The backlash from the recent police beating in Los Angeles continues to hit home in Utah.
Although there have been no reports of such blatant police brutality locally, Utah police officers are not immune to complaints that they overstep their bounds and use too much force.Last year, 406 people registered official complaints that they were mistreated by Salt Lake police officers. The complaints ranged from "this officer was rude" to the use of "excessive force," explained Sgt. Scott Atkinson, a Salt Lake police spokesman.
Fifty-one of those 406 complaints accused officers of using more force than was necessary. "Those range from, `You twisted my arm and I didn't think it needed twisting' to `You beat me up when I didn't think you should have,' " he said.
Similar complaints have been registered about deputies in the Salt Lake County sheriff's office. Approximately 150 complaints were reported during 1990, with 48 of those considered to have at least some merit, said Sheriff's Internal Affairs Lt. Lee Smith. "Less than 10 percent of those are actual complaints of excessive force," he said.
Most police officials say incidents of excessive force are the exception rather than the rule. But the exceptions do occur.
One police officer - who spoke on condition of anonymity - told the Deseret News he has seen incidents when fellow officers have come close to participating in a "thump-a-thon." One example occurred several years ago when he assisted in the chase of a suspect that involved several Salt Lake officers.
The pursuit lasted for some time and the officers' adrenalin was flowing. When the pursuit ended, officers handcuffed the suspect, but then continued to hit him. Although this officer was not involved in the arrest, he said he intervened in the confrontation, pulled the suspect away and offered to take the man to jail.
"I didn't like what I'd seen and I knew I was right in breaking it up," he said.
Later during the shift, the officers who were beating the suspect expressed their disapproval that he had intervened when they were trying to teach the suspect a lesson.
"They basically implied that I was a wimp for doing it. I did feel some peer pressure," the officer said. "It made for a strained relationship for some time afterward."
Such an incident may help to explain why Los Angeles officers who witnessed the Rodney King beating may not have rushed in to stop it, he said.
Atkinson said that during his 13 years as a policeman, he can recall only a few cases where he has seen officers use too much force.
He said he remembers one officer - who is no longer with the department - jump into the back seat of a patrol car with a suspect he had just chased. The suspect had already been handcuffed, which generally means the person is under control and no additional force is necessary.
"The other cops quickly got him away from that guy," he said. "Even though officers get pumped up in those situations, we need to stay within the realms of what we're supposed to do."
Smith agrees that officers get pumped up in such situations. "But that's where training comes in," he said. Police badges given to recruits are always accompanied with policies and procedures that they have been taught explaining their expected conduct.
"It's written out for him in black and white what force is necessary and what excessive force is," the lieutenant said.
Although his office has not seen an increase in complaints since the Los Angeles incident, Smith said more people do refer to it. "(The King beating) has left a bad taste in people's mouths. It's reflecting in the type of complaints I'm getting," he said. "It gives us all a black eye."
But if any good can come from the Los Angeles incident, Smith said law enforcement is reminded of its role. "It has put administrators on notice and they're saying, `We can't allow that to happen here.' "
Beating offended Utah police officers
Utah law enforcement officers want the public to know that they, too, are offended at the recent beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
"We are not so naive as to believe that police misconduct will never occur in Utah. However, we are of one mind that it will not be tolerated," said Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Chabries.
Police administrators from agencies throughout the state met with members of the media Wednesday to "restate their commitment to professionalism in Utah law enforcement."
Since the now-famous videotape of the March 3 beating by Los Angeles police officers has been broadcast repeatedly, Chabries said he receives phone calls every day from residents who are concerned about incidents of police brutality.
"It's all everyone wants to talk about."
Many people ask about incidents and investigations of officers using excessive force that are alleged to have happened years and years ago. "There's no doubt we're going to revisit some of those issues of the past," said Chabries, who is also president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.
Doug Bodrero, commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety, said he, too, has received an increase in calls from people who claim they have been victims of police using excessive force. Because of the increased attention, he said the state will review the use-of-force training it currently provides law enforcement officers.
"If any good has come out of this . . . I think it has brought the issue to the attention of administrators and caused us all to look at ourselves," he said.