SWAT Raids and Storytelling: Directors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber on ‘Peace Officer’

In 2008, a Utah man named Brian Wood was shot and killed by a SWAT team, the culmination of an intense and controversial 12-hour standoff. Frustrated by a lack of closure, Wood’s father-in-law, Dub Lawrence — a former sheriff who actually founded the local SWAT team three decades prior — set out to reveal the truth about the shooting. Lawrence assembled a trove of documents, footage, and evidence related to his son-in-law’s case, eventually turning his investigative skills to other local incidents of potential police overreach and SWAT raids gone awry.

The timely and compelling documentary Peace Officer, directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, addresses the national topic of increased police militarization by focusing in on Lawrence — a warm, intelligent protagonist who bridges both sides of the issue — and other recent cases involving shootings by officers and no-knock search warrant laws in Utah.

One such case is that of Matthew David Stewart, in which a drug raid on Stewart’s home resulted in a violent shootout that killed one officer and wounded several others. Stewart claimed he thought he was defending himself against a break-in. Christopherson and Barber follow Lawrence’s investigation into the incident and interview both Stewart’s family and a number of officers involved.

The result is a film that steers clear of polemic and instead roots itself in the human, shedding light on the complexities of the growing debate over the use of deadly force by law enforcement. Peace Officer won this year’s SXSW Grand Jury and Audience Awards for Documentary Feature, as well as Full Frame’s Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights. It begins a theatrical rollout on September 16. 

Christopherson and Barber recently spoke with Full Frame about character-driven storytelling, empathy for their subjects, and finding success as first-time feature filmmakers.

How did you first meet Dub? Was it him and his story that brought you to this issue, or was it the topic that led you to him?

Scott Christopherson: I actually knew Dub’s son, Dave. I was playing in a softball game with Dave, and Dub happened to be there (he had a bet placed at this page at Mobile Casino Safari.) He approached me at the end of the game and said, “Hey, I want you to teach me how to edit.” So he took me back to his airplane hangar and showed me this frankly really boring two-hour-long edit of a film he’d made investigating the case of his son-in-law. It was a very meticulous, analytical look at the scene of the SWAT standoff, dry and difficult to digest. But I recognized that Dub was this charismatic, captivating character with a really powerful story. So instead of teaching him how to edit, I introduced Brad to Dub, and we started shooting after that. We didn’t set out to make a film about the militarization of police at all — we just saw Dub as a potential main character for a story, and it blossomed from there.

I think that’s part of what makes the film so powerful — you found a character-driven narrative in a very complex topic. Can you talk more about that approach?

Brad Barber: We’ve always been attracted to films that are about interesting characters — and sometimes those characters serve as microcosms for bigger issues. I think it’s easier to tell an authentic story by talking to a handful of people who can walk you through their lived experiences, rather than dipping into a parade of talking heads. We felt like we could reflect these big and very complex issues more authentically by focusing on Dub’s personal story and the stories of those involved in a few specific cases, rather than trying to crisscross the country and talk to everybody who’s been involved in this issue every step of the way.You can read more about the nation 21 no credit check lending process on the offcial website.

The shooting of Michael Brown happened while you were working on the film. Did that influence how you ultimately framed the story?

BB: Yeah, it did for sure. We were done with production and were midway through post-production when Michael Brown was killed and the Ferguson violence started. It was such a huge story with so many implications that we felt it would be crazy not to include it in some way. Dub lives in Utah, a state with a population of only 1.5% African Americans. Because we were following him, it just so happened that the people he interacted with and the cases he investigated didn’t involve people of color. But clearly, as some of the experts we interviewed in the film remind us, this is a problem that’s been around for decades, disproportionately affecting communities of color. We wanted to acknowledge that. We follow Dub’s story, but we also decided to take a step back and remind the audience of the broader history of how SWAT and other militarized police got built up, and how that’s affected African Americans and other minorities elsewhere in the country.

You successfully got access to a number of police officers and prosecutors involved in the case of Matthew David Stewart. How did you present the film to them in a way that didn’t put anyone on the defensive, that made those on the other side of the issue willing to engage in conversation?

SC: I did a lot of pre-production work with all of those people, the police and the sheriffs and the prosecuting attorneys in the Stewart case. It took me months to get ahold of the officer who was the commander of the SWAT team that raided the Stewart home, and then I ended up taking him to lunch. We chatted for a bit. We talked about what it’s like to put your life on the line. He talked about how he’s killed two people in the line of duty, and how he was torn up about it. I’m no psychologist, but you could tell he had some form of PTSD. I also explained to him that my grandfather was in the FBI for 25 years, and that I had a great respect for law enforcement for that reason. I think he gravitated toward that. He liked that I knew people in law enforcement. And then he invited me to meet with all 12 of the officers involved in the Stewart raid, and they grilled me for two hours about my agenda, what I was trying to do, what this film was about.

