By INTAN ZAKRI
Davis County’s youngest elected sheriff William “Dub” Lawrence had founded Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975, faithfully putting his trust in their hands.
That is, until they killed his son-in-law.
“Come get me,” firefighter Brian Wood told 911 before the 12-hour long standoff in Farmington on September 22, 2008. His false confession of raping his wife resulted in the dispatch of SWAT who arrived at his driveway to find him armed with a handgun in his pickup truck. After barraging him with flash grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets, police alleged to the press that Wood, 36, committed suicide by gunshot.
That’s when Dub Lawrence became an obsessed man on a mission.
Though the retired 70-year-old spent 25 years handling crimes from a cop’s point of view, he didn’t realize until over two years later that he had actually witnessed a homicide, his loved one on the receiving end of the barrel for the first time.
Pages upon pages of redacted evidence of his son-in-law’s murder persuaded Dub to lead his own investigation as CSI’s report was heavily lacking due to either incompetence or a cover-up. He obtained footage of the incident and analyzed for hours on end every minute, every second, every frame of hell breaking loose, discovering that Wood’s hands were empty when a sniper fired the fatal blow.
The ex-cop spent the next four years unearthing overlooked evidence with a dedication that later enabled him to recreate the incident to the letter — everything from the trajectories of each bullet to where each shell landed. The findings compelled police to admit that Wood did not shoot himself.
“The misrepresentation was what really shocked me,” Dub says on a panel after Post Theatre’s free screening of “Peace Officer” on April 7. Highlighting the broader crisis of police militarization in America, the film delves further into Dub’s endeavor as well as other controversial officer-involved shootings in his community.
Smashing doors and loading rifles, SWAT infiltrated the supposed drug-infested Ogden residence of Matthew David Stewart in 2011. In the ensuing gunfight, he allegedly killed policeman Jared Francom, 30. The crossfire also resulted in five wounded officers and a hospitalized Stewart, 39, who was later found hanging from his prison cell.
The film tracks Dub’s investigation of the case as he stretches dozens of brightly-colored strings across the hole-ridden, blood-splattered room to denote the paths of gunfire. The sea of red cords drowned out the yellow ones, illustrating how the amount of police rounds vastly outnumbered the shots Stewart fired. By the time the area resembled a field of laser beams meant to catch bandits red-handed in spy movies, the threads revealed something striking.
At least one of the officers was shot by friendly fire.
“We found 54 bullets that police missed,” Dub says, including the one that tore a hole in aforementioned officer’s face. “It’s very, very frustrating for me to see these sloppy investigations that are happening.”
Shoot first, ask questions never
In a disturbing leaked video, the same task force involved in the Stewart raid barged into the Weber domicile of Todd Blair, 45, in 2010. Brandishing a golf club in defense, he barely has a chance to register the armed figures at his door before police shot him three times.
“Get on the ground!” a SWAT member yells to the slumped body.
The killing was deemed legally justified.
Close call uncalled for
In a non-fatal but still harrowing encounter in Ogden of 2012, Eric Hill recounts when SWAT pounded on his front door, pointing half a dozen assault rifles at his chest as they mistakenly identify him as a suspect gone AWOL from the military. Meanwhile his family was downstairs “scared out of their minds,” says Hill, 28.
He had never served in the military.
Upon realizing their mistake, the officers commented on Hill’s bat (he had answered the door with it), saying he was lucky he didn’t come with one of his rifles or else they would’ve “wasted” him.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The above recollections from the film are just scratching the surface.
“Of the 29 cases that I’ve investigated since September of 2008, five of them are very problematic, and the officers should not have killed those people,” says Dub. “Five out of 29 is a pretty lousy record of bad judgment.”
“You’re sharing — in some cases, reliving — with some people the most horrific experiences they’ve ever had,” says Brad Barber, co-director the film alongside Scott Christopherson, on the testimonies of some of the cases. “Scott won them over with his charm … and convinced a few of them to be in the film.”
“It was an eye-opener,” comments Tilly Garcia, an audience member who attended the screening. “What stuck to me is how they were covering up the truth. … These are officers who are supposed to protect.”
“As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind … and to respect the constitutional rights of all persons to liberty, equality and justice. That’s part of the oath that I took 45 years ago,” says Dub, unwavering. “We need to return to that mentality.”
But whether one stands behind or before the trigger, one thing is certain to Dub, a witness from both perspectives:
“If anybody is hurt, either a suspect or a police officer, the operation was a failure. The whole object is to keep the public safe.”
Those who missed the film’s screening can catch its PBS premiere on Monday, May 9 at 9/8c.
Watch the trailer here.