Our society has become as divided as any time in history, largely due to the political climate on the national level and the distrust that has grown between law enforcement and the public on the local level.
That was the assessment of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill this week, two days after protesters called for his ouster after he ruled that a Salt Lake City police officer was justified in the fatal shooting of a black man.
Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter rally Sunday wanted Gill fired and Officer Clinton Fox prosecuted for shooting 50-year-old Patrick Harmon as he was running away.
Gill spoke Tuesday at the monthly luncheon of the Salt Lake City Chapter of the International Footprint Association, a service club focused on supporting law enforcement.
The irony was that as Gill addressed the disconnect between police officers and an expanding number of citizens who fear them, the chapter honored a Utah cop whom the Footprinters named as the national law enforcement officer of the year.
“Law enforcement makes a positive impact on a daily basis,” Gill said. “There are a thousand contacts with the public you never read about that make a difference to someone in crisis.”
He was speaking to a friendly group who, because of the club’s mission, would agree with his praise of police.
But he also had a message for the protesters, for those “who hate me” and who want him to lose his job.
“You have every right to question me, to yell at me, to call for my job,” Gill said. “And it’s my duty to listen to you and have a dialogue.”
Harmon was killed in August after he was stopped by police when he rode his bicycle, without the required red taillight, across six lanes of traffic on State Street. When officers learned he had outstanding warrants, they attempted to arrest him and he bolted away. Gill deemed the shooting justified because Harmon flashed a knife, and the officers reasonably felt their lives were in danger.
The embattled district attorney requested the FBI review the case and his findings.
“I’ve asked them to review me,” he said.
Gill spent more than an hour Tuesday with Harmon’s nephew, and he posted on his Facebook page an offer to meet with anyone. He noted that he devotes half a day each Friday to meetings with members of the public who want to discuss anything with him.
“Access to your public institution is your right,” Gill posted on Facebook. “Raising issues and asking for answers is your right, and answering and listening is my privilege.”
He invited anyone to call his office and ask for Deana Stith to schedule time with him on any Friday.
While Gill’s decision in the Harmon shooting has sparked anger among those who believe police officers unfairly target minorities, the district attorney has been on the other side of the fury as well.
Police organizations wanted his head several years ago after he ruled a West Valley City detective’s shooting of a 21-year-old woman suspected of possessing drugs was not justified. Gill filed a manslaughter charge against Detective Shaun Cowley.
That case was dismissed by a 3rd District judge, who ruled that Cowley reasonably believed his life was in danger because he might have been hit by Danielle Willard’s fleeing vehicle.
The Utah Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement organizations were outraged at Gill and actively sought to defeat him in his re-election bid of 2014.
With this latest flurry of protests against him, Gill simply says: “Let’s talk.”
Officer of the year • The Footprinters honored Sgt. Luis Lovato, of the Unified Police Department, who was named by the national group as the Robert J. O’Neill Outstanding Police Officer of the Year.
The nomination of Lovato noted that on April 27 — when Lovato was a canine officer — he and his partner, Aldo, a purebred Belgian Malinois imported from Holland, were called to assist with a search warrant of a fugitive who had earlier tried to run down an officer with his car.
Aldo went into the residence and found the suspect hiding in a closet. The suspect then shot the dog and Lovato rushed into the house and grabbed his partner, carrying him outside as other officers engaged in a gunfight with the suspect, who was shot and killed.
The nomination spoke of the special relationships between canine officers and their dogs. They often spend more time with their four-legged friends than they do their families.
Lovato also had distinguished himself in his 15-year career on the Community-Oriented Policing Unit and the SWAT team, where he became the team leader and chemical-munitions operator. He is a firearms instructor and field training officer, and has served on the board for selecting and processing new police recruits.