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Solving Crimes by Night, Fixing Septic Tanks by Day: Scott Christopherson & Brad Barber on Peace Officer

Peace Officer

When Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson launched a Kickstarter in February to finish their documentary Peace Officer, I felt that they were on to something. The film is the first documentary since the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to deal with the growing militarization of the police in the United States, and it could not be more timely. The film follows William “Dub” Lawrence, the retired sheriff of Davis County, Utah — the sparse suburbs just north of Salt Lake City — who, in an attempt to protect citizens against high-risk situations like terrorists or hostage takers, created the county’s SWAT team in 1975. Thirty-three years later, in September 2008, Dub stood by and watched while that same SWAT team, bolstered by numerous other law enforcement officers, shot and killed his son-in-law, who was threatening suicide while sitting alone and afraid in a parked truck in his own driveway.

Dub, an expert forensic investigator, has spent the years since reconstructing exactly what happened that night. He also assists family members of other local victims of police shootings, piecing together the final moments of their loved ones’ lives. What he often finds is startling but, sadly, not surprising: the increased use of SWAT teams and military-grade equipment has accompanied an increase in violence and fatal police shootings. Several of these stories are woven into the film, such as an incident in which military veteran Matthew David Stewart, believing a SWAT team to be home invaders, returned fire and one officer was killed; Stewart was apprehended alive but later committed suicide in prison. As both a former law enforcement officer and a victim of police violence, Dub is now the perfect spokesman to lobby  for people like Stewart’s family, pushing for a more humane police force and laws — such as ending police immunity for otherwise criminal acts — that will help bring peace officers back in touch with the communities they serve.

Barber and Christopherson, both young university documentary professors, have created a telling film, following Dub closely while deftly tying in larger national issues seen in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York. The film is remarkably well balanced, treating police officers with the respect their profession deserves while still making its case. It won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at its SXSW premiere this year, and after a run at other fests like Hot Docs and Full Frame it launched its theatrical run, starting in New York and Los Angeles, on Wednesday.

Filmmaker: You began working on this film a few months after Trayvon Martin’s death but before Michael Brown’s killing thrust excessive police force into the national spotlight. How did you come across Dub and what made you want to tell his story?

Christopherson: It was really by luck and coincidence that I met Dub. I was playing in a softball game with his son and Dub sought me out at the end of the game. He knew I was a doc film professor in Texas and asked me to teach him how to edit. He took me back to his airplane hangar and showed me this two-hour-long film analysis of his son-in-law’s shooting death. It was really fascinating. I also found out that Dub owned a septic tank business and I was fascinated that he did both — he solved crimes in his free time at night and in the daytime he fixed septic tanks. I was also intrigued by his charismatic personality and his obsession to find out the truth about his son-in-law’s death.

Filmmaker: What prompted you to turn that into a feature film? Or was it obvious?

Christopherson: Brad and I got to talking about it a lot. I don’t think we were sure if it was going to be a short or a feature; we just decided that we were going to shoot it. We did the first shoot and then we got into the pitch session at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival — me, our producer Dave Lawrence, and Dub. We pitched the film there and made some contacts, and then it just organically grew into a feature as we followed Dub while he investigated other cases. That two-year period where we followed him, watching the work that he was doing, was when it grew into a feature.

Filmmaker: At the beginning did you know about any of those other cases? Had they already been in the news or did you learn of them as people contacted Dub?

Barber: I didn’t know about any of the specific cases. I had heard about the police in West Valley being under investigation [in the Danielle Willard case, when two officers shot an unarmed woman in her car] and I had heard a little about more militaristic SWAT team raids around the greater suburban Salt Lake area. Scott grew up there, I was living there at the time and it seemed like a really strange thing for a place like Utah. It surprised us that so many people were being shot by police and that SWAT teams were being used so often.

Christopherson: I was living and teaching in Austin, but I would regularly read the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, so I knew about the Matthew David Stewart case. That happened in January of 2012 and we didn’t really start covering it until the fall of 2012, and really the summer of 2013 when Dub would go to the Matthew David Stewart home. I knew a little bit about the Danielle Willard case, but mostly I remember reading about the cases in the newspapers as they would come up.

Filmmaker: You two are 1,200 miles apart with you, Scott, living that far from the subject you were filming — and you were on camera as well as directing! What was your long-distance collaboration like?

Christopherson: I was there for a majority of the shoots but there were a few for which Brad had to take over the reigns. There were also several shoots where Brad wasn’t there and I was. There were a couple shoots where I filmed Dub at the Matthew Stewart home when Brad couldn’t make it, and he did the same thing when I couldn’t make it from Texas. Brad also went to D.C. to interview Kara Dansky. How it often worked on set was that I asked the questions in the beginning and then Brad would jump in and fill in the gaps. We both were shooting with our own cameras.

Barber: It worked really well that we were both teaching at the same time too, because there were times each of us were less available, so we were able to tag team quite a bit. Our editor Renny McCauley, an old classmate of Scott’s from San Francisco State, was also living in Austin. We would have dozens — I don’t know, it feels like hundreds — of phone calls and Google Docs; we just did everything remotely, round after round after round. Even Scott in Texas would be on the phone with him. The distance didn’t really feel like an impediment. I did go to Austin once with one of my students and we all went over to Renny’s house for a two- or three-day intensive, but for the most part we were able to do it from our own homes.

