DAVIS COUNTY, Utah – William “Dub” Lawrence doesn't shy away from dirty work.
Unclogging the drains of sewage pits isn’t exactly how the 70-year-old planned to spend his golden years, but neither is his work investigating killings by police officers.
“I witnessed my son-in-law killed by the SWAT team I founded,” he said.
In 1974, Lawrence was elected sheriff of Davis County – in the northern suburbs of Salt Lake City. A year later, he launched the department’s first SWAT team, a specialized unit he envisioned for deescalating high-risk situations.
His preference was to resolve conflict without force, and his reputation for integrity became local lore. (He once wrote himself a parking ticket.)
“Andy Griffith is the right way to do it,” he told America Tonight, referring to the classic small-town sitcom cop. “He defused everything. He was a peace officer.”
But what happened one afternoon at his daughter’s home in Farmington, Utah, was a far cry from life in Mayberry.
In 2008, Lawrence’s son-in-law, Brian Wood, 36, had a mental breakdown after a fight with his wife, barricaded himself in his truck when police arrived and threatened suicide. What followed was a 12-hour standoff, covered wall-to-wall by local media.
Lawrence arrived quickly, responding in seven minutes, he says. He offered help, but was told to stand back.
The former sheriff assured his family they could trust the two officers on the scene. But that confidence evaporated as the police presence quickly grew to dozens. More than 100 police officers showed up including 46 from the SWAT team Lawrence founded.
Sharpshooters perched on nearby roofs and military hardware rolled in.
Far from defusing the situation, the SWAT team’s actions were actually escalating it, Lawrence said, counter to everything he had preached decades earlier.
“I was cursing, saying, ‘What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing?’” he said.
Police tried using tear gas and flash-bang grenades to get Wood to surrender.
Lawrence said that his son-in-law was both badly wounded and unarmed as the standoff continued.
By 10 p.m., Wood was dead, killed by police gunfire. Lawrence says the final shot was fired by a sniper on the ground.
Convinced Wood’s shooting was unjustified, Lawrence has been on a mission to prove that. In an airport hangar that serves his command center, Lawrence stores hundreds of photos, binders and videos, all of which he’s studied meticulously.
“This is all the evidence the police missed,” he said. “All of this should have been collected and placed in [evidence] because you have a homicide. Sometimes, the police don’t collect evidence because it may incriminate them.”
Filmmakers Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber made Lawrence the centerpiece of “Peace Officer,” a documentary detailing the militarization of American police. On Tuesday, the film was named the grand jury winner in the South By Southwest festival's documentary feature competition.
“We like the metaphor with him owning a septic tank company and he’s kind of doing the dirty work in our society,” Christopherson said.
When he’s not running his septic business, Lawrence has become a one-man police watchdog – investigating other shootings, uncovering what he says is evidence of cover-ups by law enforcement.
He has also become a critic of the increasingly military posture of police, including the SWAT team he created. Thanks to military surplus shopping, many police departments are beginning to look like they are better suited for Fallujah than Farmington.
“Congress never voted to militarize the police and I think that catches people off guard,” said Barber, one of the “Peace Officer” filmmakers. “They don’t remember being consulted as citizens as to how Special Forces would be used in an increasingly military way and no states right now are looking at serious reform, or at least public oversight. Utah is one of the first that is even tracking how they are being used.”
Lawrence says there is a legitimate reason to have a SWAT unit. But the present-day incarnation of that team is not what he envisioned.
“They’ve gone too far,” he said. “People across the country are experiencing the same thing I’ve experienced and they have no voice.”