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Taking a Gander: Police brutality haunts Cottonwood Heights

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"Hate begets hate; violence begets violence."

These words were part of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. Unfortunately, insensitive and incompetent leaders have a very short memory.

We all know the story—it happened right here in a Utah suburb. A peaceful demonstration over police brutality turned into a volatile confrontation. The bereaved parents of 19-year-old Zane James, shot twice in the back by an off-duty police officer, joined together with their neighbors in a march to decry unnecessary police killings. Aaron James, Zane's father, was very clear on the purpose of the march. His words were reported by news outlets: "We don't want to throw bottles. We don't want to set things on fire. We just want to be heard." The police appear to have had a different idea.

Though the 2018 shooting of James was ruled to be justified, the officer involved invoked his Fifth Amendment right and refused to give a statement to investigators to avoid self-incrimination. There's still the possibility of additional prosecutorial review, and a civil suit is pending.

According to James family attending the rally, police deployed to the Aug. 2 gathering announced they would arrest anyone who stepped off the sidewalk. Really! It's no wonder demonstrators felt hassled, but most attempted to be cooperative. A few moved back into the street and were met by the same police brutality they were protesting.

A Cottonwood Heights City Council member claims she was assaulted by an officer, and eight people were arrested—mostly for "rioting" and resisting arrest. Though motivated by a sense of justice and decency, some of the protesters face being incarcerated and have a criminal record for the rest of their lives. Families will be separated; children will cry for their parents; the nightmare of criminal defense will likely drain family finances; spouses will attempt to fend for themselves and their children. It could lead to the loss of homes and them relying on public assistance.

There is no excuse for the outcome—but it's exactly what happens when an aggressive law enforcement detail draws a line in the sand and taunts those on the other side with arbitrary rules. The concept of a peaceful demonstration—and the exercise of free speech and assembly—failed democracy's test. What happened might be understandable in Hong Kong, but not here in the land of the free.

The Cottonwood Heights Police, according to witnesses, arrived spoiling for a fight. Some were dressed in military-style combat gear, armed to the teeth. Others looked like they'd been shooting-up anabolic steroids and mainlining testosterone. In anticipation of the fray, they likely did some gorilla chest-beating standing in front of their mirrors. Since the protest was aimed at reeling in out-of-control law enforcement, many may have arrived angry only to become more aggressive.

I'm not going to suggest that all protesters responded appropriately to the police orders. There was an element of public safety to consider which is why marchers were asked to move out of the street and onto the sidewalks., But the random, uncompromising police response turned a virtually harmless situation into a near catastrophe. The demonstrators were in a quiet neighborhood, and any extended interruption of traffic was unlikely. It was the police's "I dare you" psychology that sparked the struggle. It didn't have to be that way, but it became a glaring example of why police forces in America need to be reformed. Restraint was thrown to the wind; officers allegedly squirted pepper spray into the eyes of certain protesters, then used stun guns and batons to subdue them.

Maybe the fiasco in Cottonwood Heights is old news. But, if we don't learn the lesson from it, it will be tomorrow's news as well. It is easily avoidable if the police simply try to learn from their mistakes. Listening to the frustrations and anger of protesters would be a great start.

After it became obvious that Trump's federal goon squads only exacerbated the protests in Portland, Oregon, it should have been obvious that a Utah community police force needed to exercise caution. Portland's mayor criticized the deployment of unidentified officers and asked POTUS to remove them, but they had been sent there, it seems, specifically to discredit the leadership of a Democrat-led city. It was only part of the ongoing reality show that has dominated our attention for the past three and a half years, and Trump knew exactly what effect such a deployment would have. People were hurt, charges were filed, detainments were recklessly and violently accomplished, and lives were ruined. The very presence of illegal federal forces gave protesters one more thing to protest about.

The fracas in Cottonwood Heights could have easily been avoided. While the shameful episode will long in our memories, there is a lesson for police. They need to ponder this question: "What could we have done differently to avoid an explosive confrontation?" It's time for our nation's police departments to stop beating on their chests and learn the psychology of de-escalation.

The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog.

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