Monday, February 10, 2014

Law Enforcement: Threats and the Use of Force

On Thursday, January 30, 2014 Sergeant Cory Wride, a deputy with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, was shot and killed inside his vehicle.  He had pulled over to check on what appeared to be an abandoned vehicle or perhaps a stranded motorist. 

According to the Utah County Sheriff James Tracy, “It appears that Sergeant Wride was ambushed at that time and he was shot in the vehicle and he did not survive his wounds.”

Sergeant Wride had no opportunity to exit his vehicle or to return fire.  His condition was unknown until deputies arrived on the scene to investigate why he was no longer answering calls on the radio.  Later Deputy Greg Sherwood of the Utah County Sheriff’s Department spotted the shooter’s vehicle in Santaquin and engaged in a high-speed chase.  The shooter fired shots during the chase hitting Deputy Sherwood in the face.  Deputy Sherwood survived and is recovering from surgery.

The chase continued south into Nephi where the shooter crashed his vehicle.  Shots were again fired, culminating in a carjacking by the shooter.  Further south the shooter was forced to crash again.  In an open engagement with no cover Juab County Sheriff’s deputies engaged the shooter finally injuring him and taking him into custody.  The next day the shooter, who had a criminal history and an outstanding warrant, succumbed to his wounds and died.  Investigators continue to try to piece together what happened and why.

A similar incident occurred in the City of Draper, Utah in September of last year.  Sergeant Derek Johnson pulled up on a vehicle that was parked at an odd angle.  It was 6am on a Sunday morning.  He was ambushed, shot and killed before he was able to return fire.  The shooter also shot his girlfriend and then turned his gun on himself.


As the son of a career law enforcement officer, I grew up aware that each day that my father went to work he might not return home to us.  On more than one occasion I remember my dad making the extra effort to move past any disagreements or hurt feelings between him and any member of the family before he would leave to start a shift.

My mother never likes to be reminded of the ever-present risk that her husband and other officers face every day.  Understandably she tries to avoid speaking about it.  Growing up I wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to know what he and other officers do to keep themselves safe.  I wanted to know how they handled knowing the dangers that they face every day.  When I had opportunities to go on a ride along or visit with officers, I would ask questions and observe what they did and how they behaved.

The reality of that danger came crashing down on us one day when my dad was a deputy sheriff in Duchesne County in eastern Utah.  I remember my dad getting a phone call one morning.  As a deputy he often received serious phone calls, but I could tell this one was different.  It impacted him immediately and emotionally.  Deputies had been involved in a high-speed chase that morning along U.S. Highway 40.  Three officers had succeeded in boxing in the suspect and forcing him to stop his vehicle, a senior deputy approached the scene in his personal, unmarked vehicle.  One of the deputies had exited his vehicle with a high-powered rifle and saw the unmarked car approaching.  Fearing it was a threat he raised his rifle and shot the senior deputy through the throat, killing him.

Law enforcement officers, by and large, consider themselves public servants.  The concept “to serve and protect” is real for them.  Sure some of them do it because they like the rush caused by the uncertainty inherent in the job, but even most of them cling to the higher purpose of protecting others. 

Every time an officer answers the call, every time they approach a door in response to a request for help, every time they stop to check on a stranded motorist or abandoned vehicle, every time they approach a pulled-over vehicle, every time they step between a threat and a target, they must stand ready to make the ultimate sacrifice and the possibility of using deadly force. 

This desire to protect and do their duty is powerful enough to keep them going out every day and night.  Along with that desire to protect is the lack of a desire to kill or to cause serious harm to anyone.  As a young boy with a father as a new police officer, I misunderstood what motivated him.  In excitement I asked if he was ready to shoot and kill the bad guys.  In a firm voice he told me that he hoped that he never, ever would have to fire his gun at another person.

This is the paradox that our law enforcement officers face—a desire to protect others from those who would do harm combined the fear of having to use deadly force. 

