Note: The following Op-Ed appeared on page O5 of the January 6, 2013 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Review police tactics to protect the innocent
By Ken K. Gourdin
The recent encounter between Ogden police and resident Eric Hill indicates a need to review the tactics police use in such encounters. Officers went to Hill’s home looking for a prior resident wanted for desertion from the military.
While those who engage in criminal conduct are more likely to respond with force to law enforcement’s efforts to apprehend them (particular to efforts involving concealment and surprise) law enforcement also needs to [e]nsure that an innocent person who is genuinely surprised by the unexpected police presence is not hurt or killed, and that such persons, in turn, do not hurt or kill officers.
True, overt intelligence gathering poses a risk that word will spread, that evidence will be concealed or destroyed, and that suspects will flee. [Covert intelligence gathering] is more time-consuming and more difficult. However, the nature of the process must be weighed against the increased risk to the lives and safety of officers, and to the public they serve, if operating on bad intelligence.
There will be times when it is not possible to gather better intelligence without putting officers and the public at greater risk, thus making immediate action necessary regardless of the quality of the intelligence. Such occasions, however, are more the exception than the rule.
The officers’ refusal to believe Hill when he identified himself shows that many in law enforcement favor the dictum of television’s fictional diagnostician, Dr. Gregory House: Everybody lies. Surely, officers are lied to far more often than [are] members of the public.
But the solution to the problem of dishonesty isn’t for officers to assume that everyone is lying until presumed liars prove otherwise. The solution is for officers to adapt their methods to become better at determining who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
With covert operations, it is true that officers’ manner of dress is one method they might wish to employ to preserve the element of surprise and to prevent suspects from running and destroying or concealing evidence.
However, little is gained if such a desire to remain covert puts both officers and the public at greater risk by making it difficult for the public to distinguish officers’ appearance from those they are trying to apprehend.
The need for police officers to avoid detection until ready to reveal themselves must be balanced against the prospect that they will be hurt or killed, not by someone trying to prevent the discovery of criminal conduct or to avoid being apprehended for that conduct but by someone who, unsure of officers’ identity or intentions, innocently hurts or kills them (or is hurt or killed) while legitimately defending himself.
Many in the public are skeptical of officers’ actions being investigated thoroughly and fairly by the agencies which employ them. They see this as the equivalent of the fox guarding the hen house. In this case, perhaps perception is reality.
In proposing that an independent body be set up to investigate officer-involved shootings, Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill rightly notes that if citizens don’t trust the process employed in such investigations, they will not trust the results. The same is true of investigations [of incidents] such as this one.
Ken K. Gourdin has a degree in criminal justice with a law enforcement emphasis and is a certified paralegal. He lives in Tooele.