Guest Opinions

Rancher shooting: Bonds between law enforcement and community being tested

Brian T. Underwood, left, and Wendy Olson.
Brian T. Underwood, left, and Wendy Olson.

Building relationships of trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve is the top priority of the U.S. Department of Justice. We have long shared that commitment in Idaho. This is vital work. Our public safety depends upon the bonds that police officers, deputies and federal agents share with the residents they protect.

When the bonds between law enforcement and community members are strong, our communities are safer: Residents report incidents of crime and police are able to address them. When the bonds are weak, or strained, crimes are not reported and mistakes are more easily made, and rumors spread.

Unfortunately, over the last year and a half, we have all watched heartbreaking tragedies involving police officers and residents that weigh heavily on communities and on our nation. Since our appointments as United States attorney and United States marshal in 2010, we have worked with our law enforcement colleagues in Idaho to encourage stronger community relationships and community outreach.

Now, more than ever, those bonds between law enforcement and community members are being tested in Idaho, following the tragic shooting of Adams County rancher Jack Yantis during an incident involving two Adams County deputies on Nov. 1, 2015.

Independent investigations are underway by both the Idaho State Police and the FBI. Independent prosecutive decisions will be made by the Idaho attorney general and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Neither the investigations nor prosecutive decisions will change the fact that a tragedy occurred. They will not change the fact that we in all parts of Idaho law enforcement have a never-ending obligation to instill community confidence in the work that we do.

While investigators do their work, we must all do ours. Idaho’s law enforcement officers at every level — tribal, local, state and federal — live and work in our communities. We are your neighbors. Our children go to school together. We have a common interest and a common vision in making Idaho the safest place to live, work and play. This will happen only if residents and law enforcement officers are communicating and making an effort to understand one another.

Every day, law enforcement officers leave their homes and their families to answer the call of duty. When we call with an emergency, they respond. In the many rural parts of Idaho, including our national forests and other public lands, law enforcement officers respond over long distances, often alone, perhaps hours away. Each call, no matter how routine it appears, could present danger, and officers often don’t know in advance which calls those will be.

Police officers often are required to interact with community members who are not at their best — they might be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, angry or despondent or mentally ill. With the proliferation of smartphones, and the important tool of body-worn cameras, police officers face scrutiny in every part of their job in a way that few others do. We suspect that few of us would want our every working moment preserved for view by others. Yet that scrutiny is critical to the public’s confidence that their police are fair and just.

When the actions of a very few police officers cross the line, we learn about it instantly. The public’s confidence in their police is undermined. To restore that confidence, we must be prepared to provide justice when police officers intentionally violate the law. Where police officers’ actions are lawful, but still produce tragic outcomes, we must be prepared to prevent or reduce those outcomes by providing, and funding, better training and better equipment.

More importantly, law enforcement officers and leaders must do more to understand how difficult their jobs become when even one police officer or deputy or federal agent acts outside of the law or abuses power. Law enforcement officers and leaders must do more to recognize and acknowledge how members of disadvantaged communities have more frequently been the victim of police abuse. We must recognize and train on implicit bias. As you can see, the law enforcement profession is about people, and we must be the very people society can turn to.

We have work to do, and we must do it together as law enforcement officers, as law enforcement leaders, as community members, as community leaders. Our public safety depends on it.

Wendy Olson is United States attorney for Idaho; Brian T. Underwood is United States marshal.