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Police have bad days, too

Published March 23, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I remember the mailbox. It was an ordinary mailbox like every other. It was in east Salt Lake City. There was nothing overtly remarkable about it. It was on the sidewalk in front of the drugstore.

I remember the mailbox because sometimes my dad pulled the car over and pointed it out. Then he would tell me as much as he could before choking up, putting the car in gear and driving off.

It was behind that mailbox, on Jan. 11, 1973, that Salt Lake City Police Detective Percy Clark waited for two robbers to exit the pharmacy. It was there the detective announced they were under arrest. And it was there that Clark died, shot in the head by a robber who, without time to aim, got off a lucky shot, killing a good man who left a wife and seven children.

Percy Clark was a friend of my father, who was once a detective.

I am not a police officer, but I know a little about public safety and public service. I am currently on the West Valley City Council. The city funds and supports a police department that strives to protect 130,000 residents.

I become acquainted with the officers. I like them. I admire them. I am concerned with them being properly trained and equipped and I pray that they will be safe.

I also hear complaints about them and, sometimes, the city gets sued.

The police have been in the press too much — for things I wish had never happened, and for not being able to accomplish things that I wish had happened. This scrutiny has caused me to reflect upon their job compared to our jobs.

We all have had a bad day at work. We get mad at a customer, a boss, a coworker. A really bad day might cost us an opportunity, or money or result in being fired.

When police officers have a bad day somebody dies.

It might be a suspect who we hope was guilty as sin. It might be a victim or innocent bystander. It might be another officer. Or it might be you.

It is easy to criticize the police and create policies and axioms such as "don't fire until fired upon," which make sense and ought to be enforced, but may fail in real-life situations. Such as when the first shot fired by the bad guy is fatal, as it was to Percy Clark.

I don't excuse anyone's bad behavior — especially the police. Should a police officer violate the law, policy, or training, he or she should be punished.

But I do have sympathy for officers who do their best, one shift at a time, to maintain order in our society. I do have compassion for the families that wait for the shift to end and hope that husband or wife, dad or mom, will come home again.

Being a police officer is a heavy responsibility that we give to a few we strenuously qualify. They should be respected for the good and necessary work they do. And they should not be judged too harshly when they have a bad day.

Hanging in my closet is an old blue police shirt my father used to wear. It is worn, old, and of no particular worth as a shirt. Yet, to me it is a priceless symbol of the good people who are driven by their sense of public service and duty to be police officers.

I hope, each day, that for them it is not a bad day at work.

Steve Buhler is an attorney and a member of the West Valley City Council.