Editor’s column: Nothing easy about law enforcement
A couple of recent stories illustrate how complicated law enforcement and criminal justice are as professions and aspects of public service.
One has to do with Glenwood Springs’ new smoking ban; the other has to do with a plea bargain in a case that originally included a charge of unlawful sexual contact.
Let’s look at the sex abuse story first.
Megan Henrie and her mother, Kimberly Henrie, who granted the Post Independent permission to use their names to bring greater attention to the case, are upset that 9th District Attorney Sherry Caloia struck a deal that dropped the sexual contact charge.
Henrie told officers that her now-former domestic partner and father of her son, Rickey Thompson, in a jealous fit, forced his hand down her pants, which he said was to check if she had been cheating on him.
Such conduct is reprehensible and abusive, without doubt. But Thompson denied it. Unlike intercourse, which would leave physical evidence that could prove the allegation in court, this incident came down to Henrie’s word against Thompson’s.
I’m not suggesting that we doubt Henrie’s account, that we discount her anger or that being a victim of such a thing would be anything less than a traumatic, hideous experience. We deeply empathize with her situation and commend her for standing up for herself.
The problem is that Caloia would be hard-pressed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it happened.
So the DA plea bargained and got a conviction for obstruction of telephone services and the domestic violence sentence enhancer. Thompson got a year of probation and must have a domestic violence evaluation. A civil protection order bars him from contact with Henrie.
Caloia, who is in what appears to be a tough re-election fight, told PI reporter Ryan Summerlin that the plea deal got Thompson to admit to the same level of misdemeanor as unlawful sexual contact or third-degree assault, and the sentencing would be the same.
The DA took a lot of heat in online comments on the story, and made a baffling remark to Summerlin that the fact that Henrie and Thompson were in a relationship, were living together and had a child together “colors it somewhat.” That should have no bearing on whether conduct is abusive. Living with someone does not grant or imply a license to abuse that person.
More on point, Caloia said that she doubted her office could prove that the contact was sexually motivated, which she said is required under the law.
“That’s the law we’re given, and the law I have to follow,” she said.
The case highlights the imperfection of our criminal justice system and the real difficulties all prosecutors face.
In any political campaign for prosecuting attorney positions, opponents of the incumbent will cherry pick certain plea deals and argue that they show poor judgment or a softness on a certain type of crime.
The fact is, though, that the winner of any such race will plea bargain just as much as the predecessor. The U.S. criminal justice system is groaning under the volume of cases, and “about 90 to 95 percent of both federal and state court cases are resolved” by plea bargain, according to a 2011 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.
The takeaways from this horrible incident:
1. Women need to be treated with care and respect when they come forward with such allegations and, again, Henrie is to be commended.
2. Deciding your vote for DA based on a plea bargain in an individual case overlooks the realities of the job and the nuances of the law.
Looking at another law enforcement matter, now that smoking anything is illegal in downtown Glenwood Springs but many smokers are ignoring that fact, I asked Police Chief Terry Wilson about enforcement and downtown foot patrols, which the City Council a year ago said it wanted and agreed to add an officer to the force.
As he told the council when it approved this year’s budget, getting cops on the street “takes a lot more time and work than approving them.” He said he lost three officers and one candidate didn’t make it through field training program.
“It’s just starting to turn the corner, with one officer just clearing from field training and two more within the month. We have another slated to start the police academy in September and will be testing again in three weeks to try to fill the three existing openings,” he said in an email.
“I think our foot patrols have been steady for weekend nighttime/bar purposes, but we have had limited time to provide the proactive patrols we want to accomplish during the evening hours. We hope the next round of hiring will put us into position to do that.”
As do we. Bridge construction seems to have quieted some of the aggressive panhandling that irritated visitors and locals downtown last summer, but when the bridge project is done, the issue will return.
The smoking ban is one piece of making downtown more pleasant and family-friendly, so we look forward to signs advising people about the new law and to officers reminding people and generally keeping the peace.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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