Op-Ed: Who bears the blame for Matthew David Stewart’s death?

The following is an op-ed published in the Salt Lake Tribune this weekend.

Matthew David Stewart may have hung himself in his prison cell last week, but that does not mean that he alone bears the blame for his premature death. In fact, the government is responsible for putting him in the unfortunate circumstances that led to his desire to escape the grim future that faced him.

Little sympathy exists for the man dubbed by the media as an accused “cop killer.” When members of the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force invaded Stewart’s home using a “knock and announce” warrant, the army veteran was awoken by the sound of breaking glass. Acting on training and instinct, Stewart fought back against the intruders. The ensuing firefight resulted in multiple shots to Stewart, and one officer dying and five others being wounded.

Stewart was not engaged in human trafficking. He was not abusing a family member. He was not plotting to rob a bank or bomb a government building. Instead, the alleged crime for which such a heavy-handed assault was deemed necessary was that he was growing a plant, marijuana, for his own personal consumption.

Whatever your position on the benefits or dangers of using such a substance, it makes little sense to enforce its prohibition with nighttime home invasions by militarized police officers who are ready and willing to shoot to kill. Extreme violence in Stewart’s case was brought to bear against the mere possession of a drug—not homemade explosives, child pornography, or something else that might merit such a response.

In short, the events that led to the shootout with Stewart, Officer Francom’s death, and last week’s suicide were completely unnecessary. Because the government authorized and ordered the home invasion, it bears the blame for the tragic consequences which resulted.

Matthew David Stewart died because Utah’s government criminalizes possession of certain drugs and throws these nonviolent people into cages, rather than treating their drug addictions and confining more coercive punishment only to those who violate another person’s rights.

Matthew David Stewart died because agents in a “Strike Force” appear eager to use their expensive equipment and frequent training in whatever situation that presents itself, rather than employing violent tactics only in the most necessary and exigent of circumstances. The same unit’s killing of Todd Blair the year before adds weight to this claim; officers in Ogden appear to be making the news in all the wrong ways.

Matthew David Stewart died because, as the notorious “cop killer,” the public at large quickly presumed him guilty and few seemed willing to believe that he had actually fired back in self defense. Society’s near deification of police officers meant that Stewart was unlikely to find any sympathy for his side of the story.

Ultimately, Stewart is responsible for taking his own life. But we are all responsible for tolerating, and in many cases praising, the policies and tactics that lead to such situations.

Milton Friedman once said, “Every friend of freedom must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.”

The invasion of Stewart’s home and the subsequent shootout is not unique; paramilitary drug raids occur over 100 times a day throughout America. Otherwise peaceful people are frequently arrested, often imprisoned, and occasionally killed because they chose to ingest a substance prohibited by the state. And sometimes, the agents of the state tasked with using such force are met with resistance.

Neither Officer Francom nor Matthew David Stewart had to die. There were and are much better ways of dealing with drugs—methods that respect and protect the lives of both police officers and alleged drug users. Stewart is not fully responsible for firing back at his intruders and ending his own life last week. The state bears part of the blame.

While we mourn the lives lost on both sides of the “war on drugs,” let’s not minimize their importance by settling for the status quo. Francom’s fatality and Stewart’s suicide should become the foundation of a much needed discussion in Utah to reform prohibition policies and the tactics employed to enforce them.