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EDITORIAL: No kid gloves for former cop

The Dispatch Editorial Board
York County District Attorney Dave Sunday during an interview at the York County Judicial Center, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday owes his constituents a better explanation, especially right now, “in the interest of justice.”

That was one reason Sunday’s office cited this past month when it moved to drop all charges against former Southwestern Regional Police Officer Stu Harrison, who is facing a simple assault trial for shooting a handcuffed suspect partially sitting in the back of a cruiser two years ago.

In seeking to dismiss the case, the DA’s office notes Harrison — who claims he unintentionally grabbed his pistol instead of his Taser — took “great steps” to prove he would not reoffend and expressed “a tremendous amount of remorse” for injuring Ryan Shane Smith.

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Southwestern Regional Police Officer Stu Harrison

The state police investigated and determined charges were warranted — and Sunday’s office initially agreed. Now, with his change of heart, it appears York County’s top prosecutor exposed an unfairness within the criminal justice system that offers cops special treatment.

Let’s accept Harrison’s account that he simply grabbed for the wrong weapon.

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Now take for example the case of Taisia Yeager, a 29-year-old woman charged in May with a pair of felonies after she left her children in the car while she ran into Weis Markets in Dover Township.

Or, perhaps, consider the case of Angela Lissette Barlow, 39, who last month pleaded guilty to a charge of child endangerment, a third-degree felony, after prosecutors said she permitted her child’s drunken father to babysit. Barlow’s sentence could be retroactively downgraded to a misdemeanor if she completes a court-ordered program, under the plea agreement.

The list goes on and on. Marijuana convictions. Driving under the influence. Shoplifting.

Christine Smith, center, husband Shane, and sister Cathy Glatfelter, right hold a peaceful protest in front of the York County Judicial Center after learning that the District Attorney's office has decided to drop charges against former Southwestern Regional Police Officer Stu Harrison, Monday, June 1, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

In none of these cases has the York County DA’s office appointed itself an advocate for the accused to the degree it has in this instance.

Well, Harrison’s a good guy, prosecutors said. In fact, he spent years as a police officer and, before that, a Marine, prosecutors claimed in their petition, as if that somehow negates the fact that he fired a bullet into a handcuffed man,

It’s “in the interest of justice” to dismiss the case, prosecutors wrote, seemingly without a sense of irony. Justice for whom is less clear.

Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook has scheduled a hearing for Monday to consider the prosecutors’ petition. Hopefully, Cook rejects the sweetheart deal.

The fact that Smith is white — in a moment when police killings of black men are front and center — does not separate entirely this case’s connection to this moment.

For years, district attorneys have been loathe to bring charges against law enforcement. Vice presidential aspirations of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., may very well have been dashed by her reluctance to prosecute police officers while she served as a prosecutor.

And there’s little doubt that, at least in some instances, the close relationships between the various arms of America’s prosecutorial system have shielded officers in exceptional ways that rendered accountability nearly impossible and eroded public trust.

Ryan Shane Smith

Maybe Sunday thought he would lose. Historically, juries, too, haven’t been too keen on convicting cops.

Maybe prosecuting Harrison — even on the strikingly lenient misdemeanor charge —would undermine Sunday’s relationship with local police forces. This explanation would represent a conflict of interest that would necessitate handing the case to a special prosecutor from outside York County.

Or, just maybe, Sunday has a special place in his heart reserved exclusively for cops.

Whatever the reason, Sunday owes York County residents a better explanation “in the interest of justice.”