A retired law-enforcement friend says we should be asking our county commissioners how much they plan to pay for law enforcement five years from now. The best guess today, he says, is on the low side.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing while in the custody of the Minneapolis Police, we have calls to, “Defund the police.” Not reform it, as some moderate liberals proclaim in hopes of changing the narrative, but actually defund it as the radicals on the Minneapolis City Council said.

New York City has taken the bait. Big Apple Mayor Bill DeBlasio has cut a billion dollars from the police budget in his city. That’ll show ‘em. It certainly has. Police are resigning by the dozens.

That’s not to make light of Floyd’s death or the other police killings that have occurred around the nation in recent years. However, while everyone agrees that we need to get rid of the “bad apples,” apparently in some circles one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

Regardless, there’s another side to the story about policing that hasn’t gotten much play recently. That side asks, what if your life and property are threatened, and you don’t think the police will come, or worse, won’t do anything to solve the problem?

As fate would have it, a new book has been published that looks at the issue from that view. For any Central Minnesota resident who wants to think about it, I recommend reading “Imprisoned by Fear.” Written by Kathy Lange, it’s the true-crime tragedy in which, on Thanksgiving Day 2012, Byron Smith of Little Falls killed two teenage burglars who broke into his home.

This wasn’t the first home invasion. Smith had been burglarized several times before and lost tens of thousands of dollars in cash and belongings. For his trouble, Smith was sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder.

Lange was a neighbor and a friend of Smith’s. More than that, she and her husband John took Smith into their home a few days after the murders. He lived with them until his conviction.

While real-life crime-solving is never so simple as Hollywood would have us believe (e.g. “Blue Bloods” episodes usually solve three felonies in 60 minutes), in Lange’s telling, Smith was consumed by fear from the invasions. He believed the sheriff’s department had done almost nothing to solve them, especially one on Oct. 27. Indeed, Lange writes that a neighbor quoted former Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel as saying, “We botched it.”

In addition, in the middle of the night, repeatedly someone was ringing Smith’s doorbell, waking him up. He would get out of bed, go to the door, find no one and wonder if he had been dreaming.

On that Thanksgiving Day, he decided to clean out his garage. He moved a vehicle out of the garage, but instead of parking it in the driveway, Smith drove around the block and parked it in front of the home of two State Patrol officers.

Why? He claimed he was afraid of vandalism if the vehicle sat outside overnight. Between the break-ins and lack of sleep, Smith was totally stressed out.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who prosecuted the case, said Smith was setting a trap. Smith walked the three minutes back to his house, went downstairs with some candy bars and reading material and sat in a chair with guns by his side. Not an hour later, would-be burglars Nick Brady and Haile Kifer arrived, broke a window to gain entry, and he killed them both.

Not knowing how many more burglars were out there, he then waited 24 hours before contacting authorities. Once he did, he cooperated fully and that’s what led to his conviction. He had an audio recording of the killings. If he had thrown it in the river, he could have said almost anything, and the police could not have convicted him. Minnesota law says that one can defend one’s property, including taking the life of another, if your life or property are threatened. However, the law also says that one should only use sufficient force to end the threat, not more.

At trial, Smith’s attorney, Steve Meshbesher, wanted to emphasize Smith’s state of mind by dwelling on the previous burglaries and also how a person reacts at a time of seemingly life-threatening stress. Orput kept objecting, Judge Doug Anderson kept sustaining and Meshbesher kept asking for a mistrial.

The verdict has been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court, and is now awaiting a ruling in federal district court. But in the wake of the rioting and looting following George Floyd’s killing, one can’t help but wonder how many more Byron Smiths are going to be created in the coming weeks and months. The governing elites remain mostly mum about the half billion in property damage in the Twin Cities riots. Meanwhile, the FBI announced a record 3.9 million background checks nationwide on firearm purchases in June.

Instead of dismantling law enforcement, we ought to make sure that after we “reform” the bad apples out, the job remains attractive enough to keep the “protect and serve” variety in place. Doing otherwise is to invite more Byron Smiths to come forward in defense of their own lives and property.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at westwords.mcr@gmail.com.

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