William “Dub” Lawrence admires the law so greatly that when a stranger at an ice cream parlor once informed him that his patrol car was illegally parked, he wrote himself a ticket. When he served as sheriff of Davis County, Utah, in the mid-’70s, he helped establish the state’s first SWAT team when the war on drugs was still in its infancy.
His faith in the law would be shaken 30 years later, when members of the same unit he helped create took the life of his son-in-law in a daylong standoff. Sitting down on the most recent episode of “Talking Together About Guns,” a program sponsored by the Penn State College of Communications, Lawrence said the criminal justice system is broken — but he hasn’t given up on it yet.
“I’m really encouraged. More and more across the country, I’m finding more and more people interested in making things better,” he said. “There are solutions. Every problem has a solution.”
Lawrence’s own private investigation of the incident, and of several similar fatal SWAT raids, are documented in Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson’s “Peace Officer.” He appeared alongside Timothy Stringer, a Penn State law enforcement training specialist, and Tracy Small, Centre County’s crisis intervention training program coordinator, to discuss issues in law enforcement in a live broadcast on WPSU.
“The system has allowed the officers to have a lot of discretionary power that we didn’t have years ago,” Lawrence said.
Failed drug war policies have given too much power to officers, and too little to those who wish to hold them accountable when they do wrong, Lawrence said. The mentality of us-versus-them that has gripped more militarized departments, too, has made the blue wall of silence even harder to break through.
Stringer agreed that there was a need for more transparency in law enforcement, but added that there is a difference between mistakes and misconduct, and officers are capable of making mistakes like anyone else. In Centre County, he said, the kinds of violent, no-knock raids depicted in the film aren’t common.
“We try to de-escalate things,” Stringer said. “If you take another human being’s life, it’s going to live with you forever.”
In training, Small said officers are taught methods of de-escalation applicable not only to SWAT standoffs, but to situations as common as calming down someone involved in a car accident.
“I think a big part of our training is hearing from individuals who have mental health disorders and their families,” she said, adding that not all crises involved those with mental illness.
Lawrence said he’s been heartened by practices such as these, which he said have helped improve law enforcement on the front end. Better training can improve judgment calls like the one that took his son-in-law’s life.
But there is still work to be done under the hood.
“I don’t like the idea that we as police officers investigate our own crimes,” Lawrence said. “If we investigate ourselves, we’re obviously going to be biased.”
To that end, Lawrence continues to support the documentary and speak with authorities across the country. He’s hopeful that through dialogue, awareness can be raised and change made possible.
“I really have fallen in love with the documentary film approach. I think it’s probably one of the best ways there is to give a voice to issues,” he said. “We’re making some progress. I’m really pleased to come to communities like this in Pennsylvania … implementing good practices and good solutions to problems is what I like to be a part of.”
Matthew Guerry is a Penn State journalism student.