Officers go through intense use-of-force training scenarios.  They are taught to recognize and employ methods for avoiding the use of force when it isn’t necessary.  They are also taught to use varying degrees of force in different scenarios.  Much of this, however, comes down to the situation at hand and the threat perceived by the officer.  Essentially we have asked law enforcement officers to protect us from any danger while accepting a threat against his or her personal safety while expecting them to make absolutely correct decisions, control their emotions in volatile situations, and to engage in only a measured and appropriate use of force.

Good law enforcement officers never want to get this wrong.  Every day these officers go into dangerous and possibly deadly situations.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these officers handle the situation correctly.  They manage to keep those involved safe and the use of force to a minimum, if it even becomes necessary.  Police departments, the good ones, closely monitor their officers to watch for trends of escalating use-of-force in situations where it may not have been necessary. 

Officers who show signs of excessive or improper use of force often receive additional training and oversight.  They may receive extra time away from stressful situations to allow them to reset emotionally and regain their perspective.  Officers that continue to exercise excessive and improper use of force after remedial action has been taken often are let go in order to keep the public and that officer safe. 

Despite their intense training, almost every law enforcement officer will end up in a situation where force is used to stop or apprehend someone who is breaking the law or is a threat to others.  In the most extreme and unfortunate cases use of force may result in an officer shooting someone.  At those times it is our responsibility as a society to demand that the situation be explained to us in the fullest detail possible.  Each use of deadly force must be investigated and analyzed by those we trust to decide if it was justified and if it wasn’t, what the course of action should be moving forward.

This review process must be fair and transparent in the interest of the public, the victim, the officer, and the law enforcement agency.  An officer cannot be expected to go into a deadly situation with an overwhelming worry that the use of force to protect his or her life and the life of others will be investigated unfairly or with political prejudice.  If such a worry is overwhelming, it may result in a delay of the proper use of force and put the officer and the public at greater risk.

Sometimes we, the public, with the media’s help, are quick to jump up and down and demand that an officer be fired, punished, or imprisoned for what appears to us to be an improper use of force, deadly or otherwise.  Sometimes we fail to consider adequately the environment in which that officer works on a daily basis.  Sometimes we fail to consider the previous stellar performance of an officer in a myriad of other dangerous situations.  Sometimes we fail to understand the emotions the officer is experiencing in a given situation.  Sometimes we fail to understand that circumstances have put that officer in a situation that has escalated to the point that there is no longer a good option going forward.

I am in favor of removing bad law enforcement officers who habitually use excessive and improper force.  I am in favor of removing good men and women who are unsuited to the stresses and rigors of law enforcement.  I am also in favor, however, of giving our good law enforcement officers the biggest benefit of the doubt that I can when they have put their life on the line for yours or mine.  In extremely deadly situations, mistakes will be made.  Most of us will never fully experience the stress that an officer faces when he or she is considering the use of deadly force.  Good officers, those who make mistakes or are simply put in bad situations, deserve fairness and understanding.  They deserve respect and support.


Shortly after he shot and killed a fellow deputy, my dad’s colleague left law enforcement.  I don’t remember who decided he should leave.  He went on to live in the community for several more years, if memory serves me correctly, as a truck driver. 

The Deseret News ran a story on the four deputies from Juab County who engaged the gunman who killed Sergeant Wride and wounded Deputy Sherwood.  These four deputies engaged the shooter knowing that he had used deadly force previously against law enforcement officers and had carjacked a citizen.  Without cover these four engaged the shooter in a gun battle and brought him down.  Understanding the stress and impact that an officer experiences after they shoot a suspect, the Juab County Sheriff placed the four on administrative leave.  They were given the opportunity to recover, reflect, and regain their balance before they returned to the work of keeping their neighbors safe.

As we watch over the actions of our law enforcement officers, we should do it with a high degree of respect, appreciation, and fairness.  As we expect the highest degree of integrity and professionalism from them, we owe them our support whenever and wherever appropriate.  And we should remember that those officers who shoot another person in the discharge of their duty will suffer from wounds that we cannot see.

1 comment:

Jarad said...

With the killing of two of Las Vegas Metro's finest on Sunday, June 8, I honor all the law enforcement officers who put on the badge every day to protect us and keep us safe. May God comfort the family, friends, and fellow officers of these good men.