This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
I have written before in defense of law enforcement officers' use of deadly force. In doing so, I explained proper police procedure and critiqued the alternatives offered in on-line comments to Tribune coverage of the recent shooting of the armed suspect outside the Oquirrh Mountain LDS Temple ("Officers sometimes forced to shoot armed suspects," Tribune, Jan. 1).
The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office recently determined that deadly force was justified in the Oquirrh Mountain temple incident. Another criticism that sometimes surfaces in response to coverage of such incidents is that prosecutors merely "rubber stamp" law enforcement's decisions to fire on armed suspects.
The relationship between law enforcement and prosecutors is not as close as critics claim. Many officers I know wish they had such a cozy relationship with prosecutors, as the officers scratch their heads in puzzlement when prosecutors refuse to prosecute on seeming technicalities after officers' "good arrests."
Municipal attorneys defend municipalities and officers against suits arising from justified law enforcement actions. In rare cases, they also prosecute law enforcement actions that are unjustified. They could not do the latter effectively if their first instinct were merely to "rubber stamp" law enforcement decisions.
While it is difficult for law enforcement officers to lose the camaraderie of fellow officers who are prosecuted for wrongdoing, good officers know that looking the other way when such acts occur only undermines public trust, both in law enforcement and in the legal system. Officers are sworn to uphold the law, and prosecutors are sworn to go where the evidence takes them.
Contrary to the persistent, prevalent public perception, the reason that prosecutors so often find officers' use of firearms (and other actions) justified is not because prosecutors merely "rubber stamp" law enforcement decisions; rather, it's because officers almost invariably know the law and follow it, even when faced with the prospect of making split-second, life-or-death decisions.
What do prosecutors look for when determining whether officers' use of deadly force is justified? The Fourth Amendment says that seizures of people must be reasonable. The 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner is a landmark case which governs when officers are allowed to use deadly force. The court affirmed that use of deadly force to apprehend suspects is a seizure which must be reasonable.
The court ruled that officers are justified in using deadly force if it necessary to prevent an escape, and officers have probable cause to believe a suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or to others. Utah law has codified the Garner decision's rule. Utah Code 76-2-404(1)(c) states that an officer is justified in using deadly force if it "is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person."
We should demand that officers follow the laws applicable to them as they enforce the laws applicable to everyone. In the vast majority of cases when prosecutors go where the evidence takes them, they find that officers have done exactly that. Most prosecutors and officers deserve our highest respect rather than endless criticism and unfair, ill-informed judgment.
Ken K. Gourdin received a degree in criminal justice with a law enforcement emphasis from Weber State University in 1995, and was recently certified as a paralegal. This commentary does not constitute legal advice.