City Council should act to clarify transient rules

Last week the city of Grand Junction terminated the employment of three police officers. If they were unlawfully destroying the property of a citizen, any citizen, then it was an appropriate response. It also appears we are unlikely to see any follow-up on the situation in the criminal justice system, as District Attorney Pete Hautzinger has declined prosecution, which is not surprising in cases where the only evidence was elicited from officer statements as part of an internal investigation.

These types of statements are usually obtained under the threat of job termination and case law has determined that such pressure can render those statements involuntary and inadmissible in a criminal prosecution. If confessions or damaging statements are made under these circumstances and there was no independent evidence, there would be little a prosecutor could present to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of a person’s guilt.

The question then arises: What now? This situation only creates more problems for the department and individual officers that will require superior leadership, support and judgment at the top positions in the department and city. The track record for these traits in a couple of these positions has not been stellar and trust in the city’s competence appears to be at a very low level.

Punishing these officers, while appropriate, does not address the growing transient problem in the area or assist the street officer with tools to address the challenge and serve the public interest. It will, in my experience, empower some individuals to become even more challenging during contacts with police officers and engage in aggressive or attention-getting behavior when an officer takes a law enforcement action.

One of the more common demonstrations one sees is the “screaming arrest,” where an individual being taken into custody for a minor crime or refusing to obey an officer’s lawful order begins to scream loudly of pain or officer misconduct during arrest. Surprisingly, no matter how loosely the handcuffs are applied, they are always too tight.

All of this is troubling enough for the officer who has to do the job, but it is made more difficult if that officer is not completely certain that his actions, if appropriate, will be totally supported by the top levels of his department and the political structure of which it is a part.

Contrary to what many television movies of the week would have people believe, many in the transient community are not down on their luck families like characters from “The Grapes of Wrath,” but are often unbalanced, intoxicated or wanted by authorities, and law enforcement needs caution in contacts with them.

Hesitating to respond in situations during this interaction because of a fear of bureaucratic second-guessing, seasoned with a large dose of political calculation, is unsatisfying to the public and dangerous to the officer.

This brings us to the strange response of the city administration to the incident for which the officers were terminated. The long period during which the officers were on administrative leave was interrupted by Police Chief John Camper awarding new tents to the parties claiming the officers had destroyed them and then, only two days later, announcing the results of the internal investigation.

I have heard of putting the cart before the horse, but this seems more like putting the horse in the cart. What possible reason could there have been to telegraph the decision on the officers by doing such a thing two days before the final decision?

The press release also had an oddly pious note. Maybe this is the expected response from a chief who is an appointee of an appointed city manager who may not be in the best politcal shape.

All this does not lead to a very stable upper management situation if you are working the street. Precariously placed administrators seldom make zealous advocates in controversial situations. To this end, many of us would call upon the City Council to involve themselves in supporting the police by acting on ordinances clearly delineating the boundaries of aggressive panhandling, trespassing on public property and failing to follow the lawful order of a peace officer. Tools, guidance and support — the officers deserve more but this, is at least, a start.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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