Generals, it is said, are always fighting the last war. So, one might say, police officers are often responding to the last emergency.
Salt Lake City Police caught holy hell from many in the community back in 2006 when it took them eight days to find the body of a missing child. A child who had, it later turned out, been murdered shortly after she went missing from her Liberty Park-area home.
When 5-year-old Destiny Norton’s body was found in her killer’s apartment, right next door to where her family lived, the outcry against police was emotional and loud. A crowd of world-be searchers turned surly and profane when the sad facts were announced.
Family supporters accused police of shirking their duties, walking through their search efforts and ignoring the needs of low-income families who traveled in counter-culture circles.
Fast-forward to 2014. Another child is reported missing, and at least one of the police officers who was involved in the 2006 case is among those searching the neighborhood for the 3-year-old boy.
When that officer, Brett Olsen, entered a fenced back yard near the child’s home, he encountered a dog, a dog whose natural defensive posture left the officer feeling that he was in immediate danger. The officer shot and killed the dog.
The missing child was found shortly thereafter. Safe and sound. In his own basement.
Again, police have heard from unhappy crowds second-guessing their behavior. But late last week, both an internal affairs inquiry and the city’s independent Civilian Review Board cleared Olsen of any wrongdoing, holding that he acted reasonably and within department guidelines.
Entering the gated yard, both inquiries concluded, was warranted, when a child has been reported missing and officers know that they can be working against a ticking clock if they are to have hope of finding the child alive.
The owner of the dog, Sean Kendall, is unconvinced. He maintains his property was illegally entered and his dog, Geist, illegally killed. Kendall turned down a $10,000 settlement so he can retain his right to push for changes in department policy and to see the officer punished, if not fired.
Such individualized retribution is unlikely and not justified. But a collective change on the part of the police department, emphasizing more training and some less-lethal options for an officer who finds himself face-to-face with a growling dog, is essential.
This was another series of tragic events that no one wants to see repeated.