Utah-based filmmakers Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber found a supremely compelling story right in their own backyard for their film Peace Officer. The film is several things at once: a personal journey with a man who experienced a tragedy, former sheriff “Dub” Lawrence who established and trained one of Utah’s first SWAT teams, only to see that seem unit kill his son-in-law in a standoff that went awry; a forensics mystery, as Dub explores that case and another parallel one to dig deeper into what went wrong; and an investigation into how these cases reflect the overall increasing militarization of the police.
Peter Keough in the Boston Globe wrote that the film “[s]urpasses the best episode of CSI in its suspense and fascinating procedural detail and rivals the intensity, ingenuity, and broader ramifications of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line.” Adds Erik Childress on RogerEbert.com, “Scott Christopherson & Brad Barber’s Peace Officer is the most level-headed treatment I have seen so far in the growing debate over police use of deadly force.” Peace Officer premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday May 9 at the special time of 9pm [check local listings], and on behalf of both of them Brad Barber spoke to us about what compelled them to make this film.
How did you learn about Dub Lawrence’s story (and the Brian Wood case), and what compelled you to want to use him as the center of a film?
Brad: When Scott told me about Dub I was really struck with what a unique perspective he had. I was amazed at how much work Dub had done, and what he had uncovered already, especially when I first met him and saw all the grisly evidence he’d found, even about this son-in-law whom he was very close with. It was clear he could carry a film, he was passionate, gregarious, and completely driven.
You two have worn a lot of hats in the documentary world on your own, but how did you come together to collaborate on this film?
Scott and I met a few years ago and discovered we had many similar influences and interests; also I think our personalities meshed really well, so we had long talked about working together on something. I was working on a documentary series I created called States of America where I shoot a short documentary about one person in every state of America. I was about to go film the Oregon episode, so when Scott contacted me I asked him to come and it was really great to work with him. Although we went to the same undergraduate film program at BYU, we were there at different times and didn’t really get to know each other well until this trip. In addition to being fascinated with everything he was telling me about Dub, it was clear it would be really great to work on a big project with Scott — he’s a great collaborator. Also, it was helpful to keep each other afloat at different times when things got overwhelming. Scott and I will probably play some role in each other’s films for years to come.
What conversations would you like viewers to have after they watch the film? What do you hope they take away from it?
I hope that Dub’s perspective as one who supports law enforcement but has also experienced the grief of being a victim of law enforcement violence makes it clear that this film is not intended to polarize people towards a single viewpoint. I hope it raises serious questions that create an urgent desire to talk within our communities, and talk to our lawmakers about how to make policies that are safer not just for citizens but for cops. We’re all learning more and more about how this type of force is used in America, and we need to keep asking questions, making sure there is some oversight from citizens and proper training and support for law enforcement.
I also hope audiences take away inspiration from seeing a citizen like Dub take a proactive role in trying to work within our systems of local, state, and national government to make the world a better, safer place. I don’t think we can afford to be apathetic about this. While Scott and I didn’t approach Peace Officer wanting to prove a particular point (we were mainly interested in following Dub and his incredible story, before it began to feel like a microcosm for larger issues), I do very much believe in the potential for documentaries to help start conversations that can lead to meaningful change in our society. If those conversations can change current policies to make citizens and cops safer, that would be a great outcome.
Have you yourselves ever had any direct experiences with (or witnessing) SWAT teams and/or the police that surprised you?
I have never seen a SWAT raid firsthand, only the aftermath of one. We filmed extensively in Matthew Stewart’s house for Peace Officer after the police released it, and because it was largely in the same shape it had been just after the SWAT raid (bullet holes, debris everywhere), and because we spent so much time filming there, it felt like we had witnessed something sort of vicariously. Needless to say it was very sobering.
I did have an experience with police that surprised me, several years ago. I was driving in Utah with my wife and son, who was 3 at the time, and we had a strange encounter with a police officer. My son was on the verge of a bathroom emergency and I pulled off the road into a small, somewhat secluded dirt road (we weren’t close to any gas stations and any parent can tell you there are times you know your kid can’t hold it any longer!)
Much to my surprise, after we were done with my son’s business and got back in the car, a police or highway patrol car, which had been parked nearby and watching, pulled up with lights and a siren toot, blocking my car where it was. I started to get out of the car (in my naiveté) to see what the problem was (did we have a flat tire or something?) and was yelled at by the officer to stay in the car. The officer questioned me about what we were doing and didn’t seem to believe our story about our son needing to pee. The officer then accused us of parking there to “use drugs.”
My wife and I looked back at our 3-year-old in his car seat behind us, then back at the officer, puzzled. Finally, he let us go and fortunately no one was hurt. While the officer wasn’t violent and didn’t threaten us, he was aggressive and it was a strange, unnerving encounter, we felt a little harassed. On the other hand, I also remember calling the police a few years later when we thought someone was in our backyard late at night, and the officer who came was incredibly helpful, kind, and made us feel more safe.
What shocked you the most about this story as you researched everything and made the film?
Like a lot of people when they find this out, I was really surprised when I learned how often SWAT teams are deployed just to serve search warrants (80% of deployments are to serve search warrants, according to a recent study). We usually think of them only being used for a hostage situation, a barricaded shooter, etc., but it turns out that only accounts for a fraction of deployments in the United States (7%). I was also surprised to learn that in some circumstances SWAT teams could break down doors and sometimes without announcing themselves, while wearing civilian clothes rather than uniforms. It’s easy to distance yourself from the idea of that if you’re a law-abiding citizen, but of course there are times (like you’ll see in our film) where even innocent people have this happen to them in cases of mistaken identity, etc.
And finally, I was surprised how many small towns, some less than 1500 people, have and use SWAT teams. Peace Officer also shows these events don’t always happen in big urban areas, so I think the issue is much closer to home than a lot of people may realize.
What projects are you working on or planning on working on next?
I’m in development for my next feature documentary and am about to start the fundraising process. So if any documentary financiers are out there reading this, I’d love to talk to you! Also, I’m really excited about my labor of love States of America project I mentioned earlier — I’ve been making a collection of short documentaries about one person in every state for 7 years now, so I’ll be doing that between longer projects till all 50 are done. So far we’re up to 22! I will announce when it launches on a website later this year via my social media (Twitter: @BradBarberPix, Instagram: @BradBarberPix).
What other films/documentaries have influenced you or influenced you especially while making Peace Officer?
Ross McElwee’s films have had a lot of influence on me too, and we’ve both been fortunate to have gotten to know him on a personal level [Scott Christopherson worked on McElwee’s 2008 film In Paraguay]. Having common influences is one of things that drew Scott and I together I think. 6 O’Clock News is one of his that kept coming to mind as we were getting started — I love the way Ross humanized the stories on the nightly news he was being barraged by, and like a lot of his films, you end up feeling like you’re seeing a personal microcosm for something else in those personal stories.
Albert Maysles has always been a big influence as well, of course. I met him once when I was a student at USC and he was extremely kind, like he was to many aspiring filmmakers. He actually gave me his business card after his lecture and told me to email him the ideas I was debating between for my thesis documentary (and of course, he wrote back and gave me advice!). I was also really impressed that he said you should “love your subjects” — that’s something we tried to keep in mind when we were looking at perspectives from both citizens and police, especially from the police I think.
Albert passed away right before our premiere at South by Southwest and I thanked him in our acceptance speech when we won the Grand Jury Prize there. I’m sure he had been a mentor and influence to many people in the auditorium, it felt like a special moment. I’m really grateful for the many amazing, kind, approachable documentary filmmakers that have touched my life in generous ways ever since I started out as a film student dreaming of being on PBS years ago.