by Howard Stephenson
Following the safe return of Elizabeth Smart, who was allegedly kidnapped by Brian Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee, some have criticized law enforcement policies and practices in handling these and other types of criminal cases.
Mayor Rocky Anderson has created a task force to investigate the way police handled the Elizabeth Smart case and the murders of four young women about 20 years ago. The mayor has come under fire for initiating the probe, particularly from Police Sgt. Don Bell who thinks the mayor has a vendetta against him. I don’t know the history of the conflict between Anderson and Bell, and frankly I don’t really want to know. If law enforcement officers can’t stand the scrutiny of a professional examination of their competence, then we’re worse off than anyone may have imagined. If this probe is a witch hunt, or an attempt to find a scape goat, it will surely be obvious.
Where citizens’ lives or property are at stake, we should not hesitate to examine possible weaknesses that can be remedied in the future. Let’s see if there are improvements that can be made – lessons that can be learned.
One of the most articulate critiques of the mistakes made by law enforcement in the Elizabeth Smart case was written by Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson. In an article published on March 18, Robinson denounced the audacity of the police and FBI who took several minutes right from the outset of the first press conference announcing that Elizabeth had been found to congratulate themselves on their great work.
Robinson wrote, “What were they talking about? Elizabeth fell into their laps. To get caught, Mitchell and his sad little band had to walk along Salt Lake’s busiest street wearing white robes and veils that all but said LOOK AT US.”
“Citizens found her. Sandy police picked her up. The only thing the Salt Lake police did was successfully drive her from Sandy to their station,” Robinson noted.
Perhaps the mayor’s task force should see if money could be saved by laying off a few police officers and cross training cab drivers to perform this important transportation function.
One of the most galling discoveries is that Mitchell had been arrested twice since the abduction, once by the Salt Lake Police Department, identifying himself as “Emmanuel.” Two months later Elizabeth’s sister Mary Katherine, the only eyewitness, remembered the kidnapper as a man known as “Emmanuel.”
But the police wouldn’t listen to this little girl. They wouldn’t even release the sketch of Mitchell! They said they would give an eyewitness’s lead no more credence than the hundreds of other leads they had.
As Robinson wrote, “Elizabeth was found because the family, without the police, decided to hold a press conference and release a sketch of Mitchell to the media . . . That led to Mitchell’s relative coming forward, which led to a spot on ‘America’s Most Wanted’ TV Show, which was seen by the two couples who spotted Mitchell on State Street and called police.”
The Police Don’t Seem to Like It when You Solve Crimes for Them
As an elected state legislator I hear a lot of stories like this about police incompetence. A neighbor who owns a car repair shop had experienced the overnight burglary of dozens of cars in his parking lot, which happens to be located on the busiest street in Draper. Windows were broken. Stereos and other valuables were taken. He pleaded unsuccessfully for the County Sheriff to help him apprehend the culprits. The most they would do is give him a file number for each incident.
Then he happened to stumble onto evidence that might have solved the crimes. That is, if anyone in the sheriff’s department had actually cared. While removing a car stereo late one night, the culprit dropped his pager in the car he was burglarizing. The mechanic found the pager and turned it in to the police, asking them to follow up and find out who it belonged to and perhaps question him, or see if the owner of the pager had stolen goods on his property. The sheriff’s office refused. After all, they were the professionals, and the person suggesting the action was a mechanic. So the pager sat for a while in the police evidence room until its owner called the sheriff’s office to see if it had been found. They told him they had it and returned it to him – no questions asked. And they refused to tell my mechanic friend who owned the pager. Something about confidentiality.
I’ve heard of attorney-client privilege, but never police-suspect privilege
The Police Rejected My Own Crime-Solving Efforts
Our neighborhood has experienced a lot of motor vehicles being broken into at night, valuables taken, and some cars actually stolen out of garages. Even though dozens of residences are hit in a single evening, the police aren’t interested in looking at evidence or even coming out to see what has happened. They’re happy to give a case number over the phone, however. You might expect this kind of police reaction in New York City or L.A., but Utah? Many people are so disappointed in the police’s inaction that they have stopped reporting break-ins and vandalism.
Once when my cars were broken into, my Cricket cell phone was stolen. As with past incidents, the police did nothing. So I started calling my cell phone and got an answer from its new owner. I immediately contacted the sheriff’s office and told them apprehending the user of my cell phone might give clues regarding the perpetrator of tens of thousands of dollars of theft and vandalism done in my neighborhood the night my cell phone was taken. I was told police officers had more important work to do.
So I called Cricket and asked them to discontinue my phone service. They said they couldn’t do that as long as the bill was pre-paid. I asked them to provide me with a list of the phone numbers being called by the person who was using my phone. Cricket said they would not do that for me, or even for the police without a court order. Somehow it was against their policies. Since the monthly service must be pre-paid for Cricket phones, I asked the company to put a flag on my account to call the police if someone brought in a payment to keep the phone active. That also was against their policies.
I later asked Cricket to check my account and tell me if any money had been paid for the coming month. They told me my account had two months’ service paid for. So, I asked Cricket for a refund of the balance in my account, which they gave me. I continued to get refunds of the pre-payments until the uninvited user of my phone gave up and apparently decided to stop paying me for the use of my stolen phone.
Law Enforcement Is Slow to Adopt Improved Methods of Crime Solving
Sometimes the law enforcement community is slow to adopt or even advocate new crime-solving laws or methods. For example, DNA testing can be used to solve everything from petty larceny to major crimes because humans leave DNA traces everywhere they go. But it wasn’t Utah law enforcement agencies that proposed the systematic DNA sampling of Utah convicted felons. Last year a couple of state legislators successfully advocated for passage of HB154 – to require collection of DNA samples from all convicted felons in Utah and to establish a process for entering the samples in the national DNA database and checking them against existing records. The State of Virginia, which has done more in this field than any state, is getting at least one cold hit every day from their database, meaning that positive identification of perpetrators is made solely on DNA evidence.
The two Utah legislators sponsored the legislation after a meeting with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft who decried the fact that state and local law enforcement was slow to utilize modern DNA capabilities to lock up criminals.
Law Enforcement Ignores the Law
Initiative B (Utah Property Protection Act) was passed by voters two years ago a whopping margin of nearly 70%. Utah law enforcement agencies have virtually ignored this new law which protects citizens from forfeiture of their assets and property without due process and removes the incentive for law enforcement agencies to benefit directly from property they have seized. Contrary to law, these agencies are continuing to convert seized assets for their own use. Additionally, recent reports now disclose that Utah law enforcement agencies aren’t seizing property that could legally be taken from criminals, apparently because they can’t keep it for their own use.
I know many dedicated law enforcement officers who are doing a good job at great sacrifice for all of us. In fact I believe most of them are deserving of our respect and our support. But in many ways, I believe our system is broken. That’s why I support closer scrutiny of law enforcement policies and practices.