Beyond its fact and ideas, Peace Officer succeeds as a movie for the way it thoroughly breaks down the actual crime scenes of the specific events it covers.
In the wide view, Peace Officer is about the militarization of the American Police force. It springs out from a specific event to talk about a larger trend. It doesn’t really do that to ask questions about that trend though. The movie has its answers in the broad view. The questions the movie cares about are much more specific, and the movie is really about investigating several crime scenes of police violence after the police have finished their investigation and released them. It’s what we see and learn in the small scale that then directs and informs that broad view.
The heart of the movie is Dub Lawrence, a semi-retired former police officer and Sheriff, who now spends his days as a private investigator funding his projects with his sewage pump repair service. Dub spends much of the movie with a big smile on his face, even when he’s wadding through raw sewage, breaking down a crime scene, or maintaining his composure while talking about the death of his son-in-law. When he was a rookie cop he helped break the Ted Bundy case. He became the Sheriff of Davis County, Utah at a young age; eager to try and turn around systemic failing he saw within the system. His proudest moment as a cop was when he wrote a ticket for himself after a citizen called him out for illegally parking. He’s upbeat and charming, in a way where it makes sense that he had been in politics.
While he was Sheriff in the late 70s, He founded the county’s SWAT team. 30 years later that same SWAT team killed his son-in-law during a suicide attempt. This is the story that gets the movie started: With actual recorded footage of the SWAT team responding with full force and aggression against a man who only ever pointed a gun at himself. It’s a ridiculous scene in many ways, but the impact is really nailed home once we get Dub’s meticulous breakdown of the scene after the fact. He collects a shocking amount of evidence the police left behind, and even pinpoints the exact person who fired the killing shot on the video.
From there Dub goes on to help several others understand what happened them, and brings his investigative skills to bear again. Most notably on a plain clothes drug bust that resulted in around a hundred bullets fired and two dead police officers. This is the most compelling part of the movie, where they tie strings around the house tracking every bullets, color coded red for the police and yellow for the suspect. It’s a great visual, but it also reveals a lot, with over 50 bullets recovered after the police had completed their own investigation. It’s punctuated with a breakdown of where friendly fire took place, and the recovery of the bullet, misshapen by bone.
The movie does try to give the other side voice when it can. No one agrees to speak with the filmmakers about Dub’s son-in-law, but they did interview two of the police officers from the drug raid. It allows their words in the movie, but many of those word ring very hollow when displayed next to the facts of the evidence. Ultimately though the film has no interest in vilifying police officers. It’s stance against the aggression of SWAT teams and warrant raids is that these tactics aren’t making anyone safer.
The events of Ferguson are briefly mentioned in this movie as an example of the results of Police aggression and militarization, but a big part of those events is the racial aspect: the mostly white police force trying to establish order over a predominately black area. Peace Officer is notably different in that everyone in this white. This is the problem of police militarization distilled from the racial issues of Ferguson that add in to make that situation that much more complicated.
The cold irony of Dub Lawrence’s story makes for a good blurb, but it’s his skills as an investigator and speaker that bring life to this movie. It’s what makes this a really excellent movie beyond its social import. This is cinema worthy of the weight of its subject matter.