An Ex-Lawman On A Lonely Mission: Bringing The Police To Justice

Oct 4, 2015
Originally published on October 5, 2015 2:16 pm

At the heart of Peace Officer, a new documentary out this month, stands a man named William "Dub" Lawrence. A former sheriff, Lawrence comes off as a somber figure — a man capable of calmly reconstructing the death of his suicidal son-in-law, who was shot in a standoff with a SWAT team in 2008.

But when you meet Lawrence, it's impossible not to note just how much the man grins — as in, big, toothy, Jimmy Carter-level grins.

"That's my best weapon," he says. "If I smile, they will usually not punch me in the face."

Lawrence has another thing in common with Jimmy Carter: He also served just one term. From 1975-79, Lawrence was sheriff of Davis County, just north of Salt Lake City in Utah. His election in 1974 was a surprise — he was a political neophyte — and he wasn't able to repeat the victory in 1978. After losing his re-election bid, he moved on to other kinds of work — installing dishes for satellite TV, teaching school, repairing water pumps. He hasn't worn a badge in decades.

And yet, you get the sense he never really left police work behind.

For instance: "I have a bone in my truck that may be a human bone," he says. That's because, in his spare time, he searches a nearby canyon for victims of Ted Bundy, the serial killer who came through Davis County when Lawrence was sheriff. Some of Bundy's presumed victims were never found.

"I've never given up! That happened on my watch," Lawrence says.

He's found a few bones, though so far they've always turned out to be from animals. But he keeps looking.

If that sounds like the behavior of an obsessive, Lawrence won't argue with you. He admits to obsessing over dozens of old cases. In his office, there's a whole wall covered with papers bearing the cases' names. And down in a hangar, he's been obsessing over a silver Subaru — and the holes left by policemen's bullets.

It's the car a 21-year-old woman named Danielle Willard was driving when she was shot dead by plainclothes police in 2012. It was a drug bust gone bad. And while the Salt Lake district attorney tried to prosecute one of officers, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

But Dub Lawrence thought he could find evidence the prosecutors missed. He got the dead woman's family to let him take the car and reconstruct the shooting.

Sitting in his hangar, the car is a grim time capsule of the day Willard died. There's still a box of hardened donuts in the back seat. The passenger seat is stained with her blood and sprinkled with glass.

To Lawrence, this car represents what he sees as the impunity of police who are too quick to pull the trigger.

"An officer can commit a crime that's exactly the same thing that I commit. I get life in prison, and the officer gets a paid vacation for six months and gets back to work," he says. "I mean, that's absurd."

Still, one has to wonder what the point of all this is. After all, Willard's family got a settlement, and new criminal charges against the police seem unlikely. The prosecutors weren't even aware Lawrence had the Subaru.

But he shakes this off; he says he has a bigger goal: "Transparency."

He's hoping to change the system. To make it harder for police to cover up future mistakes, and easier for prosecutors to charge them.

"Citizens in officer-involved shootings quite often are not receiving any kind of justice," he says. Asked why it's his job to make sure they do, he laughs. "It isn't," he admits.

It isn't his job, and frankly it's hard to see how his obsessive reconstructions have made any real difference in these cases. And yet this former sheriff-turned-pump repairman has become a kind of symbol for the families of people killed by police in Utah.

And he keeps pushing. He says he wants to set up Danielle Willard's Subaru in the rotunda of the state Capitol — with his stretched-out red threads showing the path of each policeman's bullet. That's not about to happen.

But Dub Lawrence is so intense about the possibility — and his grin is so insistent — that you're almost willing to believe he might pull it off.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back to the U.S. now and a new documentary about the excessive use of force by police. It's called "Peace Officer." And the man at the center of the movie is a former sheriff. He's become an advocate for the families of people shot by police. NPR's Martin Kaste went to Utah to meet him.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In the movie, William Dub Lawrence comes off as a somber figure. He's shown reconstructing the death of his suicidal son-in-law who was shot in a standoff with a SWAT in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEACE OFFICER")

WILLIAM DUB LAWRENCE: He was incapacitated. He was already down. He was not capable of firing or injuring or hurting anybody at the moment the fatal shot was fired.

