning down some of the ugly rhetoric and replacing that vicious retaliation and hopelessness with a dialogue on an organized national – and even international – scale that I’m prayerful and hopeful will help us make the world a better place.”

Through the course of his investigations, Lawrence determined several reasons for the escalation of police-related shootings – from the evolution of special legislation to the reach of immunity for officers in these cases.

“Groups, like the Fraternal Order of Police or police unions who want to protect the officers under any circumstances, were able to get legislation passed that gives officers immunity, so the attorneys have been given more discretionary power and the officers have gotten more immunity,” Lawrence argued. “So we’ve basically learned how to bypass the supreme law of our land by declaring war on drugs, war on terror, war on crime. All these wars that we’ve got going gives us a safe haven to violate the oath of office that we took to obey, support and defend the constitution – because the constitution clearly says that there shall be no unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Feelings are hard to quantify, so if an officer feels his life is in jeopardy, how do you quantify that?” he continued. “If he feels threatened and uses deadly force, he’s protected because that is a provision of immunity that allows him to use deadly force with impunity. And that’s a problem. We’ve evolved slowly and gotten to a point where it’s so obviously a discretionary power that’s being abused.”

In addition to the increased cover of immunity and the powers given in special legislation, Lawrence also notes the increased militarization of the police has led to the kind of tragic interactions that resulted in his son-in-law’s death.

“We have a mini nuclear arms race asking who’s got the biggest guns, the police or the criminals, or the biggest tanks,” he argued. “We have all this surplus material going to police officers with the mandate that they have to use it within a year or lose it. They’re going to use it. They’re going to keep it, even though they barely have three cases in ten years that justify tanks and guns and minesweepers.

“All of that is moving in the wrong direction,” he continued. “It was a bad idea to start with, but laws were getting passed because politicians were getting elected on tough-on-crime agendas.”

Those are just a few of the reasons – plus national fears after 9/11 and the increasing assumption of guilt rather than innocence in search and seizure or raid situations – why Lawrence surmises the current tensions with police have reached such a national boiling point. Now viewing the situation from both sides of the debate, he can see why there’s been such a public outburst.

“If a citizen did the same exact thing, you’d get 20 years to life in prison; an officer gets paid administrative leave for six months and comes back with his job and is exonerated,” Lawrence said. “That injustice has caused the blowback from more and more citizens. People can’t tolerate injustice forever.”

So is there any way to calm these tensions? For Lawrence, one of the most obvious solutions is just logic.

“Terror begets terror, and anger begets anger,” Lawrence said. “If you smile at somebody, they’ll probably smile back; if you flip ’em off, they’ll punch you in the month. It’s just simply logic, how the universe flows. If you’re respectful and decent and you treat people with dignity and respect, they will usually respond in a kind manner. It’s a rule that’s been around 2,000 years or longer, and it works.

“As a peace officer, we want to keep things peaceful – not exaggerate it or aggravate it or make it worse,” he continued. “We want to tone it down and be professional and treat people with dignity and respect and eliminate this polarization. In the movie, one of the officers says, ‘If we have to come with bigger vests and bigger guns, then so be it because we’re fighting a different group of people.’ Well no, you shouldn’t even be fighting.”

Lawrence hopes that his work – in his investigations and work both on-screen in “Peace Officer” and off – may also help contribute to finding solutions to one of today’s biggest problems. And that starts with a conversation, one that can sometimes be uncomfortable and passionate but necessary to make the country safer for everyone – police and civilian alike.

“It’s taken us 35 years to get where we are, but I hope it doesn’t take 35 years to correct it.”