The determination by the Salt Lake County district attorney that police officers in West Valley City were not justified in the shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard was the result of a fair, thorough and tenacious investigation — exactly what the law demands and what the citizens of the county deserve.
Critics of the ruling by District Attorney Sim Gill say it shows a lack of support for police officers. We believe it shows precisely the opposite.
For law enforcement to function effectively, officers must have the trust and confidence of the public. And such trust comes only when citizens know that police operate under clear rules and standards, particularly when deadly force is involved.
It must be understood that in cases of officer-involved shootings, the law endows the DA's office with the role of "finders of fact." The ruling in the Willard case does not, by itself, accuse the officers of wrongdoing, but finds only that they did not act under the legal strictures governing proper use of deadly force. If the DA finds their actions rose to the level of criminal negligence or intent, then formal charges may be brought, and the officers will have their day in court.
The DA's office is now working to determine whether to file criminal charges, and we are confident that component of the investigation will be handled in the same methodical and scrupulous fashion.
In the meantime, there are those who would make political hay out of Gill's decision, arguing that someone more "pro cop" would better serve the county. We believe that supporting law enforcement does not mean granting carte blanche. Rather, it means seeing to it that the boundaries of proper conduct are clearly set and enforced, the same way a parent supports a child by setting and enforcing rules of behavior.
Yes, police officers have a tremendously difficult job. They sometimes face split-second decisions on whether to use force, and they must act in those moments with confidence they are doing what is necessary to protect themselves and others. We are well served in our community by police agencies that work to make sure their officers are well trained and disciplined in the use of lethal force, and incidents of improper use of such force are gratefully rare.
But sometimes, mistakes are made and boundaries are crossed. When that happens, the public must be assured that officers will be held accountable. That is the responsibility of the district attorney's office. In the case of Danielle Willard, we believe the DA performed that role with the kind of focus and integrity that ultimately enhances public confidence in our law enforcement agencies, including the West Valley City Police Department.