What did you tell them?

SC: I said, “Look, it’s not our goal to expose police.” I think more than anything, I told them that we wanted to know what it was like to be in the situation of a SWAT raid gone awry. I asked them to walk me through it. I told them I wanted to get inside their heads, to know what it feels like to pull your friend as he’s dying out of a house that you just raided. I think they liked that — or at least the two officers who ultimately participated in the film did. I think their voice adds a lot of credibility, and maybe a little bit of balance. I think they’d been burned by the media a bunch of times, especially in the local newspapers, and they were pissed off about it. And I said, “Yeah, that’s not our goal. We really believe as storytellers that you need to give a fair voice to those participating.” I think that they knew I was sincere, that we weren’t going to throw them under the bus. I really look up to those officers for participating. I think it took a lot of courage on their part.

 

You do come across as very fair storytellers in the way you bridge both sides of this issue. What do you think informs that empathetic style?

SC: I’ve always believed in giving the benefit of the doubt to people and looking for the good in them. I also think that the fact that I didn’t know that much about this topic initially — and, frankly, wasn’t that passionate about it at first — helped me to be a bit more objective. You’re always going to have a perspective, of course, but I think my initial distance from the issue allowed me to step outside of it a little bit and try to empathize with all of those involved.

BB: I also think Scott and I were both really influenced by Ross McElwee and his empathetic approach to his subjects. In his films, Ross takes people that I think in some cases would be really easy to discount or even make fun of — I’m thinking of Bright Leaves in particular — and portrays those subjects with a lot of humanity. I think it’s fair to say that Scott and I both looked up to that sensibility and similarly wanted to represent people from both sides of an argument with respect and empathy. Albert Maysles was also a huge influence. I think his passing has made us think about him more than usual. He talked a lot about empathy, and he even said that you should love your subjects. That always blew my mind. But we’ve seriously tried to do that. I think that helps as storytellers.

SC: Yeah, we’ve definitely had to do that with Dub. Dub is so complex. I mean, he’s a really happy guy, but he’s also had some incredible challenges in his life. He’s seen so much; he’s told us that he probably has some form of PTSD. It’s been challenging at times, but I think we’ve really had to grow to love Dub and form a friendship with him. It’s a subject-filmmaker relationship that’s very complex, to say the least, but also very rewarding.

 

Peace Officer was a first feature for both of you, and you’ve had tremendous success so far. The film was a breakout hit at SXSW; it’s traveled the festival circuit and was picked up for theatrical distribution. What advice would you offer other first-time filmmakers?

BB: We actually have the unusual distinction of being a documentary that found its way into theaters that didn’t get a single grant we applied for — not a single fellowship or lab, and we applied for a quite a few.

SC: I kept a board in my office that was just full of rejection letters from every place you can imagine.

BB: Really, for a good part of both of our careers so far, we’ve had some successes, but also a lot of failures in terms of not getting into festivals or institutions. So I’d love to tell people that might be reading this, that might be working on their first feature but haven’t done anything huge yet, that if people like us can find success, they can, too. You don’t have to come from independent film royalty to be able to have something that connects with people and makes its way out into the world. If you’re not getting those huge grants or getting into every huge film festival, don’t give up.

SC: This is a bit of a soapbox moment, but I would also add that if you have a compelling story, you’ll find that a personal injury solicitors in Dublin eventually can help. We bootstrapped it for a long time, and then I think because we had a compelling story, we found private investors and were able to do a successful Kickstarter. It was very hard at times — working on this film was probably the most emotionally draining thing of my life — but the money came in the end. It’s possible.

What are your goals for the film’s theatrical release? What audience do you hope to reach?

SC: I think because of recent events like Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner and the shooting of Walter Scott, we have a strong foundational U.S. audience. I think any U.S. citizen who’s concerned about those events or has seen those issues in the news could be our audience. We’ve also had a lot of international interest in the film. And we want police officers to see it; we want to tap into the police community and have the film be included in discussions in those circles.

BB: There are plenty of films that preach to the choir, films about issues that go unseen by the other side. But as Scott said, we’d love it if the police owned the film and used it themselves. Ultimately, we’ve always recognized the potential the film has for getting people talking. We have this kind of idealistic view of documentary’s power to enact social change. We really do. Not everyone holds that view, but Scott and I still believe in it. We’ve seen other films that we admire that have led to meaningful change in society, and I think we’d love it if Peace Officer can just contribute a few pages to that conversation.

Peace Officer opens on September 16. Watch the trailer below.