Letters from the West

It takes a lot more than words to support local law enforcement

I suspect Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman woke up this morning, hugged his wife and children, and hoped to God that none of his deputies would shoot someone or be shot in the line of duty.

The thought runs through the minds of sheriffs and police chiefs across the nation every day, in the most isolated hamlets to the largest cities. Shootings by police officers have been elevated to the center of our national conversation. Shootings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have brought even more grief and complications to already complex community challenges.

Elmore County Sheriff Rick Layher’s fears were realized Tuesday when Matthew David Conrad, a 34-year-old Hammett man with a history of mental illness, stole a truck, fled from police and ended the chase by running onto Interstate 84. There, police said, he tried to carjack three vehicles and turned his handgun on deputies, who shot him.

The two deputies will now go through a long trauma familiar to officers across the nation. First, an investigation by the Idaho State Police, additional inquiries, perhaps counseling, possibly post-traumatic stress syndrome, and haunting images that may never go away. Layher will have to work through the process himself, eventually deciding when or whether his much-needed deputies can return to work.

Zollman’s journey from the Nov. 1 shooting of Jack Yantis by deputies Brian Wood and Cody Roland on U.S. 95 north of Council is not over.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and federal officials announced last week that their investigation was over and no charges were warranted. Even though he could not justify filing charges, Wasden said, he did not clear the deputies. The Yantis family has said it will file a civil suit against the deputies and the Adams County Sheriff’s Office. Zollman said he’s weeks away from a decision on their possible return to work.

I first saw Zollman in action at a community meeting he called last November with 300 of his neighbors at the Assembly of God Church in Council, a former Forest Service building. Sarah Yantis, Jack’s daughter, stared at Zollman and called him a liar.

He took the anger from many people coolly and professionally, and the residents kept their cool, too. Outside the halls, a flood of social media attacks and threats against him and his family showed that Council’s crisis reaches far beyond the shadow of Cuddy Mountain.

Zollman is running for re-election and faces independent Tom Watts in November. In the atmosphere law enforcement faces anywhere today, I admire anyone willing to step up before voters and offer to serve.

We need to support our police and law enforcement officials even as we hold them accountable. But support doesn’t just mean marching on the Capitol or expressing our respect on Facebook. We ask police to protect us, help us rein in our children, resolve family disputes and manage the social problems, such as mental illness, we are unwilling to address ourselves.

The Idaho shootings did not involve the racial issues that have been at the center of the national debate over police shootings. But some of the same solutions are proposed: more training, more community policing, especially in rural Idaho.

Former Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney, now a Department of Justice contractor working with departments nationwide, said Idaho allows departments to put new officers on the street before completing Peace Officer Standards and Training classes.

Even that training is just 10 weeks, compared to six months in California, Raney said. The financial realities for most small departments is that officer pay is low and time for extra training hard to find.

Raney recommends that Idaho regionalize law enforcement. Sheriffs would still be in charge in their counties, just as police chiefs would be in their cities. But they’d be able to share services and perhaps training, facilities and equipment.

But many of the costs could be carried across a larger population base. We Idahoans could truly show that we support our local police.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker