March 15, 2009 - Cops and Citizens?

A couple of years ago, I was called to jury duty. There is an automatic exemption available to volunteer firefighters in recognition of our service to the community as first responders, but I was curious to learn about the system from the inside. I was selected to hear a trial and seated on the jury panel. It was an honor to serve with a random group of citizens, all trying to do our best to reach a fair conclusion based on the case as presented and the instructions as given. My first reaction was guilty on the 2nd count, not guilty on the 1st count. In the end we convicted the defendant on the 1st count but acquitted on the 2nd count on the grounds that there was a reasonable doubt as to whether he had knowingly violated the terms of his release. We did our best.

I am willing to assume that the jurors in the Jay Olsen/Shonto Pete trial did their best under the conditions placed on them by the court system. For those of you unfamiliar with the front page of the Spokesman-Review, here’s the opening line from Saturday’s story on the case:

“Suspended Spokane police Officer Jay Olsen was acquitted of first-degree
assault and reckless endangerment Friday for the shooting of Shonto Pete in the
head and firing four bullets in Peaceful Valley on Feb. 26, 2007.”

I choose to write about the case today because two neighbors brought it up to me on Saturday. These neighbors are not knee-jerk bleeding heart liberals coming to the defense of the downtrodden Native American. I would not be surprised to hear politically incorrect stories out of their mouths, and the only bleeding I might associate with them would be at the end of a successful hunting trip. They are ordinary folks, the kind of neighbors who would stop and help a stranger change a tire without a second thought, who have served their communities quietly for many years, and who know what hard times are about.

The first neighbor caught up to me networking the old fashioned way, at a community event over coffee. “That Shonto Pete didn’t get a fair trial,” he said. He particularly objected to the jury finding Olsen shot in self-defense, when the press reported Pete was hit in the back of the head. It sounds fishy to me too, but I wasn’t at the trial and I’m not going to second guess the jurors' decision. What they heard in the courtroom and what we read in the paper are not necessarily a match. The ironic thing about his comment is that Shonto Pete wasn’t on trial, Jay Olsen was on trial. Officer Jay Olsen clearly had a good lawyer.

The second neighbor found me on Facebook and sent a plea to do something. I’ll quote from part of his message:

“Let me ask why is an officer allowed to have alcohol and a weapon in his possession at the same time??? If cops drink they need to remove the weapon, poor judgment due to alcohol is going to get someone dead!!!! Laws need to be in place to make it a felony for an officer to carry a weapon with BA of more than .OOO.”

There is no holier-than-thou in his plea for justice, Bill knows from personal experience that alcohol misuse has consequences. I understand “there oughta be a law” is an easy way to let off steam, but I think Bill is on to something. We reasonably expect more from our first responders. We grant police officers necessary leeway to exercise professional judgment, and in return we are justified in demanding higher standards of conduct.

I’m not in favor of passing laws that will be ignored just to say we did something, but in this case I pledged to my neighbor to “do something.” First step will be to forward these citizen concerns up the chain of command and determine if a new law is necessary to protect the public health, safety and welfare. Was the Jay Olsen case an aberration? How do we build public confidence in a fair system, one that isn’t rigged in favor of the police over the common citizen? How do we give police officers the operational latitude they need to protect us, without it being turned against us? We need to be sure the game is Cops and Robbers, not Cops and Citizens. Stay tuned.