Some final thoughts on one of the toughest stories the Sanpete Messenger has covered

By Suzanne Dean

Publisher

Sept. 28, 2017

 

With the retirement of Ron Rasmussen, the Ephraim police controversy, one of the more difficult stories we at the Messenger have dealt with in many years, is over. I’m glad. And I have a few final thoughts.

First, no matter what skills, values and deficits (and we all have them) the chief brought to the job, his 28 years of service represents, as the mayor and city council pointed out following his retirement announcement, an enormous contribution.

Day in, day out, year in and year out, he responded to calls involving every imaginable sticky situation and tragedy. By all accounts, rather than arresting people and going for maximum punishment, he often tried to use those incidents to educate citizens and encourage them to take better courses in their lives. There is certainly a place in police work for such an approach.

I promised to review our coverage of the controversy to determine if the Sanpete Messenger was balanced and unbiased.

I did so. I put together some spreadsheets. One covered news stories plus my three opinion columns on the controversy, one covered news stories only, and one covered letters to the editor and other opinion items submitted to us by others (including the resignation letter from the three officers.)

Using the word-count feature on my computer, I counted the number of words in each piece that tended to favor the chief, the number of words that were neutral (such as reporting on the sequence of events, the investigative process, etc.) and the number that tended to support the allegations of the three officers.

I decided the fairest analysis was to separate news from opinion, as we do weekly in production of the paper. I did make one deviation. I wrote a 2,400-word analysis of the Utah County investigative report. It was the longest item we ran on the controversy, and although I ran it as a column on the Opinion page, 90 percent of it was straight news.

On items that ran as news stories, including analysis of the Utah County report, 49 percent of space favored the officers, 36 percent favored the chief, and 15 percent was neutral.

On submitted opinion pieces, including the officers’ resignation letter, letters to the editor, and excerpts from comments on our Facebook page, 54 percent of words favored the resigning officers’ viewpoint and 46 percent favored the chief.

One never achieves 50-50 balance in journalism. One problem we faced was that nearly every time we wrote a story, we sought Chief Rasmussen’s reply. For the most part, he didn’t return our calls.

On reflection, however, our coverage was deficient on one important point. We didn’t try to buttonhole the mayor, every member of the city council and the city manager and attempt to interview them in depth to find out what was said in the closed meeting where the council decided to reinstate Chief Rasmussen after placing him on administrative leave.

Since the whole thing was a personnel matter, I’m not sure how much they would have told us. But the lack of an explanation of the rationale for the city council vote was a gap in our coverage.

Rasmussen’s retirement gives City Manager Brant Hanson a chance to mold a completely new department with clear reporting lines. The job posting for a new chief seeks someone who has a college degree and/or progressively responsible supervisory experience in law enforcement. That’s what a growing Ephraim needs.

One final point: Over my career, I’ve written tons of stories involving police. But nearly all of those have been about crimes and arrests. The Ephraim police story opened my eyes to the central role of officers in a community.

The presence of police officers is one of the main things that make a collection of people and buildings into a community. Police officers represent all of us as, day in and day out, they go face-to-face into homes and businesses. They listen to disputes, take complaints and deal with people who are having some of their worst times. Then they try, within the law, to fix those problems.

Yes, they solve crimes and arrest people. But a huge part of what they do is daily public service, ranging from unlocking a car, to helping kids across the street to school, to rescuing a pet, to searching for a lost child, to trying to prevent a suicide.

We owe them more than we could ever pay them, and we don’t thank them enough.