Chief Camper’s reluctant crusade

If Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper had known a year ago what was facing him when he agreed to become the city’s interim chief, and later become the permanent chief, he probably would have turned his vehicle around and hurried back to Lakewood, happy to see Grand Junction only in his rearview mirror.

But Camper’s involuntary crusade against a Dirty Harry cop culture within the department — one that seemed to view police policies and rules as little more than guidelines, to be ignored whenever they were inconvenient — is both welcome and necessary. We’re glad he’s here to lead it.

The latest event in the chief’s rocky tenure was the clear violation of police polices related to the use of OC (oleoresin capsicum), or pepper spray. While there has been no disciplinary actions taken, it has resulted in one officer resigning and another being placed on paid administrative leave.

We hasten to add that we don’t believe the Dirty Harry culture is universal throughout the Grand Junction Police Department. There are very good officers working for the city, men and women who take seriously that old adage: To serve and protect.

There’s no way of knowing, for now, exactly how deep the other culture runs in the department. Camper and his staff are working to determine just that. We can only hope it involves a very small group of officers and that the large majority of police department employees are as appalled and angry about the rogue officers as are so many Grand Valley residents.

The pepper-spray case involves several incidents in which officers reportedly sprayed the noxious substance on sleeping bags and other items belonging to homeless people, apparently to encourage them to move on.

This despite a clear police department policy — enacted long before Camper became chief — that makes it clear the spray is to be used only as a weapon to control suspects.

“OC spray is considered a use of force and shall be employed in a manner consistent with this Department’s use of force standards,” the policy says, in part. “OC is a soft-control technique used on a subject demonstrating passive resistance.”

The spray incidents came to light during the department’s investigation into the May 3 event in which a trio of officers used knives to cut tents and other personal property of homeless people. Camper fired three officers last month over that incident. Just this week, Deputy City Manager Rich Englehart rejected the officers’ appeal and upheld the firings.

We doubt that Camper — or anyone else in the Police Department — was eager to have that first investigation reveal more incidents that demanded further investigation. However, residents should be pleased he didn’t turn a blind eye to those allegations, but continued to follow the evidence where it led him, and to mete out discipline when it was required.


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