Police Tactics Need Review to Lessen Risk to Innocent

On Concealment, Surprise, Bad Intelligence, and Risk to Innocent Civilians

By Ken K. Gourdin

 According to a December 29, 2012 story in The Salt Lake Tribune (available at http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55538880-78/hill-officers-police-eric.html.csp, last accessed today), Ogden Police went to the residence of Eric Hill searching for a military desertion suspect.  When his daughter woke him, telling him she heard noises, he didn’t believe her.  When he asked who was there, he got no answer.  He armed himself with a baseball bat and asked again who was there.  The men at his door then identified themselves as Ogden Police.  When he answered the door, officers (two of whom had assault rifles) pulled him outside and proceeded to handcuff him, refusing to believe him when he identified himself and continuing to insist that he was, in fact, their desertion suspect.

Today, an op-ed I wrote critiquing the tactics officers used in this incident was published in The Salt Lake Tribune, available at http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/55560071-82/officers-intelligence-police-public.html.csp, last accessed today (Page O4 of today’s print edition).  One problem this encounter illustrates is that the police acted on bad intelligence, since the suspect they sought no longer lived at that address.  And another problem illustrated by this encounter is that police poorly balanced their need for concealment and surpise (which wasn’t as great as it often is in more obviously dangerous circumstances) with the risk that such tactics might result in an innocent citizen being hurt or killed (or in that citizen innocently hurting or killing officers) while legitimately defending himself.

In on-line conversations regarding police’s interaction with Mr. Hill,  I expressed puzzlement at apparent eagerness of local law enforcement to become involved in what (unless the desertion suspect they were seeking had committed a felony or felonies under state law) was not a serious local matter.  Had I been a Ogden Police Department supervisor or administrator, and had the military come to me and said, “We’ve got this deserter . . .”, I would have said, “Gee, that’s too bad.  I’ll make sure my officers get updated on him in shift meetings and we’ll keep an eye out for him.  If we happen to run across him, we’ll let you know.  I certainly can’t spare the manpower to form a whole team to go look for him.  In the meantime, I’ve got a city to protect.”  It seems to me as though this is more a matter for military Criminal Investigation Division personnel than local law enforcement.  A former police officer to whom I pointed this out said that’s exactly what his agency would have done.

Although it contradicts Mr. Hill’s account of what happened because he said the officers identified themselves as being with Ogden Police Department, the theory has also been floated that the officers involved might have been from some other agency, such as nearby Hill Air Force Base Security.  I pointed out that if I were a supervisor or administrator for a local law enforcement agency, and if another agency (such as Hill AFB Security) had attempted to apprehend a desertion suspect in my jurisdiction, that agency had better notify me of how many officers they will have in my jurisdiction, where they will be, what they will be doing, and when they will be doing it.  The last thing I would want as a local supervisor or administrator is to have my officers unknowingly start a firefight with another agency’s personnel in the course of responding to a 911 “unknown trouble” or prowler call.

One response to my op-ed derided my call for police to get better intelligence before conducting operations such as this one, saying that the only intelligence they needed was a current photo.  I pointed out that much depends both on the quality of the photograph and how much it has been faxed back and forth between agencies, joking that if a low-enough resolution photograph of me were taken and faxed back and forth enough times, I might start to look like Brad Pitt.  (Well, OK: maybe not!  Heh-heh!)  I pointed out that photographs are only “recent” as of the time they are taken, and pointed out numerous things that could significantly alter someone’s appearance over time.

I told him that appearance isn’t necessarily a very static thing, and one need not be a master of disguise for considerable change to occur in a relatively short period of time: go on a diet, don’t go on a diet, go on a binge, get a Gold’s Gym membership and use it religiously, don’t get a Gold’s Gym membership (or don’t use it religiously), stay out in the sun 18 hours a day for a few weeks or months in the summer (or stay inside all of that time and get pasty), have one or more “tweeners” who turn into teenagers (and give you gray hair in the process! Heck, have kids, period!), get some “Just For Men” or “Nice ‘n Easy,” grow a beard (or shave one off) . . .

When any combination of one or more of the foregoing things (and any number of others) occurs within a relatively short period of time, a “recent photo” isn’t very recent anymore (no matter how little time has actually elapsed since it was taken). I pointed out that time (even a short time) isn’t kind to a lot of us, and jokingly invited my interlocutor-critic to take a look at my photo and try to imagine what I looked like six months ago. While we’re not entitled to Mr. Hill’s photo because he’s a law-abiding citizen who’s not likely to be on a “Wanted” poster in the post office anywhere, if we were, I’d like to see a side-by-side between Mr. Hill and our deserter just to see how much of a resemblance there actually is between the two.

Update, January 8, 2013: In the aftermath of the police raid on Mr. Hill’s home, I questioned whether police had a warrant and, if so, what kind of a warrant it was.  There are two types of warrants, “knock-and-announce,” in which case (as the name implies) police must knock and announce their presence prior to making entry, and “no-knock,” in which case they need not do so.  The rationale behind no-knock warrants is to preserve the element of surprise and promote officer safety by denying suspects the chance to access or to use weapons against officers, or to destroy evidence, as they make their entry.

As has already been pointed out, there is a question as to how well police announced their presence to Mr. Hill (not loud enough for him to hear them initially, according to his account).  It turns out that police had a knock-and-announce warrant (see link below).  In light of several nighttime police raids that have occurred recently (including the one to which Mr. Hill was subjected, a group advocating that Ogden Police Department and other Weber County law enforcement agencies change their tactics supports limiting the hours at which police may execute warrants to daytime hours only.  See http://m.sltrib.com/sltrib/mobile2/55585615-218/police-ogden-powers-warrant.html.csp, last accessed today.

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About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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