April 20, 2014

Gill and Bennion in the press: a study in restraint and the lack thereof

Chad Bennion, Salt Lake County Republican Party Chair.

It’s hard to tell who feels more “fortunate” right now: the “prosecutor,” the “press,” or the “politician.”

The first, Sim Gill, has just finished a difficult investigation into the shooting death of an unarmed woman by West Valley police in November of 2012. His findings, relying heavily on forensic evidence at the scene of Danielle Willard’s death, found that not only did the undercover police officers‘ story not match what happened, but they were not justified in shooting her. In the press conference announcing the findings of his investigation, Gill was impressively restrained.

He would not, however, comment on what motivated the detectives to tell a story different from what he said the evidence showed. He also cautioned against “rumors” of a department-wide cover-up or conspiracy in the Willard case, and said the department had been cooperative in assisting his office’s investigation. He also emphasized the actions of “one or some” officers was not indicative of the entire department.

If the news report is to be trusted, Gill was the model restraint, avoiding politicization or grand standing.

The second, the press, has found themselves a controversy that doesn’t, for once,  lead back to Attorney General John Swallow. On one side, Gill’s investigation has leveled some serious accusations against members of the West Valley police. On the other is the Fraternal Order of Police and–here where we need to introduce the politician–Chad Bennion, chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party.  The only thing that sells  better than controversy is sex, and since this is Salt Lake, the Tribune will have to settle for controversy.

And Bennion delivered that. When Bennion heard Gill’s results, instead of making a comment about Gill using the investigation to increase his profile or something in support of the people of West Valley, or the police, or even the parents of Willard, to say nothing about upholding the rule of law, he jumped at the opportunity to score political points.

Salt Lake County Republican Chairman Chad Bennion was even more blunt, calling Gill’s record “weak” and suggesting the D.A.’s upbringing in India, where Gill has discussed witnessing injustices, may be tainting his current performance. Bennion said Gill has been “letting criminals off” — a reference to the scores of cases that have been dismissed over concerns about West Valley City’s Narcotics Unit — while coming down hard on police officers.

Salt Lake County District Attorney, Sim Gill

The cases in question were dismissed by Gill after it came to light that members of the now disbanded West Valley Police narcotics unit were mishandling and mis-labelling evidence, as well as possibly missing drugs and money. Back then, Gill declined to identify the officers in question, but they turned out to be the same officers as shot Willard.

Any second year law student can tell you that evidence that has been contaminated by improper handling will make it impossible to use in court.  Any defense lawyer worth his bar license would have a field day with the best prosecutor using mishandled and tainted evidence.

But that’s not the worst of what Bennion said. Up to now, anything Bennion said about the cases could be written off to being poorly informed. However, it’s attacking Gill for his “upbringing in India” when Bennion begins to show evidence of a less than objective perspective.

I’m not sure whether that has the taint of racism or is just an effort to color Gill’s performance as biased. I’m inclined to note, however, that if Gill is biased, he’s done a remarkable job of keeping his comments  restrained and on topic. In short, he’s limited himself to the performance of his duties, leaving color commentary to others.

To pile it on, Bennion called Gill a “cop hater” and when asked by the press said he stood by his comments, earning himself another day in the news. It smacks of someone looking towards the next election more than the interests of truth and justice. Which, after all, is why Bennion may be counting himself lucky. Salt Lake County is no longer safely Republican, and Bennion has a lot of lost ground to make up.


I know Bennion, and I like him. He’s a reasonable guy. But I can’t imagine what would possess him to attack Gill in such crude terms. Gill’s motives are immaterial to the results of the investigation or the dismissal of cases, a fact that should have some bearing on how Bennion should be representing his party in his public discourse, especially when criticizing the findings. If Bennion wants to uphold the rule of law, as well as prove that the Republican Party in Salt Lake County is as interested in justice and keeping cops accountable as it is in winning elections, then Bennion should apologize and more carefully describe his criticisms of Gill’s investigation.

About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Ryan Jenkins says:

    ABSOLUTELY WELL SAID DANIEL!!! (Notice I am shouting)

  2. I don’t know Sim Gill, but I spent a few years working with his dad. His father is a good man. I know many of the leaders of the Sikh temple in Utah.

    I think Chad Bennion is badly referring to what Sim himself has said, but not doing a great job of doing it, or the press is not connecting the dots.

    http://voicesofutah.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/from-india-to-district-attorney-sim-gill-fights-for-salt-lake-county/

    (from that account)
    Gill, 52, spoke in a faint Indian accent of a formative moment from his youth, to a classroom of 13 students recently at the University of Utah. At the age of “eight or nine” in his native India, Gill said, he witnessed the brutal beating of a man accused of stealing jewelry from a neighbor’s home, and in the end, the beating of an innocent man.

    “That left a very strong impression on me,” Gill said, “that when you have that authority, when you have that power, when you have that capacity to alter and impact people’s lives, you have to really use that with a great level of deference and responsibility.”

    I believe Utah has seen a large problem from Ogden to other places in the state of an abuse of power by a few members of the police, based on the 4th amendment and state law. I have no problem with Sim Gill calling them on it.

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