Utah needs to police its police force to stop bullying mindset of law enforcement

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]As reported in a November 2014 Salt Lake Tribune article, a “review of nearly 300 homicides, using media reports, state crime statistics, medical-examiner records and court records, shows that use of force by police is the second-most common circumstance under which Utahns kill each other, surpassed only by intimate partner violence.” The article came on the heels of the Dillon Taylor and Darrien Hunt shootings. Since then, James Dudley Parker lost his life in a controversial police shooting in the Avenues, and Jeffrey R. Nielson lost his life in a controversial police shooting in Sandy. This week, KSL reported that West Valley “city officials have agreed to pay $1.425 million to the family of Danielle Willard, who was shot and killed by two detectives in a botched undercover drug operation” in November of 2012. Clearly, police brutality is one of the most serious local government issues in Utah.

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In each of these cases, Utah police departments have publicly claimed that the officers were justified in responding to perceived threats. What hasn’t been clearly addressed is whether or not the officers were too rash in using lethal tactics, appropriately recording their actions and working to not escalate the situation.

Since Michael Brown died at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in August of last year, the entire country has wrestled with how to address police brutality. Increasing body camera use by officers has been suggested as a potential solution, but Jon Stewart succinctly addressed this following the grand jury decision in the Staten Island case in an all-too-serious Daily Show episode: “I assume that the solution they’re proposing, if implemented, would look something like the Eric Garner case.” Stewart pointedly compared the outcome of the case to that of the Ferguson case, noting that even clear-cut video evidence against Officer Pantaleo didn’t have any apparent bearing on the outcome.

Utah seems to have its own unique problem with officer body cameras — none of them work when an officer kills a citizen. Hunt’s killer camera wasn’t turned on. The body cam falls to the ground, not recording footage in the Nielson shooting. The footage in the Parker shooting becomes static when he hits the police officer with a snow shovel. Perhaps officers should be equipped with whatever cameras are surviving motocross crashes on YouTube, but the issue probably isn’t one of technical difficulties. What can we expect from a profession that culls employees who have self-selected to engage in jobs that will invariably involve violent confrontation, jobs for which there is no national education standard? Police culture is bully culture.

This is especially clear in the aftermath of any police shooting as the justice system invariably moves to protect its own by conflating legal latitude with an ethically justifiable position. Use of the Parker video as justification for his shooting is a good example of this. Although the officer clearly antagonizes the suspect into a fight, what matters to police apologists is that the suspect strikes first. This is essentially using entrapment as justification for murder. The law enforcement community appears to be more concerned with justification of violence than a realistic appraisal of how to de-escalate confrontation and find alternatives to lethal force.

It’s clear that the law enforcement community isn’t appropriately incentivized to enforce the social contract for itself. A recent edition of “This American Life” was devoted to this idea — that officer and community cultural perceptions of police work are often at odds. In light of these ideas, citizens should make policing the police a priority. Officers should be filmed, legislators should be bothered over issues of training methods and weapons carried, and police militarization efforts should be opposed.

Protest isn’t enough when bloodshed is the main modus operandi of our state security system. Utah needs to recognize that there is no easy technological fix to a cultural problem endemic to the law enforcement profession. When police can afford to be this murderously tough on citizen crime, it’s obvious that citizens need to push for the justice system to be tough on police crime.

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