By George Payne with Gandhi Earth Keepers International
Currently a profound and alarming film, Peace Officer, is airing on PBS’s Independent Lens. With a somber and dramatic style, the film chronicles the story of William “Dub” Lawrence, a former sheriff who established and trained one of Utah’s first SWAT teams, only to watch helplessly as that same unit killed his son-in-law in a controversial standoff years later. Driven by a unalterable sense of mission, Dub uses his investigative skills to uncover the truth about that incident and other officer-involved shootings in his community, while tackling larger questions about the changing face of police investigations nationwide.
According to the film’s website, “Many of Dub’s investigations stem from confrontations sparked by aggressive “no-knock” search warrant laws now typical across America. The film examines how officers in cities and small towns are routinely armed with military surplus weapons and equipment, backed by federal incentives to use what they are given. These and other factors have led to a 15,000% increase in SWAT team raids in the United States since the late 1970s.”
Watching this incredible documentary it brought me back to the three days I spent in Ferguson as a photojournalist covering those emotionally and politically supercharged events in 2014. What happened in Ferguson was a national tragedy. It demonstrated-on live national TV- that some citizens are still not allowed to address their political concerns in a peaceful democratic manner. Like children, the protesters were given certain hours in which they were allowed to behave like American citizens, while the rest of the time they were told to go inside, keep silent and obey. The omnipresent threat of militarized force was impossible to ignore.
Peace Officer reveals how these expressions of autocratic paternalism are counter to the principles of real policing. As we hear in the testimony of former officers such as Dub, real policing never tolerates such abuses of power because it dishonors the integrity of the badge. Ultimately, real policing has nothing to do with power at all and everything to do with persuasion: it is flexible, tolerant, rational and unbiased. In fact, some of the most heroic and remarkable people I know are police officers. Yet not one of them looks at me as if I am not worthy of voicing my opinion in a constitutionally permitted way. They see me with respect and hopefully compassion. If a police officer is not showing respect and compassion to everyone they are paid to serve, they are not policing. They may be a damn powerful cop, but they are not an officer of the law.
That being said I walked away from the film feeling inspired by Dub’s courageous pursuit of justice and uplifted by the strength and resilience of every family member who has ever lost loved ones due to a fatally aggressive police action. I also came away from the film feeling like things are getting much worse. The line between the military and police has basically evaporated. Gradually over the past 30 years or so we have seen the near total erosion of civil liberties and the near total empowerment of police units to do whatever they deem necessary. This is a trend that we should all be gravely concerned about. It’s happening not only in Ferguson and Utah, but in places like Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester as well. For instance, I discovered the following article in the August 23, 2014 edition of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle about the RPD’s response to that year’s Puerto Rican Festival. Reporter Justin Murphy wrote:
The dynamic the night after the Puerto Rican Festival in the heavily Latino portion of northeast Rochester is familiar by now.
Revelers, not all of them festival-goers or even Puerto Ricans, clog the streets, blaring horns and waving flags, cheered on by even greater crowds on foot. Swarms of Rochester police dash from disturbance to disturbance, dispersing the gatherings with warnings, road closures and noxious gas. Arrests for disorderly conduct and traffic citations are common, and police have been targeted with rocks and bottles.
This year, police upped the ante. That night was the debut appearance for the Rochester Police Department’s new mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP, a mountain of a ride valued at $689,000 and obtained for free June 12 from the federal government.
The request to disperse was more readily obeyed when delivered by camouflaged officers in an armored 14-ton behemoth designed for use in war zones. Dancers left the streets, drivers laid off the horn and rowdy corners fell silent.
At the end of the night, one person was arrested for disorderly conduct and police reported one cruiser damaged by the crowd. Was the MRAP overkill, or did its deployment deter further problems?
Is this the future we want to live in? I can only imagine how much money has been invested in military equipment and military styled training over the past two years. How much further is the RPD planning to go? Although I am not sure that Peace Officer actually provides any pragmatic solutions to the problem we face, it does keep the conversation alive in a fresh and artistic way. I’m hoping that many millions will see it and take appropriate action in their community. After-all, “to serve and to protect” is not just a motto for police officers but a categorical imperative for all of us.