This op-ed originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Ten years ago today, police officers in jeans and dark-colored windbreaker jackets — one of them simply wearing a Cheech and Chong T-shirt — forced their way into an Ogden home on reports that the man inside illegally possessed cannabis. In the dark of night, Matthew David Stewart was abruptly awoken by armed men shouting in his home, leading him to fire his gun in what he later argued was self-defense, not knowing the men were police officers.
In the ensuing melee, Matthew and several officers were all wounded; one officer, Jared Francom, died of his wounds at the scene. Immediately branded a cop killer, Matthew later died in jail in an apparent suicide. None of this carnage was necessary.
This paper’s editorial pages openly questioned why police had conducted a “military-style attack on a small-time weed grower.” That concern was shared by the Utah Legislature which, in the years following, enacted several policy reforms to restrict this manner of heavy-handed law enforcement — not merely to protect alleged lawbreakers, but also to minimize the instances in which officers are required to risk their own personal safety.
For example, the law was changed to now state that officers must take “reasonable precautions in execution of any search warrant to minimize the risks of unnecessarily confrontational or invasive methods which may result in harm to any person.” They can only use “force which is reasonable and necessary.” And they must wear uniforms, a body camera, and identify themselves as officers as they enter the home. Finally, forcible entry warrants are now disallowed for cases involving only drug possession.
Elected officials later went further, requiring police officers to routinely disclose how and when they are conducting these forcible entry warrants. Utah became, and remains, the only such state to impose this level of transparency on law enforcement.
Matthew was an Army veteran and suffered from PTSD. His possession and use of cannabis was illegal at the time and was the basis for the botched raid on his home. Unfortunately, he was ultimately a victim of time; had a few years more gone by, he would have been able to use cannabis legally, since PTSD is one of many qualifying conditions under Utah’s recently enacted medical cannabis law. What once gave rise to literal shootouts with government agents is now legally available in dispensaries around the state.
The Legislature didn’t stop there. Beyond the fact pattern of Matthew’s case, elected officials have enacted several other restrictions on law enforcement to better protect our rights and minimize the instances in which altercations might occur. For example, individuals have a legal right in state law to record officers, and there are now comprehensive guidelines on how officers must use and preserve the footage from body cameras — all in an effort to ensure transparency and accountability when officers interact with the public.
These and many other reforms demonstrate that elected officials have an appetite for appropriately constraining the actions of government’s executive agents to protect our rights and not unnecessarily place police in harm’s way. Matthew’s case, though tragic, ultimately gave rise to a series of reforms beyond the circumstances of his situation.
This is not to say that Utah has achieved utopia on the topic of police reform; there are many more restrictions needed to better ensure the heavy hand of government is not inappropriately imposed on individuals throughout Utah.
Forcible entry should be more broadly prohibited as a means of enforcing anti-drug laws.
Government immunity should be limited so that officers abusing their authority can be better held accountable.
Police misconduct should be transparently reported so that officers fired by one agency can’t be rehired by another agency unaware of their past problems.
The electronic warrant process needs an overhaul to ensure that judges aren’t “rubber stamping” requests by police without adequately reviewing and scrutinizing them.
And the use of force standard — which is what authorizes government agents to harm or kill individuals — needs to be revised to ensure that it is not used to excuse excessive applications of violence by police.
There are many good people in law enforcement trying to protect and serve, and in private conversation, they often bemoan the bad apples who give the profession a bad name. For each Matthew David Stewart or Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, officers brace for a tidal wave of public opposition triggered by a single incident. We can support these good officers — and better prevent unnecessary uses of force from happening — by continuing to reform our laws to ensure that “bad apples” are not empowered and excused in their ability to abuse authority.
A decade later, we learn from Matthew’s case that we can and should ensure that such incidents do not happen again. Others should be spared the tragedy to which his and Officer Francom’s families were subjected. Holding law enforcement accountable and narrowing their authority and role is not simply an exercise in legislative tinkering and political debate.
It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.