A Wednesday viewing of award-winning documentary “Peace Officer” prompted a discussion about police-related violence and the militarization of the police force among members of the Yale and Connecticut community.
The film, which was directed, written and produced by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, was screened in Linsly-Chittenden Hall and followed by a panel discussion featuring Yale Law professor Tracey Meares, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut Dan Barrett and New Haven Police Department spokesman David. B. Hartman. The event, co-organized by the Yale Film Study Center and Connecticut Public Television, drew around 40 attendees. Archer Neilson, client relations and special projects manager at the Yale Film Study Center, moderated the panel, asking questions about race, weapons and tactics of the police force and the influence of federal programs on police violence.
“The level of competence that I saw, or lack thereof, was actually astonishing,” Meares said of the Farmington, Utah police force, which was the subject of the film.
Christopherson and Barber’s movie followed Dub Lawrence, a former police officer and sheriff in Davis County, Utah and current investigator of police-related crime. His latest case: the murder of his 36-year-old-son-in-law, Brian Wood, by the SWAT team he assembled while serving as sheriff.
According to the interviews shown in the film, Wood locked himself in his car with two handguns after suffering an emotional breakdown. Following an argument with his wife, he physically attacked her for the first time. Relatives interviewed in the documentary said he was plagued with guilt.
The police were called to the scene and a SWAT team showed up. The team spent 12 hours trying to verbally and physically coerce Woods out of his car and then to surrender himself to the police. As the 13th hour approached, the SWAT team changed tactics and fatally shot Wood. Throughout the stalemate, Wood did not shoot any police officers and was unarmed by the time he was killed. Yet the police told Wood’s family he committed suicide.
“I was surprised that there was no mention of negotiation, at all,” Hartman said. “I don’t want to sit here and sound like I’m defending the New Haven Police Department, but we don’t operate this way.”
In normal situations, Hartman said, the police will negotiate “forever” rather than open fire. He described one of his own experiences that involved standing out in the rain for more than six hours talking to an alleged criminal and a hostage inside a house. Finally, he said, the police realized that the person had left and that he had been talking to a window.
However, the officers never opened fire.
One of the problems highlighted in the movie was the militarization of the police force, which could encourage an overzealously “dangerous” reaction from officers, Neilson said. The film described the history of SWAT teams, which were established after a series of racially charged riots in Los Angeles in 1965. Traditionally, SWAT teams have been armed with military-like weaponry such as armed vehicles, assault weapons and bayonets.
Barrett explained that “police and prosecutorial machines in the United States have been drastically affected by the preferences of the government.” He cited the 1033 program of 1997, which allowed the federal government to transfer excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. According to Meares, though, the federal government is not the only organization to blame for the militarization of the police. She said that in the case of Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, for example, the police force’s military equipment was not supplied by the federal government –— the police force bought it themselves.
“There’s a dynamic, because of all the guns in this country, that feeds into the use of violence by the police force,” Meares said.
Barrett also introduced a discussion on mental health, an issue central to the film. He said Wood, who was already panicking about the potential felonies that he had committed, was psychologically “escalated” by the actions of the police. He called the police’s action in the film “an alarming reaction to a mental health crisis.”
Meares said that people expect the police to treat them with “respect,” rather than perpetrate violence. She mentioned that after several unwarranted actions against civilians, communities may lose trust in the police force.
“One thing we know is clear from the research that I’ve done: People expect the same from police officers, no matter their own race, gender, sexual orientation and the like,” she said.
“Peace Officer,” which won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, will air Monday, May 9th at 9 p.m. on PBS.