George Pyle: Criminal justice system isn’t making any friends for itself

District Attorney Sim Gill inspects the damage to the district attorney's office Friday, July 10, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Protesters decrying the police shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal painted and marked the district attorney's office Thursday, July 9, 2020, night, after two police officers in Utah were cleared in his death. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state. The other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

Commander William Adama, “Battlestar Galactica”

There’s a reason so many Americans are protesting against the police and the whole of the criminal justice system. A great many of us have reason to think police and prosecutors are not serving and protecting us, but treating us as their enemies.

And when that happens, the people and the police do become enemies. To the great detriment of all.

We need police departments. It may have been wonderful karma to see the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service arrest former White House denizen Steve Bannon for alleged mail fraud, but that’s obviously no substitute for a good local police force.

Many police officers, in Salt Lake City and across the country, were as aghast as any of us at the video of the murder of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street those months ago. Maybe more so.

Locally, Police Chief Mike Brown made a very public point of kneeling with some Black Lives Matter protesters and, at times, our police worked traffic control for peaceful marches through the streets, standing in support of the people’s First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and petition for a redress of grievances.

But there are other reasons to fear that the system’s capacity to accept criticism is far short of what it should be.

Yes, turning over a police car and setting it on fire is a crime. And breaking some windows at the district attorney’s shiny new building and spreading red paint all over the place are also crimes.

The first example is pretty threatening, though there wasn’t anyone in the police car, and parking it in the middle of an anti-police protest when tensions were high all across the country might be considered a unwisely provocative gesture in itself.

The second example is at most vandalism. Not in the best American traditions of civil disobedience, perhaps, but when the DA has recently decided to rule yet another case of police officers killing a civilian as justified, an understandable reaction.

The use of red paint to depict the unwarranted spilling of blood is an old and fully appropriate act of symbolism. Sometimes topped by those who, like Father Philip Berrigan in the 1960s, poured real blood on draft board files while protesting the carnage that was the Vietnam War.

The official reactions include federal arson charges against those accused of torching the police cruiser. And invoking a tough anti-gang law against those blamed for the mess at the DA’s office, a clear overreach that — before an outside prosecutor who was handed the case reduced the charges — held the threat of life in prison.

Even if the charges in these cases get plea bargained down to appropriate levels — levels that involve a short jail term and some community service — the decision by District Attorney Sim Gill made little sense. It is almost as if a prosecutor known for a progressive attitude was radicalized by the attack on his own building. The way previously reasonable, if conservative, Vice President Dick Cheney was radicalized into supporting dark-site detentions and water-boarding by his personal experiences on 9/11.

And now it has come to light that Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen is among the subjects of a criminal investigation because they made online donations to the organizers of the DA building protest. In Kitchen’s case, a whopping $10.

(One wonders if the point of the investigation is to shame Kitchen, a local progressive icon, for donating so little.)

And, down Cottonwood Heights way, City Councilwoman Tali Bruce has been slapped with a misdemeanor charge of interfering with an arrest after she witnessed, and questioned, the behavior of her own city’s police department during a recent protest which, there is reason to believe, shifted from peaceful to violent only when the police pushed it that way.

Bruce has long been crossways with Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Rob Russo. Bruce has been an advocate of abolishing the local police force in favor of joining the county’s Unified Police Department. Russo has sued Bruce, alleging a plot to get the chief fired.

Russo chooses not to understand that both of Bruce’s ideas are exactly what people get elected to city councils to pursue. The chief’s actions are insubordinate on their face. He should be fired.

To say that it is wrong for police to investigate or charge people such as Kitchen and Bruce would be to fall into the trap of thinking that some people are above the law. They aren’t. But, when they fall into the dragnet of overly defensive police and prosecutors, it does draw some useful attention to those abuses.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle is editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.


Twitter, @debatestate