SALT LAKE CITY — A West Valley City code enforcement officer who was shot to death Thursday is one of several across the country who have been killed on the job, according to an industry group.
In the last 20 years, at least 10 of Jill Robinson's counterparts also lost their lives when they sought to issue warnings or citations, estimates the American Association of Code Enforcement.
Still more have survived assaults and received routine threats, said Kelvin Beene, president of the organization. He said homeowners' mental health issues often play a significant role in confrontations with the officers who address unkempt properties and abandoned cars.
"We're threatened on a regular basis, some of which you take with a grain of salt, others you have a concern with," Beene said.
The unarmed officers that have been fatally attacked in recent memory include Rodney Morales, of Aurora, Colorado, who was shot and killed in 2008, and Tennesee's Mickey Write, whose 2001 shooting death was racially motivated, according to federal prosecutors.
With real or threatened violence against their code inspectors in mind, some U.S. cities — including Austin, Texas, where Beene once worked — have begun supplying bulletproof vests to the civilian workers.
"It's a pretty low percentage that have them," said Beene, who conducts trainings for code officers around the country. The departments that cover code officers in Kevlar usually have higher budgets or tend to be housed in police departments, which often are better funded than other city agencies, Beene said.
In Austin, the vests were "a wonderful gesture" that made inspectors feel more secure when a homeowner produced a gun or knife, he said.
A West Valley spokesman said Thursday that the city tells code officers to leave and call police if a homeowner becomes hostile, but did not immediately respond to a call seeking information on safeguards for the inspectors.
Beene believes that training on identifying mental illness and reducing tension can be another form of armor for code enforcers.
"It helps an officer be better prepared with unstable subjects and how to better identify them sooner," Beene said. His group offers such trainings across the country, advising officers on how to look for symptoms of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
If someone becomes aggressive, the best thing to do is walk away, he said.
"Even if there's signs that you cannot coherently have a conversation with someone, it's best to remove yourself," he said. In such a situation, a code enforcer could try to connect with a relative, ask social services to get involved or come back another day, perhaps with a police officer.
"You can always come back another day. But sometimes you can do everything right and it doesn't matter. Miss Robinson may have done nothing wrong. She may have just walked into a storm, a perfect storm. That's an inherent danger and risk that we take, being code enforcement officers — that we don't know what we're walking into, from day to day."
Beene said the work of the officers is critical in helping cities maintain a healthy quality of life. He said he is praying for Robinson's family and thinking of her colleagues.
"You don't do this job because it's a job, you do it because you love what you do," Beene said. "It's just unfortunate that we lost someone near and dear to the brotherhood and sisterhood of code enforcement."