Peace Officer Screening Sparks Debate

CONCORD – The Red River Theatre, in conjunction with New Hampshire Public Television, sponsored a free screening of the award-winning documentary, Peace Officer.

The film tells the story of William “Dub” Lawrence, a retired cop who personally experienced the effects of the militarization of U.S. police forces.  Dub now works as a sewer repairman. He describes his new job as “Step up from being a politician. Standing in sewage is a step up.”

Dub was elected Sheriff of Davis County, UT in 1975, and was personally responsible for founding the county’s first SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team. Describing his motivations for doing so, Dub stated “the intent was noble”. However, thirty years later, his own son-in-law, Brian Wood, was killed by the local SWAT team.

After Wood’s death, Dub became obsessed with investigating the case.  As he’d been a professional police investigator for fifteen years, he knew exactly how to do so.  What he uncovered was disturbing.

The circumstances leading to the summoning of the SWAT team were as follows. Brian had quarreled, violently, with his wife. He called 911 and told the police he had beaten and raped his wife; “come and get me”. His wife denies that he raped her and doesn’t know why he chose to say that to the police.  A 911 operator called the house back to ask for more details.  The wife told them not to come over, said she was fine, and Brian’s father had come over and was speaking with Brian.  The police ignored her request and mobilized 80 officers from every police department in the region, as well as a helicopter, to gather in front of the Wood home.

Brian, at this point, was sitting inside his truck parked in the driveway, holding a gun on himself. At no time did he ever point the gun at anyone but himself.  After a standoff that lasted several hours, the police shot and injured him as he sat in the truck. Then, when he exited the truck, they bombarded him with flash grenades (non-lethal explosive devices used to temporarily disorient the target’s senses). They also tazed him repeatedly.  Even after he had dropped his gun and fallen to the ground, injured and helpless, they continued to throw flash grenades directly onto his body. And finally, an officer shot and killed him.

After this happened, police went to Brian’s father, whom the police had ordered to not try to defuse the situation by speaking to his son, and told him that Brian killed himself.  The wife had been given sedatives and wasn’t even told until the next day that her husband was dead. The police announced to the press that the death was a “suicide”.  The next day, they issued a corrected statement that the death was actually an officer-involved shooting. But even the corrected statement was inaccurate, according to Dub.  Brian was unarmed and severely injured when he was shot and killed.

During the subsequent four years Dub spent investigating the case, he determined that 111 rounds had been fired by police. Using Freedom of Information Act requests, he gathered 1100 police documents on the case. 300 of them were redacted.

Brian’s father and wife both spoke at length to the filmmakers to present their recollections of the event. All police departments involved in the case refused to do so.

The film also covered the history of the militarization of police in America. It began as a response to the Watts riots of 1965. Journalist Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, discussed how it escalated under multiple Presidential administrations as part of the “war on drugs”.  It progressed to a new level with the institution of the 1033 program.  This program transfers free military equipment to local police departments throughout the country.  This equipment includes grenade launchers, assault rifles, and armored vehicles such as the Lenco BEARCAT.

Dub also investigated the Matthew Stewart case. Six police officers performed a no-knock raid on Stewart’s home with a warrant that marijuana was being grown on the premises.  They broke into the home after dark, dressed in civilian clothing, with their police cars parked out of sight from the house.  The ensuing raid devolved into a chaotic shootout resulting in all six officers, as well as Stewart, getting shot. One of the officers, Grogan, died.

The police claim that Stewart shot at them first, but Dub’s findings contradict this.  Dub painstakingly reconstructed the events of that night and determined which guns had fired which bullets, and the trajectory of every shot.  Based on a gunshot wound in Stewart’s forearm, Dub states it was physically impossible for Stewart to have fired at the police first. The evidence supports the version of events Stewart, an army veteran, gave when read his Miranda rights. He had simply stuck his arm out around a corner, holding his handgun, to warn the intruders (whom Stewart says he had no idea were police) that he was armed. They promptly shot him in that arm. He then proceeded to fight back. According to Dub, the officer who was killed was shot by one of the cops, not by Stewart.

Stewart was tried for murdering the officer who was killed, and was sent to prison.  Less than two years later, he committed suicide in his cell.

Stewart’s father, who was interviewed in the film and fully cooperated with Dub’s investigation, granting him full access to the scene of the crime, filed a wrongful death suit for his son; it was dismissed.

In both the Wood and Stewart cases, the new evidence and analyses that Dub gathered have been rejected for consideration by the legal system. This, despite the fact that Dub is a heralded investigator who broke the Ted Bundy case.

Panel Discussion

Peace Officer panelists
panelists Andrew Smith, JR Hoell, Carla Gericke

After the screening, which was attended by around 25 people, a three person panel discussed the film, the state of police militarization in New Hampshire, and efforts that have been made to roll it back. Despite the subject matter, no New Hampshire police officers were willing to participate. Jemi Broussard, the Red River representative who introduced the film, said she extended invitations to multiple local law enforcement agencies.

The panelists included Carla Gericke, a political activist, writer, and former attorney.  As a native of South Africa, she has personally experienced living in a police state.  Living in New York City after the 9-11 attack, she observed increased militarization in this country. She met Dub two years ago and described him as “a truly honorable man”.

The second panelist was State Rep. JR Hoell (R), a well-known Second Amendment advocate.  Hoell said he first became interested in police militarization several years ago when he met a man whose house was erroneously raided by a SWAT team.  Because this man happened to be the town mayor, he had the resources and political clout to take the matter to court.  But the average victim of a no-knock raid, many of whom are ethnic minorities and/or low income, lack that ability.

The third panelist, Andrew Smith, is a diversity consultant to New Hampshire police academies. His unique job title is “Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator”. He works to educate future officers on the gross racial bias that currently exists in the U.S., resulting in disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities winding up in prison, despite not committing a disproportionate percentage of crimes.  He instructs them in “confirmational bias”, a common psychological phenomenon wherein individuals mentally reject evidence that contradicts ideas they hold about themselves. Smith discussed the difference between a “warrior mentality” (expressed by SWAT teams) and a “guardian mentality”. A true “peace officer” has a guardian mentality and will attempt to diffuse a tense situation. An officer with a “warrior mentality”, on the other hand, charges toward the tense situation in order to quell it.

Gericke told the audience, “Don’t think this isn’t happening in New Hampshire”. In 2011 alone, there were five fatal shootings by police. All five victims were mentally ill. In all five cases, the shootings were ruled “justified”. In 2014, a grandmother was shot during a DEA raid. Not only was she unarmed, she was reaching to pick up her infant grandchild when she was shot. No arrest or charges were sustained against the cop.

Rep. Hoell pointed out that equipment breeds tactics. As the saying goes, “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail”. He has worked on several bills to try to stop 1033 program military equipment from coming into New Hampshire. He is also trying to pass legislation to require reporting of all no-knock raids, and all uses of BEARCATS in the state. The Attorney General and police departments have opposed these efforts.

Smith believes that the solution to these problems requires police leadership.  We need more police chiefs encouraging their departments to maintain a guardian mentality.  As Gericke quipped, “More Mayberry, Less Fallujah”.

The panelists then engaged in lively back and forth with the audience, at least a third of which were local liberty activists.  Not all attendees were in agreement with the panelists’ consensus that police militarization is a problem. Two walked out of the room and shouted “Police lives matter” as they exited.

Video of the event will be posted on YouTube in about a week. Just search for “Peace Officer Red River Theatre.”

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