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Pyle: Was Danielle Willard killed for a piece of licorice?

Published August 20, 2013 8:41 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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

The original "Saturday Night Live" TV show had a sketch they did two or three times called "Ex-Police!" Two big-city cops — Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray — have been kicked off the force, for reasons that soon become apparent, but won't stop crashing down doors.

In one version, the Ex-Police burst into the apartment of a husband and wife who are taking the edge off a long day by puffing a little pot. The cops shoot both of them to death. One of them remarks, a little sadly but without a hint of irony, "Another drug-related death."

Funny on TV. In real life, not so much.

Though, in real life, "drug-related deaths" sometimes make about as much sense. Can anyone imagine, for example, that two West Valley City police detectives would have bothered to follow, much less pull their weapons and fire on, an unarmed 21-year-old woman if they suspected her of forging checks or fencing stolen iPhones?

No. It is only because they had reason to believe that Danielle Willard had just done a drug deal that officers Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon thought she was worth approaching.

In the detailed after-action analysis that District Attorney Sim Gill released earlier this month, based largely on the detectives' own accounts, the officers started waving their guns around when Willard wouldn't heed their demands that she spit something out of her mouth. Some black substance the officers thought was her freshly purchased heroin.

It wasn't. They found that afterward in the side door pocket. Which can only leave us wondering if Danielle Willard was killed for a piece of licorice.

Then, when Willard tried to drive away, the cops opened fire. Between the two officers, six rounds were fired. The first one, apparently, did the trick. Both officers said they feared that Willard was trying to run them down, and one of them showed off his bruised knee.

They are tough on crime in West Valley City. Bruise a cop, get shot in the head.

The scientific analysis of the crime scene, done mostly by other WVC cops, left Gill convinced that Willard was never a serious threat to the officers. Certainly not enough of a threat to the larger community that they were right to kill her rather than allow her to remain at large. By the officers' own account, Willard appeared dazed and glassy-eyed, not agitated or threatening.

But what makes it all sound like an "Ex-Police!" script was the part of the report that quoted the officers as saying they were puzzled as to why Willard refused to spit out her candy, open the car door or otherwise comply with their demands because, "it was only a drug issue."

Bill Murray couldn't have said it any better.

In America, we kill people over "only a drug issue." We did it to Danielle Willard.

We did it to Ogden police officer Jared Francom, who died in a hail of bullets during a particularly ill-advised raid on the home of a pathetic fellow who was growing some pot in his house. And who later committed suicide in jail.

Or we send them to prison for decades, sometimes without any opportunity for probation, parole or even any discretion on the part of trial judges.

Or we allow local narc squads to play fast and loose with evidence and other rules, until they foolishly kill someone, draw more attention to themselves, and watch as 125 criminal cases are dismissed because of tainted evidence.

Or make nasty, even racist, attacks — as lawyers and Republican Party leaders have done to Gill — when any prosecutor dares to find, after making the legally required review of the facts, that the death of a sad woman who had substance-abuse issues and was a danger only to herself was uncalled for.

We do this because the decision we made years ago to treat a public health problem with a law enforcement remedy is so insane that it itself qualifies as a kind of drug addiction.

It has all the symptoms: Paranoia. Denial. Rationalization. Enabling. Blaming everyone but ourselves. A lot more denial. And death.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is relying on his memory of old "Saturday Night Live" skits. The copyright police seem to have banned them from YouTube. gpyle@sltrib.com