Police militarization and overuse of SWAT raids has been a constant topic in the news over the past several years. Authors like Radley Balko have detailed the incredible destructive increase in the number of annual paramilitary raids conducted on citizens for suspected crimes such as low-level drug offenses, credit card theft, misdemeanor illegal gambling, unpaid fines, and even barbershops to check that the barbers were licensed. These violent raids, 60,000 a year, are often conducted on people who have no criminal record or history of violence, and innocent residents are frequently terrorized by heavily armed goons who show up at the wrong residence.
A new documentary, Peace Officer, highlights the devastation and heartbreak caused by these raids and police militarization by taking a closer look at several specific cases where people were killed during violent and excessive police actions in Utah. A few days ago, the Northern Virginia Cop Block crew went to a showing of the film in DC, which was followed by a question and answer session with one of the film’s directors, Scott Christopherson, and Ronald Hampton, a retired DC police officer who now works with the National Police Accountability Project.
I had been waiting to see this Kickstarter-funded film with great anticipation since I’d first heard about it in February, and it did not disappoint. The film follows the course of former Davis County Sheriff William “Dub” Lawrence as he investigates the 2008 death of his son-in-law, Brian Wood, at the hands of the very same SWAT team Lawrence founded in the 1970s. News footage of the standoff between Woods and the SWAT team (where Woods pointed a gun only at himself), and information uncovered by Lawrence reveal an excessive, escalating response by law enforcement that resulted in Wood’s unnecessary death.
In the course of his new calling, Lawrence encounters several other families who have lost loved ones to violent police raids, and uses his law enforcement skills to help them find the answers they weren’t able to get from the agencies involved. Two of these cases have previously been profiled in Cop Block articles:
Danielle Willard, a petite 21-year old who was shot and killed by police in West Valley City, Utah on November 2, 2012. Two undercover detectives, Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, approached Willard’s car late at night as it sat in an apartment complex’s parking lot after witnessing what they say was an alleged drug buy. No account I’ve read of the incident has ever verified if drugs were even found at the scene, something police would be quick to point out in justifying their actions. The cops claim that Willard tried to run over Detective Cowley as she attempted to leave the parking lot, and that they fired 6 shots, two of which hit Willard in the head, in self-defense. Willard’s family received a $1.425 million settlement earlier this year.
Matthew David Stewart, a 38-year-old Army veteran in Ogden, Utah who grew marijuana at his home for his own personal use to treat his PTSD. A bitter ex-girlfriend snitched on Stewart to the police, who then conducted a poorly-planned nighttime no-knock raid on January 4, 2011. Stewart said that he never heard the plainclothes Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force members identify themselves as law enforcement and that he thought he was the victim of a violent home invasion. Stewart defended himself with a legally-owned firearm, killing one of the officers involved in the raid. Watch a clip of Dub Lawrence investigating this case below.
The Stewart case illustrates that these raids pose an unacceptable and unwarranted risk to both citizens and cops alike. That cops will be injured and killed in raids conducted under cover of darkness, in circumstances that are deliberately intended to shock and disorient residents (flashbang grenades and tear gas) is a predictable and expected outcome. If police lives matter, why do police departments still see this as an acceptable method of conducting business?
The film resonated deeply with the audience, and several attendees were even moved to tears. Everyone stayed for the question and answer session afterwards, where we learned that police officers who had been interviewed in the film were unhappy with the information turned up in Lawrence’s investigation, and how their arrogant statements come across in light of those findings.
Severin Freeman, of Lehigh Valley Cop Block and CopBlock Network contributor, attended the Philadelphia premiere and captured a few audience reactions (video below). A Philadelphia newspaper held a screening of the film and invited the local police department to attend. No one from the department showed up.
Visit the film’s website to see if it’s playing near you.