Weber strike force commander lauds tactical safety measures

Friday , February 28, 2014 - 11:55 AM

Cathy McKitrick, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Two years have passed since the chaotic shootout that occurred when cops, armed with guns and a search warrant, busted down the side door of Matthew Stewart’s home to seize 16 marijuana plants.

By the end of that terrifying night — Jan. 4, 2012 — the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force had lost one officer and another five were wounded, one an Ogden police officer who had just rolled up on the scene. Stewart allegedly shot all six within the first five minutes they entered his house. And Stewart, who also sustained gunshot wounds, lay in custody, facing hefty capital murder charges.

On May 24, 2013, a despondent Stewart apparently hanged himself while awaiting trial in the Weber County Jail.

To this day, grief haunts both the larger law enforcement community that banded together in support of fallen officer Jared Francom and also Stewart’s family and supporters who believe the “knock and announce” exercise was heavy-handed and horribly botched.

Lt. Troy Burnett, who took command of the Strike Force in July 2012 and was not part of the January raid, said he received a call that night that said Francom, his longtime friend and colleague, clung to life at Ogden Regional Medical Center.

“There were so many police there,” Burnett said, tearing up as he remembered the hospital scene. He appreciated the presence of Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell, and somehow the word had spread to several jurisdictions that Francom’s life hung by a thread. He died within a few hours, and a week later, thousands paid their respects at Francom’s funeral.

The other officers injured at the scene were Ogden Police officers Kasey Burrell and Shawn Grogan, Roy Police officer Jason Vanderwarf, and Sgt. Nate Hutchinson of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. Ogden Police officer Michael Rounkles was not on the strike force, but happened to “roll up on the scene.”

In response to the Stewart incident and others, the Strike Force’s executive board put Burnett in charge of a newly formed Tactical Operations Group in August 2012. Its specially trained members, tasked with serving any and all search warrants, must fully suit up in protective helmets and super-sized vests when they do that work.

“There’s no offensive weapons that were created in this. It was all for safety,” Burnett said. “Some people call it the militarization of police, but these people are humans. They have wives and families and deserve to go home.”

The undercover Strike Force consists of nine agents and three supervisors pulled from local law enforcement agencies to serve rotations. Cities that have no police power to share contribute an annual fee of 50 cents per resident, Burnett said, noting that the bulk of its budget comes from state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice grants and federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area funding. Those amounts vary year to year.

The TOG has no ongoing costs, Burnett said, since it draws from a pool of 40 officers who work full time at area law enforcement agencies and are borrowed briefly to serve warrants. Their protective equipment is purchased with seizure money, Burnett said — adding that officers must account for every dime.

While prosecuting and defense attorneys in the Matthew Stewart case argued over key points — whether the search warrant was valid, if Stewart knew that the men who awoke him using a battering ram to gain entry to his home were police officers, and who fired first within the home’s small hallway, a confined space that cops dubbed “the killbox” — such questions may never be fully put to rest.

But Erna Stewart, sister-in-law and close friend to Matthew Stewart, believes that beefing up current police tactics is continuing to travel in the wrong trajectory.

“Gearing up is not the answer. The problem is not whether police are protected enough,” Stewart said. “They need to stop going into homes, period. There’s a time and place for everything, but not for nonviolent offenders.”

Two years out, Stewart believes that more dialogue between the two camps would help. “I think about everyone in the whole situation, and it has changed the community,” Stewart said. “It’s something that needs to be talked about.”

She also hopes that community-oriented policing can make a comeback.

“Our focus is putting the peace back in policing, where things can be a little more compassionate,” Stewart said.

Although Burnett is convinced that Matthew Stewart was a “Tim McVeigh waiting to happen,” Erna Stewart knew her brother-in-law as a kindhearted, holistic man with a great sense of humor.

Prior to his death at age 39, Stewart had served in the U.S. Army, worked as an Internal Revenue Service security guard, earned a massage therapy license, and at the time of the 2012 raid was employed at Walmart, working graveyard shifts. He had no criminal record, but he did self-medicate with illegal homegrown cannabis.

Connor Boyack, president of the Provo-based Libertas Institute, hopes that state lawmakers can institute some changes in the way search warrants are administered.

“There need to be better guidelines as to when and how police officers can forcibly enter someone’s home,” Boyack said. “Under Utah law now, all you need is a warrant. We want to make sure that judges around the state are following the same standard.”

Boyack plans to unveil his proposed legislation by mid-January.

“We’re excited for our proposal to save lives on both sides of the gun,” Boyack said, “and to make sure that we’re only sending officers into homes to create that chaos when necessary.”

More on the Stewart case:

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

Reporter Tim Gurrister contributed to this story.

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