(GUNSHOTS)

KASTE: But when you met Dub Lawrence in person, you're struck by what a grinner he is - as in big, toothy Jimmy Carter-level grins.

LAWRENCE: That's my best weapon. If I smile, they will usually not punch me in the face (laughter).

KASTE: Lawrence is also like Jimmy Carter in that he was a one-termer. He served one term, 1975 to '79, as the sheriff of Davis County, just north of Salt Lake City. His election was a post-Watergate fluke. And after he lost his re-election bid, he moved on to other kinds of work - satellite TV, teaching school, repairing water pumps. He hasn't worn a badge in decades, and yet, you get the sense that he never really left police work behind.

LAWRENCE: I have a bone in my truck that may be a human bone.

KASTE: In his spare time, he searches a nearby canyon for the victims of Ted Bundy, the serial killer who came through Davis County when Lawrence was sheriff. Some of Bundy's presumed victims were never found.

LAWRENCE: I've never given up. That happened on my watch.

KASTE: He's found a few bones, though, so far, they've always turned out to be from animals, but he keeps looking.

LAWRENCE: The last one that I found, I took it into a doctor. And he said he thinks it's an animal, but it could be, it could be, it could be.

KASTE: If that sounds like the actions of an obsessive, Lawrence wouldn't argue with you. He admits to obsessing over dozens of old cases. In his office, there's a whole wall covered with papers bearing the cases' names. And down here, in the hangar space, he's been obsessing lately over a silver Subaru and the holes left behind by policemen's bullets.

LAWRENCE: Let's see. That's the first bullet. This is the second bullet. This is the third - there was one fired at the wheel.

KASTE: It's the car a 21-year-old woman named Danielle Willard was driving when she was shot dead by plainclothes police in 2012. It was a drug bust gone bad. And the Salt Lake district attorney tried to prosecute one of the officers, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. But Dub Lawrence thought he could find evidence that the prosecutors missed. He got the dead woman's family to let him take the car, and he's reconstructed the shooting.

LAWRENCE: So that bullet was fired at the wheel. This one was fired at her head. So they go one, two, three, four.

KASTE: Sitting there in his hanger, the car is a grim time capsule of the day Willard died. There's still a box of hardening donuts in the backseat. The passenger seat is stained with her blood and sprinkled with glass. To Lawrence, this car represents what he sees as the impunity of police who are too quick to pull the trigger.

LAWRENCE: An officer can commit a crime that's exactly the same thing that I commit. I get life in prison and the officer gets a paid vacation for six months and goes back to work. I mean, that's absurd.

KASTE: Still, you have to wonder what the point is of all this work. After all, Willard's family did get a settlement and new criminal charges against the police seem unlikely. The prosecutors didn't even know that Lawrence had the Subaru. But he shakes all this off. He says he has a bigger goal.

LAWRENCE: Transparency.

KASTE: He's hoping to change the system to make it harder for police to cover up future mistakes and easier for prosecutors to charge them.

LAWRENCE: Citizens in officer-involved shootings quite often are not receiving any kind of justice. And that's...

KASTE: But why is this your job?

LAWRENCE: Isn't it (laughter). It isn't.

KASTE: It isn't his job. And frankly, it's hard to see how his obsessive reconstructions have made any real difference in any of these cases. And yet, this former-sheriff-turned-pump-repairman has become a kind of symbol for the families of people killed by police in Utah. And he keeps pushing.

He says he wants to setup Danielle Willard's Subaru in the rotunda of the Utah State Capitol. He wants his stretched-out red threads to show people the paths of each policeman's bullet. That is not about to happen. But Dub Lawrence is so intense about the possibility and his grin is so insistent, that you're almost willing to believe that he could pull it off. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Davis County, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.