William J. “Dub” Lawrence, subject of Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s taut documentary “Peace Officer,” feels at home knee-deep in sewage. A career in law enforcement and politics can do that, especially when the organization he established with the best of intentions ended up killing his son-in-law.
Now retired from public life, he makes a living repairing pumps for septic tanks. But in 1975, as sheriff of Davis County, Utah, swayed by the law-and-order rhetoric of the Nixon administration, fearful that somehow the wave of urban violence that began with the Watts riots in LA in 1965 would spread to his all-white rural community, Lawrence established a SWAT team to supplement his department. He still believed in the ideals of serve and protect and had honored them punctiliously himself (he once gave himself a parking ticket). He believed that the police could be trusted with these resources.
But somehow, by 2008, attitudes and practices had changed in the special unit he had founded. That’s when a domestic disturbance call involving his daughter and her husband escalated into a siege, followed by a massive assault and his son-in-law’s death. Lawrence felt something was not right. He became, in his own words, “obsessed” with uncovering the truth.
Lawrence is an impeccable, commanding subject, not just because of his credentials but because of his presence and demeanor. Bullish, bald, and with a frequent, rueful grin, he exudes integrity, intelligence, and good will. Even when he displays a secret room with walls lined with photos of forensic evidence and persons of interest, similar to the “crazy wall” that in movies indicates that a character has gone off the deep end, his single-minded crusade does not seem overly zealous.
Instead, his investigation surpasses the best episode of the now defunct “CSI” series in its suspense and fascinating procedural detail and rivals the intensity, ingenuity, and broader ramifications of Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line.” A skilled investigator (as a young cop he helped solve the Ted Bundy case), Lawrence obtains police reports and surveillance videos to re-create the chaotic tragedy. He also takes on the cases of other Utah families similarly victimized.
But the police and their supporters get their say as well. Like Lawrence himself, Christopherson and Barber aren’t looking for scapegoats; they’re pursuing the common goal of law enforcement and documentary filmmaking: justice and truth.
★ ★ ★ ½
Directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber. At Kendall Square. 109 minutes. Unrated (justice delayed, denied, and maligned, grisly effects of misdirected violence, good intentions paving a road to hell).