As sheriff of Davis County, Utah in the 1970s, William “Dub” Lawrence required every officer and deputy he swore in to take an oath “to respect the constitutional rights of all persons.” He also joined a growing trend at the time, and swore in four of those officers as what would become one of Utah’s first SWAT teams in 1975. “We saw what was happening in Los Angeles at the time,” Lawrence recalled, “We thought we needed something similar if we ever had to face down a shooter, or someone who had taken hostages.” Little did he realize what a monster he had created.
Last week, the same William Lawrence stood before a few hundred people rallying on the steps of the Courthouse in Salt Lake City— against police abuse and crime. He told the attendees, “I’ve been in this struggle since September 22, 2008.”
That was the date that, as Lawrence confesses, “My son-in-law was killed by the SWAT team that I founded in 1975.”
That son-in-law was Brian Wood. Radley Balko reports that Lawrence “watched helplessly as the same SWAT team he helped create over 30 years earlier shot and killed Brian Wood, his 36-year-old son-in-law.”
It was no simple shooting. Wood, who had a history of mental illness, had called-in a false report to 911, then locked himself, armed, inside his pickup truck. William Grigg details,
SWAT operators used chemical weapons to force Wood from the pickup truck in which he had taken refuge, then treated him to a barrage of rubber bullets, projectile bean bags, and pepper-spray rounds, in addition to tear gas and flash-bang grenades. While Wood was prone and helpless, he was shot with a Taser at least eight times by one officer, and an unknown number of times by a second — before being shot at point-blank range by another officer wielding a .308-caliber rifle.
One witness described the onslaught as “horrible — just like someone tormenting an animal in a cage.”
Lawrence was shocked, but jerked to reality: “I told my family, I said, ‘These guys are well-trained. You can trust them to talk him down.’ . . . I then had to explain to my daughter why this team I helped create — had just told her to trust — had just killed her husband.”
Lawrence had to do a lot of thinking, soul searching, and a lot of homework. He now heads up a movement in Utah to make a difference. He leads legislators and activists to restrict the use of SWAT teams, and to bring transparency to police departments and accountability of officials before the law.
In his speech last week, Lawrence noted that a large part of the problem lies in inequality before the law—a basic failure of what America is all about: “The world has changed since the 70s. The laws have changed since the 70s.” “It’s the laws that have been passed,” he added. By this he means mainly, laws that allow special privileges and immunities for police officers. He explained,
The department’s protocol has, built into it, protections for law enforcement. For example, you as a citizen, when you’re interrogated, if you tell a lie, you’re held accountable criminally. A police officer can lie. If you’re interrogated, the information you use can be used against you even though it was obtained unconstitutionally.
If a police officer is involved in a shooting death, he has 24 hours—he does not have to give a statement for 24 hours. . . .
Police officers can lie, entrap; they can break the law, they can use drugs, they can do most anything that’s illegal, entrap others and prosecute them, and they are not prosecuted. . . .
It’s inequality under the law. . . . Police officers are protected by governmental immunity. Police unions and lobbyists have gotten many laws into place to give them special privileged immunity that you don’t have as a citizen.
He summarized: “We need equality under the law,” and this means for police officers and government officials, too. “We need to challenge immunity for anybody because we are equal under the law.”
A second and more daunting problem Lawrence noted aligns with my work on the executive power in Restoring America: the special privileges afforded from the national level on down due to war powers and emergency powers. You think you have constitutional rights? Think again, Lawrence says: “You declare war, you can forget the constitution. That’s the basic fundamental problem in our society.” With the “War on Terror,” the “War on Drugs,” the “War on . . .” fill-in-the-blank, governments can do nearly anything they wish. Citizens remain ignorant, bullied, and terrified as their rights are stripped slowly away.
Grigg’s conclusions are more pessimistic than I would draw. He states that “in recent decades law enforcement officers have been marinated in the conceit that they are a caste apart from, and superior to, the population they supposedly serve.” As such he believes that Lawrence’s speech “offered a detailed and compelling indictment of the system we now endure, and the privileged dispensers of violence that defend it.” He sees little if any hope of change through electoral politics, and does not believe with Lawrence in a preponderance of good officers or administrators left in the system.
A lot of pessimism and criticism is warranted in regard to law enforcement abuses. Nevertheless, we can still use electoral politics, and there are certainly footholds of conscience and principle among existing law enforcement personnel. But these are never ends in themselves, or meant to be stand-alone measures. Important and lasting social change can only come when there is a change of heart and will among people—enough to make themselves matter, make themselves care, and make themselves sacrifice for change.
If there is to be such change, a large part of it will need to come from Christians and conservatives who perennially seem to exalt all police work as sacrosanct by default, who help vaunt police yearly to the higher rankings of Gallup’s “Honesty/Ethics in Professions” and “Confidence in Institutions” surveys. While we should certainly not swing to utter disdain and pessimism, we should push for the goals people like Lawrence have highlighted: accountability and equality before the law. This will mean standing in opposition to police lobbies, unions, and brotherhoods on many issues.
And it will be important to cultivate the understanding that such a stand does not make one anti-police; rather, a principled stand for equal law and order makes on as pro-police as anyone should ever be. That is, they shall be in favor of law enforcement and peace officers to the extent that our God and our founding documents would have them.
While civil government is certainly here for our good and to punish evil (per Romans 13), it is not here to have special privileges to commit evil itself, and to trample the God-given rights in which we claim to believe, and which we have enshrined in our founding documents of civil government. Rather than protecting abuses and special immunities for systematically law-breaking and lying officials, Christians ought to be leading the charge against such crimes in our land.