Tribune Editorial: Utah police can be more effective if they are more careful

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham talks about the new school resource officer initiative at West High School, Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

Modern police work involves many tools. Cars. Guns. Computers. Tasers. Handcuffs. Batons. Body cams. GPS. Radios. Bullet-proof vests.

All cost the taxpayers money and can literally weigh down the pockets, belts, holsters, shoulders, maybe even the morale, of every officer.

But perhaps the most important asset in a law enforcement officer’s tool kit weighs nothing, costs nothing and provides more protection, to both the officers and to the community, than any of those items or gadgets.

It is the trust of the public.

The hope that people of all ages, all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, will feel secure in reaching out to the police when they need help, and in offering assistance to those officers when necessary. To feel that officers are part of their community, not occupying armies.

In recent days we have seen two examples of how local governments in Utah are making efforts to regain and build the trust of law enforcement agencies by the communities they serve.

In Salt Lake City, Mayor Jackie Biskupski announced a renewed effort to train and guide the police officers who are assigned to public schools.

Cops who spend most of their on-duty time in and around schools are often referred to as “resource officers.” The idea was always that, beyond their usefulness as security guards, the officers so assigned would build a rapport with staff and students and create an environment where the sight of a police officer was a reassurance, not a threat.

It hasn’t always worked out that way.

Too often, school-based officers have been accused of throwing their weight around. Of criminalizing acts, real or suspected, that should be the responsibility of normal school discipline practices. Of coming down hard on students who belong to ethnic minority groups. Of creating what’s been dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Biskupski announced that officers will receive specialized training in keeping with the original purpose of resource officers, to minimize conflict and suspicion, to make the idea of young people speaking to uniformed police officers a normal, even a pleasant, occurrence.

Meanwhile, down in Utah County, the sheriff’s office is taking another look at its policies governing high-speed pursuits of criminal suspects. After a driver who was suspected of nothing more serious than a traffic violation tried to flee from an officer, and the officer gave chase, the suspect ran a red light crashed into another car, killing one innocent person and injuring another.

The sheriff, along with making an undisclosed financial settlement with the family of the person who was killed, has called in an outside consultant to suggest new policies governing when officers should engage in dangerous pursuits and when to let it go.

In the movies, cops never refrain from high-speed chases. They are exciting.

In real life, it is often just not worth it. Unless the target of the pursuit is a clear and present danger to the community, it can make a lot more sense to get a license tag number and catch him later.

Building and keeping the public trust can be difficult, and require a lot more efforts that those mentioned here. But it is crucial. And deserves to be noticed whenever it happens.