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Policing the police
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Finding that law enforcement officers, who put their lives on the line every day to protect the often ungrateful rest of us, sometimes do things that they clearly should not have done cannot be easy for the judges and attorneys who are called upon to second-guess those actions.

But if we are to have a criminal justice system worthy of the name, it must be done.

That's what Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill did Thursday in announcing his decision that two West Valley City drug squad detectives were clearly not justified in their actions when they shot and killed an unarmed 21-year-old woman in a parking lot last November.

And that's what the Utah Supreme Court did Tuesday, when it ruled that a Weber County Sheriff's Office deputy involved in a fatal high-speed chase is not immune from the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of the victim.

In both cases, the system correctly acted upon the belief that the highest duty of law enforcement officers is not to just nab the nearest suspect, but to act in a way that enhances, rather than threatens, the safety of all concerned. Yes, that makes their job more difficult. But it is still necessary.

In the Weber County case, the young man being pursued at speeds approaching 100 mph was not a known felon whose escape would endanger the community. He was a troubled young man who was only being sought because his family was concerned about him and who died when the chase ended in a tragic crash.

In West Valley City, the death of Danielle Willard, an inoffensive young woman who the two officers were following because they thought she'd just purchased some drugs, has already led to the unraveling of the West Valley City Police Department's drug squad and widespread public mistrust of the whole department.

Gill's ruling came after a nine-month investigation that included not just interviews with those involved but a detailed forensic analysis of the events. It left no question in the prosecutor's mind that detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon had no rational reason to believe that they were in any real danger when they opened fire on Willard as she backed her car out of its parking space.

Gill has not yet decided whether to press charges against the officers, though, from his description of the events and how his findings contradict the version the detectives themselves gave, it is hard to see how a criminal case can be avoided. The attorneys representing the officers, meanwhile, dispute the findings and speak of a rival scientific analysis that, they promise, will exonerate the officers.

What the D.A. did not say, but which must be addressed, is that this is another case where officers involved in the unending, unwinnable and indefensible War on Drugs got so carried away in their apparent zeal to confiscate an illegal substance that their thought processes were significantly impaired.

Without such a distortion, no officers would have been following Willard that night, much less drawing their weapons and opening fire.

And where, one wonders, is the prosecutor or the judge who has the guts to say that?

Two examples of how it is done
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