Tribune Editorial: Police reform will take time and effort

“Tell my mom I love her.”

— Linden Cameron

The people told the mayor. The mayor told the police chief. The police chief told all the police officers.

From now on, they said, the use of force by officers of the Salt Lake City Police Department in apprehending suspects is not something to be needlessly encouraged. It is the last resort. De-escalation is the order of the day, every day, from now on.

But that was the next day. The night before, on Sept. 4, barely two hours before the new policy was to take effect, a distraught mother called 911 to beg for help with her 13-year-old autistic son who was having a mental health breakdown and needed immediate help.

When they arrived at the family’s home, officers were told that the boy had serious problems that the mother could not deal with alone. They were also told that the youth did not like the sight of police badges and his behavior might get even worse if he felt threatened by the officers.

Body camera footage released by the department Monday shows officers, understandably, in some confusion as to what to do. They spoke among themselves of the difficulty of facing a mental health issue with crime-prevention tools, and openly worried that it all might end in gunfire. There is no glee or animus evident in the officers' approach.

Yet they pursued 13-year-old Linden Cameron through his family’s yard, breaking through a fence to follow him into the neighborhood streets.

And, when young Linden did not act quickly enough to obey officers' commands for him to stop and show his hands, to see if he was armed, one of the officers fired. Nearly a dozen times.

Only luck meant that Linden’s remembrance to his mother wasn’t among his last words.

He survived the shooting but has been severely injured. He lost the feeling in one arm and may never walk normally again.

The easy question, though it has no easy answer, is whether the officers might have behaved differently, if the outcome would have been less violent, had the department been operating under the new use-of-force rules rather than the old ones. Maybe.

But no memo, no seriously written and distributed policy statement, can change the culture of either a law enforcement agency or the community where it operates. Not overnight, not in the long run, unless it is accompanied by time, training and buy-in from the officers and support from the community.

It will take time and effort to build a culture in which neither the cops nor the public view it a failure when a bad guy, or a young man facing an emotional crisis, occasionally gets away. Especially when the definition of getting away is as simple as not being shot.

And the police cannot bear all the burden of not knowing how to respond to crises of mental health and addiction when they haven’t received the necessary level of training. When departments have neither given an elite core of officers advanced training nor allied themselves with full-time mental health professionals who can respond, as easily and rapidly as do police, to situations where their expertise is most needed.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown puts it well when he says that the goal of policing must change, from calling it success when the police officers make it home safe at night to a culture where everybody gets home safe at night.

This battleship cannot be turned immediately. But it can’t be turned at all unless the city’s leadership is serious about getting the point across, and unless state officials stay out of the way and allow local government to implement new policies that do less to automatically set police officers, those whom we pay to enforce our laws, somehow above our laws.