SALT LAKE CITY — As the full auditorium at the Salt Lake City Library buzzed with friendly chatter, Melissa Kennedy was busy in the corner of the room.
From a large suitcase she pulled stuffed animals, sweaters, jackets and other items that once belonged to her daughter, Danielle Willard. The 21-year-old woman died in West Valley City last November, killed by a gunshot to the head delivered by undercover narcotics officer Shaun Cowley.
Kennedy brought the items to share with the group in Utah that she said has become her extended family and support team in the nearly 10 months since her daughter was killed. The size 0 jeans and small sweaters also show how little her daughter was, hardly a threat to two armed officers, she said.
Before the event began, the families gathered together along 400 South and raised signs decrying police brutality, unjustified shootings and police militarization. They wore red shirts, which they said represented bloodshed and lives lost, with the names of family members on the back.
"All these people are here for a reason," Kennedy said. "They have been brutalized. They have family members that have been killed or put in jail for bogus reasons."
For Danielle Willard's family, now that the shooting has been ruled unjustified, the hope is that the two officers who pulled the trigger that day will face criminal charges and that laws will be changed preventing future officer-involved shootings.
Kennedy spoke on a panel discussion about the state of Utah police, which included accounts by former Davis County sheriff and Utah Senate candidate William "Dub" Lawrence, whose son-in-law was shot by officers; the sister of Matthew David Stewart, who was accused of shooting at officers who raided his Ogden home in January 2012 and later killed himself in his jail cell; and the sister of Corey Kanosh, who was killed in October 2012 in an altercation with a Millard County sheriff's deputy.
Lawrence, who comes from a long line of law enforcement and helped organize Davis County's first SWAT team, became emotional as he told the crowd that Utah law enforcement has lost its way.
"Having gone the full gamut, from the 1970s to today, I'm telling you we're on the wrong track. We need to go back and restore some of what was intended in that doctrine that we hold so sacred as our Constitution," Lawrence said, voicing his support for faithful officers and his disdain for those who waver. "Police officers have found themselves in situations and conducted themselves in such a way that I am ashamed of the profession that I treasured."
Fred Willard, Danielle's father, thanked the community that has rallied behind his daughter, shared his concern about aggressive police forces and emphasized support for those officers who act appropriately.
"I believe everybody in this auditorium, in some way or another, felt compelled that it was important … to be here tonight to cover, talk or listen about a serious problem that has been growing across this great nation," he said. "That is the use of unjustified or excessive force in many, many instances that leads to unneeded death."
The panel followed a presentation by author Radley Balko about his book "Rise of the Warrior Cop," which recounts the process of police militarization since the 1960s.
Balko started his one-hour presentation with a video that went viral online in 2010, depicting officers in Columbia, Mo., charging into a home late at night shouting "search warrant." Within moments of entering, gunshots were heard as the officers shot a dog. A small child and his mother are rushed down the hallway, and a man cries, "What's happening?"
The crowd was shocked.
From there, Balko asked the crowd to guess "cop or soldier" as he showed images of men in camouflage armor and helmets hanging off armored vehicles or helicopters, all carrying large guns.
The group gasped at a photo of a man in camo armor and carrying a large rifle moving through the trees, as Balko announced, "That's an Oregon state trooper."
This kind of force that was once reserved for riots and hostage takings and bank robberies, in a lot of jurisdictions, is becoming the first option that these police agencies are turning to.
–Radley Balko, author
Balko called for an emphasis on constitutional protections meant to ensure civilian safety.
"We need to resist a culture of militarism. We need to resist standing armies. We need to resist using soldiers and gear designed for war for domestic law enforcement," he said. "The military's job is to annihilate a foreign enemy, to kill people and break things, and they do it well. The job of the police is to protect and serve."
As officers are treated as soldiers and told they are fighting wars, the separation between military and police "is blurred to where there's really no distinction at all," he said.
Balko's book sold out before the event began. He was charismatic, his sardonic presentation drawing laughs at moments and dismayed groans at others as he shared examples of SWAT raids on mistaken addresses or unlikely targets, expanding police forces, anecdotes of victims and a high-energy promotional video showing the power of the Lenco BearCat set to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck."
"This kind of force that was once reserved for riots and hostage takings and bank robberies, in a lot of jurisdictions, is becoming the first option that these police agencies are turning to," he said.