Police shootings must be addressed to restore public trust

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

Last weekend, The Salt Lake Tribune revealed an alarming data point: In recent years, police officers have killed more Utahns than have gang members. As a community we must ask ourselves: Is this an appropriate use of force?

There have been 13 fatalities so far this year from police shootings. It may very well be that officers had to use lethal force in each of these cases, but suppose for a moment that even one of these cases involved an unnecessary escalation of force — even if ultimately deemed justified by a district attorney.

That single instance should invite a frank and sincere dialogue about the entire law enforcement system: the legal authority officers are granted, training they receive, weapons they use, reporting required of them, accountability mechanisms when they run afoul of the law and the methods and makeup of investigative bodies.

At our Fourth Amendment Forum this summer, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, one of the panelists, noted the importance of ensuring that the entire system is functioning properly:

“The integrity of a system is not measured by the 99 or 98 or whatever you clear,” he said. “The integrity of a system is measured by the one or two or three or whatever, that [aren’t] justified — that they can actually [be held] accountable. That’s where the trust of the community comes from. When you fail to hold bad officers accountable, good officers suffer.”

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy, another panelist, likewise observed that, “if you lose the people and their ability to interact with you and trust you enough to come to you when there’s an issue, then we’ve all lost.”

In a post-Ferguson world, how can officers earn more trust?

First, transparency. Earlier this year, the legislature passed legislation we provided, Senate Bill 185, to require law enforcement officers to report data on an annual basis regarding SWAT deployments and forcible entry. In the next legislative session we will be seeking an amendment to also require reporting for the use of armored vehicles.

Body cameras provide an exciting potential for transparency by documenting events as they occur, rather than having to rely upon “he said, she said” after-the-fact statements. In collaboration with ACLU Utah and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, we will be offering a proposal to govern the use of these cameras to ensure that they are used appropriately, so police and the public alike can have confidence in this new technology.

Second, heightened legal barriers. It should not be easy for the government to snoop on our cell phones, look through our prescription drug records, break down our door or fire their weapons at us. When necessary it is legitimate, but it should be more difficult to justify an invasion of privacy than for purposes of investigatory convenience, or more difficult to justify a fatality than by simply saying, “I feared for my life.”

Third, truthfulness. Police officers and prosecutors alike sometimes smear their victims in the media, and it needs to stop. After officers raided Matthew David Stewart’s home, they claimed to have found child pornography on his computer — an accusation quietly withdrawn after Stewart died. They also attempted to insinuate that he had terrorist sympathies, pointing to a photo of him dressed in jihadi gear. It was a Halloween photo of Stewart dressed as Osama bin Laden.

If officers do something wrong they, as public servants, should own up to their mistakes rather than deceiving the public or shifting blame. It is a criminal offense to lie to a police officer in Utah in certain cases. Why is it legal for officers to lie to us?

Police officers should embrace, rather than resist, increased scrutiny of their authority and actions, and be active partners in ensuring that the law enforcement system, from stem to stern, is deserving of public trust.