Police officers are sanctioned to deploy deadly force in circumstances that are clearly spelled out in state law. But the facts surrounding police shootings are not always cut and dried, and often involve a split-second judgment made under extreme pressure.
That’s why the use of lethal force should be thoroughly reviewed in all cases, including the recent matter of a Salt Lake City officer who shot and killed a domestic pet in the owner’s back yard.
From the facts known at this point, the patrolman fired at a dog that became aggressive when the officer entered a fenced-in back yard in search of a missing child. There may be separate questions about the officer’s decision in the first place to enter the property without the owner’s permission, but his use of force should be the subject of priority review for a number of reasons.
First, although the state’s primary deadly force law applies only to force used against persons, the shooting of a pet is no trivial matter and should be subject to rigorous review, at least by the police department itself.
Second, there is an overarching public interest — heightened by recent events here and elsewhere — in seeing to it there is proper accountability when law enforcement officers pull their weapons and fire.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, there have been public protests over a rash of fatal police shootings — 26 since 2010 — that prompted a harsh review of policies there by the U.S. Department of Justice.
And in Utah, manslaughter charges were filed last week against a West Valley police detective in the shooting death of a young woman during a narcotics investigation in 2012. In that case, the detective’s lawyers have accused prosecutors of “manipulating evidence” to bring the charges, and the Utah Fraternal Order of Police has couched the indictment as an example of prosecutorial over-reach.
But what Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill has done is exactly what the case demands — bringing it to a judicial forum for a dispassionate rendition of facts before a judge or jury.
It is not in the public interest to create an atmosphere in which police officers are reluctant to use necessary force for fear of unjust repercussion. But maintaining public trust in law enforcement is more important, and that can only be achieved if procedures are used to hold officers accountable for any and all use of lethal force.
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