‘The city’s a bit darker without Joe’: Provo Police hold candlelight vigil honoring slain Officer Joseph Shinners, remembered as tough but empathetic

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A candlelight vigil in Provo on Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019 for Officer Joseph Shinners, killed Sunday morning while trying to arrest a fugitive.

Provo • Joseph Shinners, at 29 and with three years of experience, was senior enough at the Provo Police Department that he could have chosen any patrol shift he wanted.

The way he saw it, he could work days and write tickets, said Don Swain, the bishop of Shinners’ Latter-day Saint ward. Or he could work the graveyard shift — what Shinners called the “fun shift” — and chase bad guys.

“He went for the ‘chasing the bad guys,’ ” Swain said.

It wasn’t just pursuing criminals, though. Shinners told Swain he chose the night shift because he felt he could help the most people. He could be there for victims of domestic violence. He could nab robbers and break up fights.

It was during one of those night shifts Saturday, police say, that Shinners was killed in a shootout with a fugitive with a long, albeit mostly nonviolent, criminal history who’d apparently been threatening police. Without Shinners, Swain and friends said Tuesday, the police department is missing a stand-up cop, exemplary in his kindness and empathy in dealing with victims, who could switch gears to take down criminals when duty called.

Without Shinners, a hockey team is missing its best player, a forward who’d go helmet to helmet with anyone who wronged his teammates.

Without Shinners, a wife is now a widow, and a son is missing his father, a man the 1-year-old barely knew.

Provo Police Officer Joseph Shinners

As community members line the streets and leave doughnuts, hockey sticks, letters and other mementos on his police cruiser to honor the man who Swain said wanted nothing more than to serve those in need, Swain believes that Shinners would be happy to see people come together for his wife, Kaylyn, and son, but would try to deflect attention from himself.

Gov. Gary Herbert ordered flags lowered at state facilities and public groups across the state in honor of Shinners on Wednesday, and the Provo Police Department hosted a candlelight vigil Wednesday. Flags will remain at half-staff until sunset Saturday.

“If Joe were here,” Swain said, “he’d say why don’t you do this for somebody else?”

As friends and community members gathered on Wednesday, the flames of their white candles lighting up the dark night, Shinners probably would have been pleased that the comments from his family and those who worked with him at times focused less on him as an individual and more on his role in the community.

“My brother, I can tell, will never be forgotten and we’re grateful for the support you’ve given the police department,” Michael Shinners, Joe Shinners’ brother and a police officer in the Boston area, said to the crowd. “Once Joe is laid to rest and everyone goes about their daily lives, I ask that you be there and continue to support your police because they’re there to protect you and they put their lives on the line for you.”

Christine Honeycutt, an Orem resident, brought her own white candle to the vigil and wore her police shirt and a necklace shaped like a badge — symbols of both mourning and of pride.

While she didn’t know Shinners personally, her son is a sheriff for Wasatch County and is around the same age as the young officer who died in the line of duty. And that’s what compelled Honeycutt to show up to show her support for Shinners’ family, his police department and the entire Provo community.

“Law enforcement officers kiss their families goodbye and they go out to protect and it’s …” she trailed off, wiping tears from her eyes. “It’s like that. He goes out on his shifts and we don’t know if he’s going to come home. … I just feel for the family. I hope it’s never us. But, you know, it might be.”

Shinners’ colleagues came late to the vigil after Provo police and SWAT units, even amid their grief, were dispatched to an apartment complex Wednesday afternoon where a man with felony warrants had barricaded himself into the building. The standoff lasted five hours.

“And when we all showed up we were really thinking about Joe because we knew that he wanted to be first in, covered in drywall bits,” said Alex Felsing. “… He would have been the first guy to go charging in that door to get covered in all the dirt and grime and take somebody into custody and go get a bad guy.”

With Shinners gone, even routine calls will feel more difficult now, Felsing said.

“Everything you look at just reminds you of Joe,” he said. “Everything that makes you happy makes you think of a time when Joe made you just laugh so hard you were crying.”

There’s the parking lot where Shinners had once comforted Felsing after a tough call. The gas station where Shinners had cracked a funny joke. The house where Shinners had saved Felsing’s life.

“It’s going to make it hard to work in this city,” Felsing said as he looked out on the hundreds of people, candles flickering in their hands. “It’s going to make it hard to be in this city. Because the city’s a bit darker without Joe.”

‘He just radiated love and light’

The first time Paul Cutchins met Shinners was at the scene of a break-in about a year and a half ago. Cutchins is the property manager at an office building in Provo and got a call about the burglary after he had wrapped up a hockey game. He was still wearing his sweaty jersey, and Shinners asked him if he played. Cutchins said he did, for a recreation team called the Ice Cubes.

“Oh,” Shinners replied. “Me, too.”

Cutchins said he soon learned everything he needed to know about his new teammate, whose work schedule sometimes conflicted with late games, during the first time they were both on the ice together. A player on the opposing team started getting chippy with the Ice Cubes’ goalie. As Cutchins said, that’s a “no-no.”

“Joe went after that guy, took a penalty for shoving him away from the goalie. And now, again, it’s like, man, I’m glad he’s on my team. That’s a tough guy, and he treated his job the same way,” Cutchins said.

(Courtesy Paul Cutchins) Provo Police Department Master Officer Joseph Shinners' hockey team, Ice Cubes, poses for a photo. Shinners (second row, second from the left) was killed Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in a shootout with a fugitive.

Yet Shinners wasn’t always the tough guy.

As a member of the Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Team, Karen Amsden said she was always relieved when she learned Shinners was working the late shift with her, meaning when she fielded calls from clients in distress, he’d respond.

One night about 18 months ago sticks in her mind, she said.

Amsden, who is also a member of Shinners’ ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Springville, was on the phone with a woman who’d needed help many times before. That night the woman said she was in a lot of trouble and needed an officer to come to her — a female officer, because she was scared of men.

But Shinners was the one available that night and he was dispatched to her home. At first, she wouldn’t answer the door, but Shinners eventually gained her trust, and later that night he took her to the hospital, where he stayed with her for a while.

The woman called Amsden after she left the hospital, saying Shinners was the best police officer she’d ever met. The woman wanted Amsden to tell Shinners he was awesome next time she saw him at church.

“It was neat to see, but that’s just the kind of guy [he was]. He could just connect with people, even in those kind of crisis states. He was especially good at that, and he just radiated love and light,” Amsden said.

That’s evident, friends and acquaintances said, in how he lived his life.

Before work on the Saturday that Shinners was killed, he spent part of the day helping a tenant move out of a rental property he owned, Swain said.

As a Boy Scout leader, Swain said Shinners would make a point to reach out to the boy who didn’t show up for meetings just to let him know he was missed. Shinners, Swain said, could see past façades to the tiny, telling details and take action.

“Anybody that needs a little help, Joe would be there,” Swain said.

In the end, Swain said, that’s how Shinners died: on the front lines, jumping in to help when he saw an opportunity.

It’s something hockey team manager Shane Vest said he saw every time Shinners skated onto the rink.

“No one was shocked to know that he would be the one in front taking the bullet and getting shot at. Not scared to be the closest one to the action,” Vest said. “That’s for sure.”

(Courtesy Paul Cutchins) The game puck from the Ice Cubes' first game without Provo Police Department Master Officer Joseph Shinners on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. The team won 6-5.