The news of tennis star James Blake getting mistakenly tackled and handcuffed by the NYPD on his way to the U.S. Open is the most recent headline in a rash of stories of police overreach, and it illustrates the strength and weaknesses of Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber's documentary Peace Officer. The film is a story of William "Dub" Lawrence, a former Utah sheriff who introduced a S.W.A.T. team to his jurisdiction in the 1970s, only to have a police squad kill his son-in-law. Lawrence deems that death a homicide, which is not an emotional assessment. His vast investigative experience and his obsessive, meticulous work lead him to forensic discoveries undetected by the police, whom he says have been incompetent or corrupt. He's almost disconcertingly smiley, but persuasive, and a subject worth building a film around -- as are the maddening stories of cops breaking down doors and attacking people with massive force, often at night without identifying themselves, and often with little or no cause.
The film suffers from some rookie problems: Its cameras linger as people meander, and overlapping some of that with voiceover could have slimmed down the talking-heads interviews. But through it we can see the history and ramp-up of the military-esque police methods that have become our current crisis. In a way, it's too bad Lawrence is in Utah, where we see only white people. That belies the reality that most victims of this phenomenon are African Americans like Blake, who smiled at the officer rushing him because he thought it was someone who recognized him, offering a hug.