This week marks two tragic anniversaries in Utah.
Two Tragic Anniversaries, Not Enough Change
So close to the dawn of the New Year, this sad week should spur policy makers and community activists to re-commit themselves to improving how our public servants – the ones who carry guns and have great discretion in community interactions – interact with the very public they are intended to protect.
Monday, January 4, marked four years from the day that members of the Ogden Police Department’s Drug Task Force burst into the home of Matthew David Stewart in the middle of the night and without identification, in an effort to confiscate marijuana plants growing in the basement.
In the chaos and confusion of the raid, several police officers and Matthew Stewart were injured. One seven-year veteran of the Ogden PD, Officer Jared Francom, a husband and father of two young children, died the next morning of his injuries. Five months later, Matthew Stewart – a dedicated outdoorsman and decorated Army veteran - was found hanging in his Ogden County Jail cell, dead from an apparent suicide.
Today, January 8, marks just one year from the date that James Dudley Barker, a longtime resident of Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood, was shot and killed by a SLC police officer.
Footage from the officer’s body-mounted camera shows how an increasingly agitated James Barker, seemingly infuriated by the officer’s incessant questioning of his snow shoveling activities around the community and blocked from exiting the situation, finally hits the officer with his show shovel.
The body-mounted camera’s footage ends when the officer falls from the front porch where he has confronted and cornered James Barker. The recording cuts out before the moment when James Barker is fatally shot.
In the four years since the raid on Matthew Stewart’s Ogden home, some small but meaningful changes have occurred at the state legislative level. Though Ogden PD and the Weber County Attorney say they did nothing wrong in executing the “no-knock” warrant on Matthew Stewart’s home, state policymakers have nonetheless responded to the tragedy with some important statutory improvements.
These legislative efforts are primarily aimed at increasing transparency in police activity, establishing ground rules for officers identifying themselves to arrest targets, and raising the bar for warrant requirements for various raids and surveillance activities.
The ACLU of Utah is proud to have played a role in these improvements, in partnership with Fourth Amendment advocates at the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (UACDL) and the Libertas Institute.
Unlike many similar police-involved tragedies throughout the country, the aggressive drug raid and related tragic deaths of Officer Jared Francom and Matthew David Stewart, four years ago this week, have actually yielded concrete public policy progress:
- The Law Enforcement Transparency Annual Report, the first of its kind in the nation, which requires all law enforcement agencies to report on tactical team deployments and home/business raids (thanks, Senator Deidre Henderson and Representative Eric Hutchings!);
- New requirements for officer self-identification during such raids (thanks, Senator Steve Urquhart!); and
- Warrant requirements for the use of infrared surveillance technology by law enforcement (thanks, Senator Mark Madsen!).
Other important efforts are under way to improve police transparency and accountability, while protecting Utahns’ Fourth Amendment rights, such as:
- The establishment of baseline policy requirements on body-mounted police cameras (which seek to balance individual privacy rights with front-line officer discretion and media access) for any Utah law enforcement agency using the technology (thanks, Representative Dan McKay!) and
- Rolling back unnecessarily burdensome bond requirements for community members seeking to sue individual police officers for damages in cases where injuries are caused and lives lost (thanks, Senator Mark Madsen!).
What is completely lacking however, at both the local and state level, is any change to how police officers' use of force against community members is so easily justified. Despite many conversations during legislative committees, no lawmaker has stepped forward to raise the standard for when use of deadly force is justified.
There has been a great deal of talk about better training officers to de-escalate intense situations, like the one in the Avenues with James Barker last year. But no statutory changes have been made, and local law enforcement agencies have been consistently quick to explain how their training is absolutely sufficient, as is.
There has been a lot of conversation about whether law enforcement agencies should be allowed to conduct the investigation of their own agency when a community member is shot and killed by police. But no lawmaker has proposed legislation to demand an independent investigative body or special prosecutor for such highly-charged and controversial cases. The closest we've gotten in Utah is assigning the investigation to a different police agency from the one directly responsible for a shooting.
So…Utah policymakers, your New Year’s Resolution for 2016: don’t let the deaths of Officer Francom, Matthew Stewart, James Barker - as well as those of Dillon Taylor, Darrien Hunt, Joey Tucker, Cody Evans, Ty Worthington, Todd Blair, Corey Kanosh...you get the idea - be in vain.
Plesae, continue to push for improvements and reform that strengthens our individual rights while bringing more peace – and less needless violence – to our communities.