A Salt Lake police officer who shot and critically injured a West Salt Lake man Tuesday was back on the job for his next scheduled shift Wednesday.
The same officer was involved in an assault Wednesday night, which has some people questioning whether he or any other officer involved in a shooting should return to duty so quickly.In previous years, there was an unwritten policy at the Police Department that officers involved in shootings were placed on administrative leave with pay until the county attorney completed an investigation.
That policy has since gone by the wayside and most officers take little if any time off, according to David Greer, president of the Salt Lake Police Association.
Greer said of the six officers who shot people during the past year, all have returned to the streets within a day or two. "We have been returning people right back to duty and I'm a little nervous by that," he said.
Late Tuesday, officer Eric Irvine was called to a disturbance at 1128 W. Indiana Ave. Police said Daniel S. Shepherd, 40, was inside the home chopping up furniture with a 30-inch sword. Irvine fired three shots when Shepherd approached the officer while swinging the weapon.
Shepherd remained hospitalized Friday in critical condition.
Police spokesman Lt. Marty Vuyk said Wednesday that Irvine had been placed on administrative leave with pay. Yet two Salt Lake police reports indicate that Irvine was actually back at work that day.
At 11:55 p.m. Wednesday, Irvine and another officer responded to a report of a fight at a downtown dance club. Officers arrested a belligerent man and placed him in Irvine's patrol car. The 27-year-old kicked Irvine in the face and put both of his legs around the officer so that Irvine could not get away, a police report states.
Irvine sprayed Mace at the man and stopped the assault.
Greer said when he heard about that incident, his first thought was, "I wonder if he had his head somewhere else. That would be reasonably expected" under the circumstances.
Greer speaks from experience when he says it takes time for an officer to get over a shooting incident. In 1982, he shot and killed a burglary suspect. He kept going over the incident in his mind, could think of little else for some time and didn't sleep, he said.
Greer was placed on leave for two weeks until an investigation determined he had followed proper procedure. "A couple of weeks was good for me," he said. "Even then I was thinking about it (the shooting), but it wasn't fresh. I could concentrate on my work."
Sgt. Ken Hansen, who heads an officers support group, said it takes time for the impact of a shooting incident to sink in. "It's something that has to be thought through over and over, and that person has to come to grips with it.
"Sometimes they don't realize for a couple of days how it's going to impact them."
He said returning to work early can be dangerous for the officer and others if the shooting incident isn't resolved in the officer's mind. "There may be some thought intrusions, I'm sure, and certainly it (the shooting incident) can be a distraction," Hansen said.
Last summer, one officer became "pretty rattled" after he shot a 15-year-old boy who refused to drop a loaded gun. Greer said the officer asked for a week off, but his request was denied.
Officers involved in shootings are asked if they're willing to return to work, but they realize how shorthanded the department is and may feel pressure to come back regardless, Greer said.
"I think the officer is probably the one least in a position to know whether or not it's best to return to duty," he said.
Assistant Chief Shirley Whitworth said deciding when an officer returns to work is left up to the officer's captain. If an officer is traumatized, the captain will take that into consideration, she said.
"Staying away from work is sometimes not the best thing for the officer," she said. The assistant chief said she hopes officers are not feeling pressure to return if they are not ready.
Both Hansen and Greer believe the department should have a standard waiting period of at least two or three days during which the officer speaks to the department psychologist and the officer's supervisor. The psychologist and supervisor would then be in a better position to make a decision about the officer returning to duty.
Whitworth said each incident needs to be handled individually. "I don't think there is a magic number (of days off). The chief is interested in evaluating each case."
Greer said he has expressed concerns to Chief Ruben Ortega and Whitworth about the possible dangers of putting officers back on duty so soon after a shooting.
Greer fears some officers may be afraid to admit that a previous shooting has not left them up to par to return to work. "There's an image they're taught to maintain - being in control."
In some shooting incidents, the county attorney has taken weeks to finish an investigation. In most cases, staying off work does not benefit the officer or the department, Whitworth said.
"But what happens if you put them back on the street and the county attorney comes back and files a homicide charge?" Greer said.