“Geist” shooting should be kept in perspective
By Ken K. Gourdin
Note: A substantially-similar piece was submitted to, but declined for publication by, The Salt Lake Tribune.
There has been no shortage of opinion, much of it critical, in on-line comments about Salt Lake Police Officer Brett Olsen’s recent shooting of Sean Kendall’s dog, Geist, as Olsen sought a missing child. [See, e.g., here (last accessed today): http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/58109655-78/police-kendall-dog-lake.html.csp.] Tribune columnist (and former police officer) Robert Kirby’s column discussing similar experiences with dogs during his career (Tribune, June 28) has also been criticized. [Kirby’s column can be found here (last accessed today): http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home3/58124166-200/dog-killed-kirby-cop.html.csp.]
Many on-line commenters on Kirby’s column really like the Constitution – or at least, certain parts of it; others, they don’t like so much. They are really fond, for example, of the Fourth Amendment: you know, the one that says that government searches and seizures must be reasonable.
Let’s put ourselves in Olsen’s shoes for a second. (Many who’ve commented on this incident seem unwilling to do that.) If we reasonably felt threatened by a dog, and if we, regretfully but reasonably, found it necessary to use the same force Olsen did, we’d really like the Second Amendment: you know, the one about keeping and bearing arms.
Alas, many commenters on coverage of this incident aren’t so fond of other parts of the Constitution. It’s a good thing there’s a difference between a court of law and the court of public opinion, because in the latter, Olsen already has been arrested, charged, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed (or at least, he would be if some had their way: he has received death threats).
The parts of the Constitution Olsen’s critics don’t like? They’re not fond of the Fifth Amendment’s due process requirement. We must either apply Fifth Amendment protection, as best we can, to everyone (yes, including even to police officers), or we must set it aside completely.
It’s as though Olsen’s critics say, “Rights, due process, and procedural protections for me, but not for thee – especially since thou art a police officer.” Others have faulted police for allegedly slow-walking the investigation. Yet, if they were the ones being investigated, they would demand that officials spare no effort to get it right.
Officers seem “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.” Salt Lake police were criticized for failing to find Destiny Norton before her terribly unfortunate demise. Had action such that which Olsen took been necessary to find Norton alive, critics, recognizing that no the life of no pet (however beloved) is worth a child’s life, would have demanded that officers take it.
And there are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, such as exigent (emergency) circumstances. Sadly, as Norton’s case proves, time is of the essence when a child goes missing: the more time passes after an abduction, the greater the likelihood that the child will not be found alive.
Granting for the sake of discussion that it was necessary for Olsen to take some action against the dog, others have asked why he didn’t use nondeadly force, such as a Taser. Further illustrating officers’ impossible position, however, critics may well have called such action torture.
Other critics didn’t like Kirby’s other examples of instances where people legitimately might be on our premises (however unlikely the prospect). For example, some didn’t like his meter reader example: they must live “off the grid.” And if they were not to receive their mail or their newspaper, no doubt, they would protest loudly.
Yes, the loss of a pet under any circumstances is tragic (more so under these circumstances). But it’s important to keep perspective: no pet is worth a human life, and no pet’s death justifies mistreating our fellow human beings.
Ken K. Gourdin, Tooele, is a certified paralegal.
Update, July 30, 2014: Dog’s Owner Rejects Salt Lake P.D.’s Offer of Compensation
By Ken K. Gourdin
The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Sean Kendall, the owner of Geist, the dog which Salt Lake Police Officer Brett Olson shot while seeking a child who was then thought to be missing, has received an offer of compensation from the police department. (See here, last accessed today: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/58236771-78/kendall-department-police-offer.html.csp). He says that the police department is attempting to “buy him off.” No, it’s not, Mr. Kendall. It’s attempting to compensate you. There is a difference. I would say that its willingness to do so absent any proof of liability for wrongdoing is extremely generous. Mr. Kendall’s refusal to be placated is proof positive that Salt Lake City Police Department cannot win: If it doesn’t compensate him, it’s heartless, while if it does offer to do so, it’s simply attempting to buy him off.
The linked article quotes Geist’s owner, Sean Kendall, as saying, “If police encounter us, they have to meet our resistance with the same level of resistance. They can’t just pull out their gun and shoot us for no reason.” The second sentence is correct, but the first is not. It implies that if officers encounter someone who is brandishing a gun, for example, they must wait for him to fire before firing back. That is not correct. That an officer’s job is to neutralize the threat suspects pose is not confined to suspects threatening to use firearms. And it’s true, as I wrote on another occasion, that:
[b]ecause they carry firearms and are sometimes forced into the regrettable situation of threatening to use them, as well as having to use them, police are often stereotyped as having a lack of respect for human life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the vast majority of cases, if there is any other option available, officers would prefer to take it rather [than] use their guns.1
While it’s true that less-lethal force may be an option for officers who are trained and equipped to use it, an axiom of officer training is that if a suspect pulls a knife on him, he should pull his gun on that suspect. As I wrote on another occasion regarding police use of deadly force, “An officer’s job isn’t simply to engage armed suspects in a fair fight. It’s to neutralize the threat they pose. Period.”2
One comment on the article stated, “I know that if I were in Mr. Kendall’s position and it were my dog, there is no amount of money that could compensate me for Olsen’s actions.” In the vast majority of cases, however inadequate monetary damages may be to compensate any particular alleged wrong, they are the only means available for doing so. This commenter goes on to say, “[W]hat Olsen did is so morally wrong that it can’t be excused. Olsen needs to be relieved of his badge and gun.” But, as I said in the above Op-Ed, I’m sure police would have come under withering criticism if they had failed to take every action reasonably and lawfully necessary to find the lost child Olsen was seeking, and that child had come to harm as a result.
|1.||Ken K. Gourdin (June 13, 1994), “Police showed restraint” (Letter to the editor), The Salt Lake Tribune A8, copy in author’s possession.|
|2.||Ken K. Gourdin (January 1, 2011) “Officers sometimes forced to shoot armed suspects,”The Salt Lake Tribune A11.|
Update, 20 October 2015: On the Worth of Animal Life vs. the Worth of Human Life – While few of us have lost animal friends under the same circumstances in which Geist, the dog owned by Sean Kendall which was shot by Salt Lake City Police Officer Brett Olsen as Olsen sought a child who was then thought to be missing, lost his life, most all of us have felt the pain of such a loss. Thus, it’s difficult to not sympathize with Mr. Kendall to an extent. Now comes word that Mr. Kendall has filed suit against the city for $2 million. (See here, last accessed October 20, 2015: http://www.sltrib.com/home/3078402-155/geists-owner-sues-salt-lake-city.)
As sympathetic as we might be to Mr. Kendall’s plight, however, if he were to win his suit and were to be awarded the full amount he is seeking, if Geist’s life is worth $2 million, one has to wonder what the life of Darien Hunt, who was shot by Saratoga Springs, Utah, officers when he disobeyed their orders to drop the sword he was carrying, is worth. (Susan Hunt, Darien’s mother, reportedly refused a settlement offer that was less than half of what Kendall is seeking.)
Even if one agrees with Kendall that Olsen was wrong to shoot Geist (which, as should be plain from reading my original post, I do not), one must question the wisdom of awarding Kendall more than twice what Susan Hunt reportedly was offered. Indeed, whatever one’s opinion of what happened to Geist, I would question the wisdom of such a result on the basis of simple proportionality alone.