The easy way out: Police, the media and controversy

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By Christopher Harrop

Ten days or so ago, a storm of bad publicity swept across Commerce City after a video showed a uniformed officer shooting a lab/pit bull mix in front of a home.
    Rightfully so. Anyone who watched the video could see that the dog was fairly docile and never posed a threat to any human being or other animal, even after officers tried to shock and subdue it with a Taser device.

    When the creature was backed into a corner and intimidated by the officers trying to corral it, it attempted to run away.
    This is natural behavior.
    When the dog was ensnared by one of the officers’ catch poles, it tried to shake itself free.
    This, again, is natural behavior for a dog that’s being confronted by a stranger.
    And not more than a few seconds after it began to struggle, the animal was dead at the hands of one the officers, hands firmly tightened on the trigger of a service weapon.
    This dog did not deserve to die, and the officials charged with investigating this case cannot rightfully rule that the officer who killed that animal did anything but act in a manner inconsistent with proper training and protocol for a peace officer.
    Sure, there will be reports filed by the officers that tell of a vicious, aggressive pit bull that was roaming loose in the neighborhood. There’s a good chance that those reports will be accepted at face value, and there’s a good chance the officers involved will face no official reprimand.
    Is protecting and serving a difficult job? There’s no question. There is a tremendous amount of sacrifice involved for anyone who dons a police, firefighter or emergency uniform. We hold them in high esteem for the work they do.
    That is no excuse for taking the easy way out, which is what happened in Commerce City. Worse than that, it demonstrates a basic lapse in judgment — the kind that cannot be permitted for people whose jobs it is to ensure our safety.
    Certainly, the officers on the scene had a much better vantage point for what was going on, but in the heat of the moment, there was nothing “vicious” or “aggressive” about the dog’s behavior. That’s why thousands of people have voiced their frustration and emotion over this case — the action taken simply does not fit the situation. In that moment and in all of the moments leading up to it, that gun did not need to be discharged.
    While Commerce City police have vowed not to rush to judgment, they have already implied that the media have done a poor job in reporting on this incident. While it’s expected they won’t make any quick condemnations, to immediately take such a defensive stance and suggest that the shooting was justified does a disservice to the myriad officers of the law who, day in and day out, do their job without making fatal mistakes.
    Officers of the law are a tight-knit group, no matter where you go, and the inclination is to stand by your fellow officer. I get that — even as a journalist, you hate to see cases like this for the negative publicity it generates for the community as a whole.
    That’s no excuse for not speaking out and making it clear that incidents such as these are the isolated exception, not the rule.
    In Brighton, the much-publicized case of Dre — a pit bull mix that got loose from its home — generated plenty of attention, but at least the animal control officials kept their weapons holstered and allowed the family to work within the court system to find a reasonable solution.
    In an even bigger case, it was found that Brighton Police Sgt. Doug Imfeld acted properly back in January when confronted by Shad Pemberton, a man who refused to drop his weapon when ordered to do so by officers. Sometimes, police are put in the horrific position of acting for safety — a situation where a fatal shooting truly is prompted by the person on the receiving end of the bullet.
    Pemberton was carrying what looked like a semi-automatic handgun. The police sergeant who shot and killed Pemberton had no choice. The officer who shot and killed that dog had a choice — and unfortunately for that dog and its owners, it was the wrong one.
    We want to be fair when we report on the issues. We watch the TV stations and read the online outlets just like everyone else, in part to gauge just how fair a shake other stories are getting. Sometimes, there’s a good dose of sensationalism to them.
    This is not one of those cases. The outcry over this case seems absolutely warranted and the coverage of it equally so. Instead of lashing out at the media, the police should go back to doing what they’re best at: Serving the community. Trying to explain away this situation and point fingers at reporters is just taking the easy way out.

Reach Managing Editor Chris Harrop at news@metrowestnewspapers.com.