Don’t just shoot: a local organizer’s critical response to “Peace Officer,” a new Independent Lens documentary airing on PBS.

Don’t just shoot: a local organizer’s critical response to “Peace Officer,” a new Independent Lens documentary airing on PBS.


George in Ferguson, Missouri, 2014 [All photos from Ferguson, Missouri provided by George]

From George Payne, we’ve read about Martin Luther King, interfaith dialogue, urban poverty, the Lower Falls and seen his photo montage of Rochester.

Today George offers a critical response to Peace Officer, accounts and pictures from a 2014 visit to Ferguson, Missouri, and commentary on military training of police officers, including a discussion of the 2014 Puerto Rican Festival.

Currently a profound and alarming film, Peace Officer, is airing on PBS’s Independent Lens. With a somber and dramatic style, the film chronicles the story of William “Dub” Lawrence, a former sheriff who established and trained one of Utah’s first SWAT teams, only to watch helplessly as that same unit killed his son-in-law in a controversial standoff years later. Driven by a unalterable sense of mission, Dub uses his investigative skills to uncover the truth about that incident and other officer-involved shootings in his community, while tackling larger questions about the changing face of police investigations nationwide.

According to the film’s website:


William “Dub” Lawrence from the Independent Lens website

Many of Dub’s investigations stem from confrontations sparked by aggressive “no-knock” search warrant laws now typical across America. The film examines how officers in cities and small towns are routinely armed with military surplus weapons and equipment, backed by federal incentives to use what they are given. These and other factors have led to a 15,000% increase in SWAT team raids in the United States since the late 1970s.

ferguson we the people

Ferguson, Missouri, 2014 [George Payne]

Watching this incredible documentary brought me back to the three days I spent in Ferguson as a photojournalist covering those emotionally and politically supercharged events in 2014. What happened in Ferguson was a national tragedy. As demonstrated on live national TV, some citizens are still not allowed to address their political concerns in a peaceful democratic manner. Like children, the protesters were given certain hours in which they were allowed to behave like American citizens, while the rest of the time they were told to go inside, keep silent and obey. The omnipresent threat of militarized force was impossible to ignore.

Peace Officer reveals how these expressions of autocratic paternalism are counter to the principles of real policing. As we hear in the testimony of former officers such as Dub, real policing never tolerates such abuses of power because it dishonors the integrity of the badge. Ultimately, real policing has nothing to do with power at all and everything to do with persuasion: it is flexible, tolerant, rational and unbiased. In fact, some of the most heroic and remarkable people I know are police officers. Yet not one of them looks at me as if I am not worthy of voicing my opinion in a constitutionally permitted way. They see me with respect and hopefully compassion.  If a police officer is not showing respect and compassion to everyone they are paid to serve, they are not policing. They may be a damn powerful cop, but they are not an officer of the law.

That being said, I walked away from the film feeling inspired by Dub’s courageous pursuit of justice and uplifted by the strength and resilience of every family member who has ever lost loved ones due to a fatally aggressive police action. I also came away from the film feeling like things are getting much worse. The line between the military and police has basically evaporated. Gradually over the past 30 years or so we have seen the near total erosion of civil liberties and the near total empowerment of police units to do whatever they deem necessary. We should all be gravely concerned about this trend. It’s happening not only in Ferguson and Utah, but in places like Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester as well.

For instance, I discovered the following article in the August 23, 2014 edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the RPD’s response to that year’s Puerto Rican Festival. Reporter Justin Murphy wrote:


The Rochester Police Department’s mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP, was obtained for free in June [2014] from the federal government. Democrat and Chronicle, 8/23/14 [Photo: SHAWN DOWD/@sdowdphoto, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

The dynamic the night after the Puerto Rican Festival in the heavily Latino portion of northeast Rochester is familiar by now.

Revelers, not all of them festival-goers or even Puerto Ricans, clog the streets, blaring horns and waving flags, cheered on by even greater crowds on foot. Swarms of Rochester police dash from disturbance to disturbance, dispersing the gatherings with warnings, road closures and noxious gas. Arrests for disorderly conduct and traffic citations are common, and police have been targeted with rocks and bottles.

This year, police upped the ante. That night was the debut appearance for the Rochester Police Department’s new mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP, a mountain of a ride valued at $689,000 and obtained for free June 12 from the federal government.

The request to disperse was more readily obeyed when delivered by camouflaged officers in an armored 14-ton behemoth designed for use in war zones. Dancers left the streets, drivers laid off the horn and rowdy corners fell silent.

At the end of the night, one person was arrested for disorderly conduct and police reported one cruiser damaged by the crowd. Was the MRAP overkill, or did its deployment deter further problems?

ferguson two

Ferguson, Missouri, 2014 [George Payne]

Is this the future we want to live in? I can only imagine how much money has been invested in military equipment and military styled training over the past two years. How much further is the RPD planning to go? Although I am not sure that Peace Officer actually provides any pragmatic solutions to the problem we face,  it does keep the conversation alive in a fresh and artistic way. I’m hoping that many millions will see it and take appropriate action in their community. After-all, “to serve and to protect” is not just a motto for police officers but a categorical imperative for all of us.



from “Anticipating the Ferguson Verdict,” Vietnam War protest, the Sibley Building, Rochester, NY


Anticipating the Ferguson verdict

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


Like what you see on our site? We’d appreciate your support. Please donate today.

Featured Posts