The Park Record editorial, December 10-13, 2011 | ParkRecord.com

The Park Record editorial, December 10-13, 2011

Sheriff's department should set up citizen review panel

This week’s Park Record news story about a controversy involving a woman whose car was impounded on State Road 224 has raised hackles among both residents and law-enforcement personnel. The emotional and deeply divided reactions suggest there is a big gap in communication between the Summit County Sheriff’s Department and the public.

Most of the outcry from citizens has focused on the fact that the woman, whose vehicle registration had expired five months earlier, felt intimidated by the officer who had told her she would have to get out of her car and walk to work. For his part, the sheriff believes the deputy was doing his job, albeit an unpopular one. But he was also forthright in his original assessment of the situation, saying he wished it had been handled more diplomatically.

The bigger question for us is: was it newsworthy and was the story handled fairly. We believe the answer, in both cases, is yes. However, we agree that some of the reaction to the article has been overblown.

As we were reminded by the news from Virginia on Thursday, in which a police officer was killed in a random attack during a traffic stop, officers never know when they might be confronted by a violent suspect. And while most of the time their job is routine, when there is a dangerous situation we expect them to put their own lives on the line to protect the rest of us.

That said, we give law-enforcement personnel extraordinary power to curtail our civil liberties, and we give them weapons to ensure their orders are followed. When sheriff’s deputies tell you to get out of your car, you do as they say and you are at their mercy.

For that reason we believe it is our duty as a news organization to diligently investigate any claim that a lawman may have abused that power. Better yet, we think it is important to ensure that line is never crossed. That is why, after the outcry over a confrontation between students and police at the University of California at Davis, we asked the Park City Police Department and the county Sheriff’s Department to define their policies concerning the use of pepper spray.

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We believe that some of the bitterness exhibited during the sheriff’s reelection campaign a year ago revealed a perception that the department is, at times, overly aggressive in dealing with citizens involved in non-criminal offenses. At the time, we suggested the sheriff consider forming a citizen review board, similar to the one that is in place in Park City, to handle those kinds of complaints. Many, we believe, could be diffused by a third-party review. That has not happened.

In light of the public response to the most recent allegations of intimidating behavior, we believe that now is a perfect time to establish a more constructive way for citizens to express their concerns about the way they are treated by the sheriff’s department.

that way, that input should not be restricted to criticism. We are sure there are many people who have been aided in times of crisis by sheriff’s deputies, and it is important to hear from them, too. A review board could also hand out commendations for acts of heroism and contributions to the community.

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