Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson’s Peace Officer expertly tackles one of the most pressing judicial issues affecting the western world, offering an in-depth look at the increasing militarization of the police force through the eyes of its victims, the man who introduced the first SWAT team to Utah, and special weapons and tactics trained officers themselves. It’s a near perfect documentary which only minor drawbacks, never outstaying its welcome despite a near-two hour runtime and offering a (somewhat) objective voice on the matter, drenched in an optimism that contrasts the dire .
Peace Officer is rooted in Dub Robertson, an ex-sheriff elected on the grounds of his honesty and self-accountability, once handing himself a citation for parking in an illegal zone. Dub is the county sheriff who introduced the first SWAT team to Utah, something which he was proud of until his unarmed son-in-law lost his life during an unnecessary SWAT operation. Driven by obsession and a personal interest in crime scene recreation, Dub dedicates his free time to investigating the case, eventually managing to demonstrate a miscarriage of justice. What kicks off in a similar mode to outlandish conspiracy theory documentaries quickly transcends that form, as it becomes increasingly apparent that there are some serious operational issues with the way that the SWAT teams operate. His son-in-law’s case isn’t the only one he is interested in, however. Dub becomes a spokesperson against the militarization of US police forces, using his talent for crime scene recreation to help others.[/ref]It’s around this point in the documentary that it becomes apparent one of the documentary’s aims is to serve as an advertisement for a charitable cause, although it never pursues this overtly like Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground.[/ref] Dub lends a helping hand to a man whose son has been accused of killing a cop and a woman whose unarmed daughter was shot dead by police solely for purchasing drugs. In an attempt to sanitize their documentary against calls of bias, Barber and Christopherson interview the police involved in these cases (where possible) as well as lawyers who deal with these sorts of cases and other relevant individuals high on the corporate police ladder. Arguably, as the film is clearly a single issue documentary coming from a duo with a very specific agenda, Peace Officer fails to create a truly objective voice, but at least there is an attempt to round out their argument, even if the end result is used to convey the inherent absurdity of arguments in favour of police militarization.
Formally, the documentary is fairly traditional, intercutting talking heads with sequences of Dub conducting investigations, archival body-cam footage, videos of evidence, testimonials from those affected by SWAT stings, as well as video of ex-military equipment in action. The only thing holding it back on a formal level are some misjudged musical cues that feel a little conceited at times, lessening the impact of some shocking revelations. Barber and Christopherson’s real strength doesn’t lie in Peace Officer’s formal elements however, it is in their ability to convey what feels like a fully rounded and somewhat objective view to what, on a base level, seems like a pretty cut and dry issue. Peace Officer never feels like propaganda, nor does it feel like conspiracy after its opening moments. In a sense, it serves as an interesting document of the current socio-political climate of the US, one that sees certain sections of the population foster a palpable distrust of the government, and fear of the police rising against them as oppressive forces. With operations like the one that affected Dub’s son-in-law the norm, there are no repercussions for police who wrongfully execute unarmed people – many of the time the police actively cover them up – while their are life and death sentences on the table for those who attack police when their property is wrongfully targeted by them. In a sense, no matter how absurd it is seeing as the “fight fire with fire” mentality is the cause of all of this mess, it’s no wonder that “the right to bear arms” debate continues and the country has seen the rise of internal militant and doomsday groups.
The documentary could be accused of whitewashing these issues, focusing solely on white people – in fact, the absence of people of colour from this expose is peculiar seeing as SWAT teams were initially employed to target Black Panther groups in the late ’60s. Such an argument doesn’t hold much weight, however – apart from the fact that it focuses on Dub’s cases, and it’s possible that he hasn’t assisted any non-white Americans as of yet (especially as he lives in Salt Lake City). If this is what is happening to middle-class white America, one can only imagine how much worse it must be for people of colour. By focusing on the effect that these contemporary miscarriages of justice have on the most privileged group of society, and demonstrating it to be dire, Barber and Christopherson speak volumes on the effect that these traditionally non-white targeting collectives would have had on the USAs more marginalized groups.
Peace Officer is an extremely accomplished documentary, and one that is sure to become a fascinating artifact of contemporary America if their police remain militarized for the foreseeable future. Barber and Christopherson have demonstrated their ability as proficient storytellers, and it will be interested to see where they go in future years. Hopefully they will tackle meaty content like this again, they have more than demonstrated their ability to expertly pull this off.