SALT LAKE CITY — West Valley Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen said Monday that if a vigilante shooting similar to the Trayvon Martin case occurred in his jurisdiction, it would be investigated like any other homicide.
Nielsen spoke during a community forum on law enforcement, hosted by the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP at the Law and Justice Center. Nielsen was asked about law enforcement practices on subjects from routine traffic stops to the use of force for self defense and emphasized that a community's trust in law enforcement is crucial to ebbing the actions of criminals.
"They all sleep somewhere at night," Nielsen said. "Where they learn their hate is neighborhoods. Where we build our support is neighborhoods."
His comments of community confidence come at a time when the West Valley Police Department is facing national scrutiny for its handling of the Susan Powell investigation. Critics question why Josh Powell — Susan's husband and the only person of interest named in the woman's disappearance — was never arrested, especially in light of his decision to take his life and the life of his two sons as well as recent court documents made public in Washington that list some of the evidence collected by West Valley City Police.
Prior to the forum, Nielsen responded to the criticisms by saying "if we could have arrested him, we would have." The subject permeated the forum, however, with Nielsen referencing the case implicitly and speaking of the higher standard of proof required in modern criminal cases.
"We represent, really, the victim," Nielsen said. "Our goal is, how do we protect our evidence so we can get a conviction."
Nielsen said the number one priority of government is to ensure public safety. He said that mistakes are sometimes made and residents should feel comfortable issuing complaints and be confident that their concerns will be addressed.
Responding to questions about the Trayvon Martin shooting — in which a young black man was shot and killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who claims he acted in self-defense — Nielsen said that generally speaking the neighborhood watch program has been a "wonderful success." He added, however, that problems arise when volunteers carry guns and take the law into their own hands.
"They should be the eyes and ears," he said.
Nielsen spoke of Utah's self-defense laws, which permits someone to use deadly force in circumstances where their life, or the lives of others, are threatened. He emphasized, however, that every case is unique and protection under the law is not guaranteed.
He said he wasn't familiar enough with the specifics of the Trayvon Martin shooting to comment on whether it was being handled correctly, but added that due process would be followed in a similar local case. National attention to a case, he said, adds pressure on law enforcement officers to be extra thorough, which often makes arrests and charges take more time.
Ultimately, he said, police officers want to "catch the bad guy" regardless of race, gender or other demographic criteria.