Filmmaker: For me Renny’s editing is really a high point of the film, keeping both individual storylines and the larger national issues clear at all times. Can you talk a bit more about the postproduction process? Do you know your shooting ratio, for instance?

Christopherson: I don’t know how much footage we shot but I would say it was somewhere between 100 and 150 hours. We really started on post in the summer of 2014, and we went through 100 versions. We didn’t really finish with our sound design and everything until January of 2015. We initially went through a bunch of paper edits — the writing process was really meticulous, where we transcribed everything and went through all the transcriptions — and then we really trusted Renny a lot and gave him autonomy.

Filmmaker: While you were going through postproduction in 2014, this issue was getting in the news with events in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore. Did that influence your thought process at all or did it simply help you realize how timely this was?

Barber: In 2012 when we started making the film we were attracted to Dub and his incredible story. We did feel like if these kinds of cases were happening this much in a state like Utah, they were probably happening all over outside of large urban areas, even in kind of Middle America towns as well. But it really wasn’t until Ferguson happened and the national media started talking about it that much that we saw its national significance. But we wanted to keep our focus really tight on Dub and the experiences he was having in white-bread Utah, because I think we sometimes fall prey to a tendency to say, “Oh, this is a problem that affects other communities. It’s not going to affect me.” But when you see it happening in a place like suburban Salt Lake City I think even more people who watch the film can recognize themselves and recognize that it’s become a systemic problem that affects all sorts of communities.

Filmmaker: How did you get your access with the police and get them to talk so candidly? Some did and some didn’t, right?

Christopherson: That certainly was a challenge. It helped that Dub had a lot of connections. With the Matthew David Stewart case I got a hold of that unit’s commander and, after several months of trying, took him out to lunch. He ended up talking about shooting people in the line of duty. He’s the one who shot the person with the golf club, if you remember in the film, and he’d killed one other person. He was really emotional and kind of messed up; I suspect he might have had some form of PTSD. I told him, “We don’t really have a big agenda here. We want to know what it’s like to be in your shoes, what it’s like to put your life on the line and go in on a raid.” He ended up trusting me and introduced me to the twelve officers involved with the case. They more or less grilled me for two to three hours about what I wanted to do and then ultimately two of them agreed to appear on camera. We went through the same process with the prosecutor of that case: we met for about three hours and then one of them agreed to be on camera. It was similar with all of the sheriffs in the film. And we look up to those officers for participating. I think it takes a lot of courage for them to speak their mind and be open because many of them have been burned in the media before. It was important to me and Brad and everybody on our team that we give them a fair shake, that we really let them speak and not try to manipulate them unfairly — not throw them under the bus but rather let both sides speak and come together.

Filmmaker: Was there anything specific you did to maintain that balance as you were shooting and editing?

Barber: Something we did — that I love talking about because I think it’s a good example of how we tried to do that — is that on those conference calls Scott and Renny and I each at different points would find ourselves advocating for the police in a certain scene or a certain section of the film. There was never just one of us all the time; it was always one of us at a different point who would say, “You know what? I think we need to be careful here. This is making this particular person from the police look unfairly bad.” Or, “Right now with this line of dialogue it seems like we’re making it seem like they’re saying this. But really they were saying that, and we have to make sure that we’re fair to them.” I think that all three of us were equally committed to that and it was good that we all found ourselves advocating for them at different times. It kept us honest and it was another testament to the strength of our collaboration. We really did our best to give them a fair shake.

Filmmaker: What has the response been from law enforcement?

Barber: We’ll find out pretty soon! It’s going to show in Salt Lake City on September 25 and we’d love it if they came out. It’s just played at festivals prior to its New York and Los Angeles premiere, so to my knowledge they haven’t seen it yet. They’ve seen the trailer and we haven’t gotten any backlash from them. To the contrary, we hope that they are happy about their participation in it and hope that they’re committed to improving how officers are trained and what officers can learn from each other. I’d love to see the law enforcement community use the film for their own training purposes. We feel like we did our best to represent everyone fairly and we’re just as concerned about police being protected as well since they put their lives on the line for us. We want to see them be safe too.

But I’m sounding more policy wonky than I mean to. Scott and I are first and foremost documentary filmmakers; we’re not policy experts. We were attracted to Dub’s amazing story and we learned some things and we think it’s an important issue, but there are a lot of really informed and smart people who participated in the film who are also going to participate at screenings with us. We’ll be able to speak to some of the issues more clearly and also have some actionable things that people can do after they’ve watched it to continue improving how law enforcement interacts with us.

Filmmaker: That was actually my next question. Do you have any examples of what types of actionable things might be presented?

Christopherson: I think there are several different things, what I call the acronym ACT, which stands for Accountability, Culture, and Tracking. I think police officers need to be accountable for their own actions; that can involve what Dub often talks about with governmental immunity, where sometimes cops aren’t held accountable for what they do because they have immunity. With culture, I think there needs to be more training of police officers because there’s this cultural divide and this “us versus them” mentality. Recently in New York there’ve been some experimental programs to better train cops to be part of their communities, where they’re prepared to get to know people there. And I think that points back to how Dub was as a police officer: he was involved and part of his community. And then last is tracking: Senator Barbara Boxer and Senator Cory Booker, as well as some others, have sponsored a bill called the PRIDE Act that is meant to record data from police who are involved with shootings. Just tracking that data will help us better understand the problem — and that’s necessary, then you can solve the problem.

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