2 years after Stewart shootout: Ogden police chief speaks out

Monday , January 06, 2014 - 6:05 AM

Andreas Rivera, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — It’s not an easy night to forget nor is it easy to talk about, but it has already gone down as the most horrific event to ever happen to the Ogden Police Department. Two years after the incident, Ogden Police Chief Mike Ashment wants to clear the air and several misconceptions about the Jan. 4, 2012 shootout that took the life of Officer Jared Francom.

Ashment said in an interview this week that vocal special interest groups and the news media have politicized the incident and the surrounding case, and in the process vilified the police when really they were men who were just doing their jobs.

Members of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force and Ogden Police Department went to the residence of Matthew David Stewart to serve a “knock-and-announce” search warrant. The strike force had been tipped off by Stewart’s then-girlfriend that he was growing several marijuana plants in his home.

After knocking, a few minutes passed before the team of seven strike force agents broke down the door. That’s when Stewart began firing a 9mm handgun and several members of the strike force were shot, Francom fatally. Stewart was shot multiple times before surrendering.

In May 2013, Stewart apparently hanged himself in his jail cell while awaiting trial. Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said this week that everything leading up to the knock-and-announce at Stewart’s home was standard procedure.

“We serve these warrants because we’re trying to keep our communities safe,” Smith said. Drugs have a detrimental impact on neighborhoods, sparking a rise in all other serious crimes including gang activity and prostitution, he said.

Smith said the strike force deals with 450 to 550 cases a year.

Police had visited Stewart’s home three times previously to talk with him.

Smith said that in cases like Stewart’s, if he had answered the door, they would have asked him to give up his marijuana grow, and in most cases wouldn’t even arrest him, only serve him with a court summons.

“It’s a convenient conclusion to push blame off to somebody else. Push blame to the police for what happened,” Ashment said. “The facts just don’t bear that out.”

The case has been condemned by groups critical of the police’s use of search warrants and the drug war on marijuana.

Ashment said whether or not people think marijuana should be decriminalized is irrelevant to the analysis of this case because the police do not make the laws, only enforce them, and the men who were shot at were only doing their job.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Matthew David Stewart knew he was shooting at police. There’s no way he could have not known. He made that conscious decision,” Ashment said, adding that the officers did not burst in unannounced and made their presence well known with lights and sirens.

Another misconception Ashment spoke about with frustration is the so-called “militarization of the police.” The officers in the Stewart search were armed with standard-issue handguns and light bulletproof vests, and the only rifle showed up with backup officers after the shooting began, he said.

Ashment also rebutted claim by Stewart supporters that friendly fire injured officers. He said all the shots that hit agents came from Stewart’s gun.

Ashment said the officers that night are praised as heroes because everything they did after the shooting began was to get their fellow officers out of that house to safety.

Francom was hit while giving covering fire so that Officer Shawn Grogan, who had been shot in the jaw, could be evacuated, he said.

Smith said those men sacrificed themselves for their fellow officers and instead of looking at that, the media coverage seemed to continually vilify them as thugs.

Ashment added that they are willing to stand up to any mistakes that were made, but the message that has been continually pushed has wrongly portrayed them as overzealous and overaggressive.

Despite the criticism from Stewart’s supporters, Ashment believes the majority of the community understands and supports what the police and the strike force do. He said his officers saw that during Francom’s funeral proceeding.

“They saw thousands of people line up on the street for Jared,” Ashment said. “I think it carried them through the negativity that followed.”

The department offered counseling, but that the reality is that most cops are not likely to say they need that kind of help, he said. Instead the support they normally seek is from their peers, and it has been very strong.

Smith said it speaks to the quality of the men involved in the incident since all of them are still active police officers today.

“Too often these guys are dealing with negativity,” Smith said. “You can’t deal with what they deal with every day for years and not have it affect you in some way.”

Ashment said it’s good for them to see reminders that they’re respected and appreciated.

“Everything about their job is critiqued, how they talk to people, how they act around them,” the chief said. “There’s no way to appease everybody. And at the end of the day, for the most part, people respect what they do and they’re thankful for their service.”

Contact reporter Andreas Rivera at 801-625-4227 or arivera@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @SE_Andreas.

More on the Stewart case:http://www.case-files.standardnetlive.com/

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