SALT LAKE CITY — Use-of-force issues by police became a hot-button issue during 2013.
Much of that attention was fueled by the shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard by former West Valley police detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon during an undercover drug operation. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill determined that the shooting was not legally justified. He is still considering whether the two detectives will face criminal charges.
Gill's office has reviewed more than 30 officer-involved cases since he was elected in 2010. He determined that five officers from four cases were not justified in their use of force.
In addition to Cowley and Salmon, those include:
Salt Lake police officer Matthew Giles, who, in May of 2011, fired eight times at a teenager fleeing in a stolen vehicle who had been involved in a hit-and-run accident. One bullet hit the boy. Giles said he feared for his life, but Gill said the evidence didn't support that.
West Valley police officer Jared Cardon, who fired his gun at a fleeing vehicle in May of 2011. Cardon said he fired his weapon to protect himself and others, but investigators determined that he was not in imminent danger and his shots could have injured others.
Salt Lake police officer Shane Conrad, who, in October of 2011, fired five rounds into a car during a drug operation in front of a downtown McDonald's. One bullet hit the driver. Gill determined the shot Conrad fired to gain access into the suspect's vehicle by shooting out the window was unjustified, which made the entire shooting illegal.
None of those officers have been criminally prosecuted for their actions. Cardon was charged with reckless endangerment, but the case was later dropped because of issues with evidence.
But while the district attorney's office gets to review those cases, some law enforcers are wondering why the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training Council — the group responsible for deciding law enforcement certification and disciplinary action — doesn't see use-of-force cases on a regular basis.
"One of the most significant things that we ever do in our careers as administrators is review use of force within our departments. And that goes right to the public's trust and confidence in our entire system and process," said Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank.
Burbank raised the question during last week's POST Council quarterly meeting.
"The use-of-force cases are the ones the public wants to know about and why are we not doing something to ensure that not only Salt Lake City officers, but officers throughout the state are consistent in their application of force, service of warrants, and some of those other things?" he asked.
Burbank said he fired the two officers who were found to be unjustified in their use of deadly force, even though they were not prosecuted criminally.
Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds agreed with Burbank, saying that to "protect the sanctity of this profession," POST Council members should at least get the chance to review use-of-force cases, whether they involve use of deadly force or an assault. There are times when an officer's actions might rise to the level of being criminal, but no charges are filed.
"I think it's incumbent upon us to be looking at those kinds of cases, making sure we are protecting the sanctity of this profession, making sure that just because a person wasn't formally prosecuted that if there was clear and convincing evidence that they did commit a crime, that we make sure their certification status is affected. I think that's absolutely critical," he said.
"The purpose is not to slam officers. Our purpose is to hold people accountable and hold officers accountable for their inappropriate actions," Burbank added.
During POST's recent quarterly review of disciplinary cases, officers had their certifications suspended for issues such as theft, reckless driving and animal abuse. Cases of sexual misconduct have also been common during previous disciplinary hearings.
In one case last week, attorney Blake Ostler pleaded for the council to take into account the circumstances surrounding his client's case. His client, a former Utah Highway Patrol trooper who was fired from his job, cornered and assaulted a man who had an affair with his wife. The man apparently refused to stay away even after the trooper's wife broke it off and said she no longer wanted to have contact with him.
"That standard we hold officers to is the same one we hold the public to," Burbank said during discussion of the case. "I don't see an avenue that I have a right to physically detain somebody and force a conversation with them."
Ostler said he was not excusing his client's behavior and understands officers are justifiably held to a higher standard, but he added: "If you're gonna demand that officers not be human, if you're gonna demand they not have anybody they actually care about, that they not get in the face of another person and say, 'Please don't interfere with my relationship with my wife,' I think you're asking what's humanly impossible."
In that case, the man who was assaulted did not press criminal charges. POST administrators noted it was an example of a case where no criminal charges were filed, but POST still reviewed the case and took action.
"I think we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. When it comes to my desk, we review it," said POST director Scott Stephenson.
If the case rises to the level of criminal behavior, POST administrators will take action. POST can only review cases that are presented to its office by the individual departments or through a citizen's complaint.
Stephenson said POST administrators review any case brought to their desk. They then determine if the complaint rises to the level of a violation and if action should be taken. The POST Council is then asked to accept or modify the administration's recommended penalty.
Burbank and other POST Council members requested that administrators compile a list of use-of-force and assault cases that POST administrators have reviewed, how many have been referred to them and what action was taken.
Stephenson said those numbers would be available at the council's March meeting, but he noted use-of-force cases are not commonly reviewed.