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‘Everybody wants it to be clear,’ but no policy or rule can cover it all

Use of force, officer discretion in Idaho County in the wake of Adams County Yantis shooting

— Four months later, questions continue on the circumstances involved in the fatal officer-related shooting of a long-time rancher in neighboring Adams County. As the public awaits the completion of an Idaho State Police investigation, the Free Press discussed some of the issues involved with Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings and Undersheriff Jim Gorges, as they relate to how law enforcement is governed and applied locally.

Right off the bat, the pair laid the complexity of community policing that brings multiple factors to bear, dependent upon the unique circumstances of each call an officer responds to. How those matters are resolved depends as much on the training and experience of the officer involved as it does the policies and philosophy of the agency he or she works under.

“You can’t codify every response,” Giddings said. “That’s discretionary as an officer.”

Case in point: use of force. Gorges explained three factors that go into that determination: ability, opportunity and jeopardy; to elaborate, does the person have a weapon and the ability to use it? Is the person within striking distance? Is there intent to use the weapon?

“And these are all general,” Giddings said. “So there’s a young guy with a knife, 21 feet from you, coming at you. Can you use force? Yes. But on an 81-year-old guy in a walker? That would be a hard thing to explain to a jury.”

“Everybody wants it to be clear,” Gorges continued, but no policy or rule can cover it all.

For this reason, Giddings explained, this starts with setting the departmental law enforcement goal with officers, which is to gain compliance, “and constantly preaching it.”

The occasion for this discussion was the Nov. 1 shooting of 62-year-old cattle rancher Jack Yantis of Council by two Adams County deputies who were initially responding to a double-injury car versus bull accident. With the rancher armed with a rifle to put his bull down, somewhere in this process – the facts of which are still being determined — shots were fired and Yantis was killed.

It was a situation where “everything went wrong,” Giddings said.

For his deputies, Giddings emphasizes maintaining control of the scene: “When they get there, it doesn’t matter who is there; they [deputies] are in charge.” At an accident scene, they are to prevent further problems and keep it safe; allowing emergency crews to do their job, assisting them where necessary, preventing further injuries and, as well, keeping out unrelated players to the action.

“If you don’t have business there, that’s a problem that can create a problem,” he said, “and that’s where it starts.”

In the past several years, body cameras have been an aid to law enforcement in providing an impartial witness to critical situations officers become involved with. The Idaho County Sheriff’s Office has been using body cameras for about three years for both deputies and jailers. No specific department policy governs their activation; use is at the discretion of staff when in situations with the public that may require documentation, whether for clarification of event details or for potential court action.

“And it protects them [ICSO personnel],” Giddings said. “When people complain, we know exactly what took place,” continuing that body camera usage affects the dealings of both deputy and citizen: “They both know it’s on, and they tend to be more cautious, and they don’t make false complaints against an officer.”

Avoiding unnecessary conflicts between law enforcement and the public starts with the officers, according to Giddings and Gorges, in having positive interactions with citizens and developing relationships.

“I tell them, ‘You’re always on parade. You mess up out there, you make a bad decision and you’re done,’” Giddings said, with the public watching, and now more than ever before, those interactions showing up on social media. Officers have to interact with discretion, using their training and experience as guides, along with the department’s goal of gaining compliance. The other guy may be acting belligerent, he said, but deputies should not respond in kind.

“I preach to them: Never turn an infraction or a misdemeanor into a felony, to the best of your ability,” he said. Again, it’s about gaining compliance, rather than about being right, he explained, so it may be that, for example, a motorist stopped for speeding is so irate and beyond reason that a verbal warning is warranted versus issuing a ticket; it’s a discretionary call by the officer.

But there’s a flip side for citizens to be aware of as well, Giddings said.

“Officers aren’t there to cause a problem. They’re there to solve a problem,” he said. Arguing, being obnoxious or failure to cooperate with the officer isn’t going to win your case. “You have to wait until things calm down: in court, in jail, at home. Even if you think the officer was so wrong you’d be willing to bet your last paycheck, you won’t gain anything productive trying to take it up with the officer who is trying to complete his task.”

Overall, law enforcement works well in Idaho County as residents are largely good to deal with, and there isn’t a large number of serious criminal problems, according to Giddings. Part of this is also due to the staff of deputies who are involved in their communities and handle problems “with a firm hand but a loving hand.”

“I preach to them constantly they are there to serve the citizens,” he said.


Idaho State Police press release:

On Nov. 1, 2015, the Adams County Sheriff's Office requested the Idaho State Police to investigate a shooting involving two deputies. The incident occurred after a vehicle crash on US 95 involving a bull owned by local rancher, Jack Yantis, 62 of Council. During the incident Mr. Yantis was fatally shot.

Idaho State Police detectives have worked diligently on this investigation over the course of the past four months and will be handing the results of the investigation over to the Idaho Attorney General's Office, who is acting as the special prosecutor in this case, in the coming days.

"We want the individuals, families and community to know that this investigation has been at the top of our priority list and we are eager for its conclusion," said Captain Bill Gardiner. "As with all investigations, the work must be thoroughly and accurately completed. We appreciate the patience displayed by all involved."

Over the course of the investigation Idaho State Police detectives have interviewed forty-two people. Many of these individuals were interviewed multiple times. Detectives gathered and comprehensively examined all evidence available at the scene of the incident. The 28 items of evidence collected were sent to four different laboratories for forensic analysis. There are still two reports from forensic laboratories that detectives are waiting on to close the investigation. ISP has been informed that the analysis by both labs is complete and that the reports will arrive at any time, however a firm date has not been provided.

When the final two reports are received, ISP will officially turn the case over to the Attorney General's Office. ISP has worked with the AG's Office during the course of the investigation in an effort to speed the investigation along as quickly as possible.

ISP will inform the public when its investigation has concluded.


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