Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with Eric Hill, whose home was wrongfully invaded in December at 2:30am as police were looking for a soldier who went AWOL.
Libertas Institute: Please tell us about your experience.
Eric Hill: On December 20, 2012, my oldest daughter came into my room at 2:30am saying that she heard some banging near her closet. I was half awake, of course, and told her to go back to bed. As I was telling her that, I heard some really loud banging. I told her to get in our bed (our youngest daughter was already in bed with us).
At that point I grabbed a baseball bat and went upstairs. On my way up I was peeking out of various windows and couldn’t see anything. I was confused. I walked to my daughter’s room, looked out her window and didn’t see anything. But then I heard the banging again. By this time I could tell that it was at the front door.
I yelled “who is it?” and didn’t get any response at all. Each time I asked that, they just pounded some more. I walked closer to the door, and finally at the top of my lugs I shouted again “who is it?” and finally heard “Ogden City Police!”
At this point I was skeptical as to whether it was really the police, because I had looked out the windows and didn’t see any police vehicles, and because they took so long to respond to my repeated questions.
I unlocked the door with my free hand, held the bat raised with the other, and opened the door as fast as I could to face what was at the door before it came in. What was at the door was three officers with semi-auto rifles pointed at my face, screaming at me to drop the bat. I did, and as soon as I did they instructed me to come out of the house with my hands in the air. They immediately placed me in handcuffs and told me to face the street.
By that time I saw three other officers come around from the side of my house, making a total of six officers. They asked me if there were weapons in the house, and I told them I had rifles. I kept asking them what was going on, and they wouldn’t give me any answers. They asked me who else was in the home, and I told them that my wife and two kids were downstairs scared out of their minds. Again I asked what was going on, and again they refused to answer me.
When I told them that my family was in the home, the officer holding me in handcuffs nodded his head at the other officers, and three of them went inside. Two of them had rifles, the other had a tactical shotgun. They never presented any warrant.
I was outside for 3-5 minutes. I was then told to turn around, and was led back into my home. They had taken all the couch cushions off to search it, and then sat me down and kept holding me by the handcuffs. I kept looking towards the stairs, waiting for somebody to come up. I could hear my kids screaming, and my wife kept asking what the problem was, what was going on. They were terrified, trembling, screaming, as they came up the stairs. The officer was behind them with his rifle.
As my wife would later tell me, when I went outside she could hear the commotion but couldn’t make out what was going on. She had 911 dialed on her phone and ready to press send. She didn’t know what was going on either. She was at the bottom of the stairs when she was met by an officer holding up his rifle, with a light that lit up the staircase. He never identified himself. My wife put her hands up in the air, later saying that she thought we were being robbed.
The officers said they had reason to believe that I was an AWOL deserter and they had a felony warrant for me. I told them I had never been in the military and didn’t know what they were talking about. The officer kept telling me that I matched the description and that I was lying to them, and that I was making things worse for myself. I kept telling them I had no clue what they were talking about, all while they kept swearing at me, telling me to ‘fess up.
I told them I had two vehicles in the driveway registered in my name, Eric Hill, and that I owned the house we were in. One of the officers went outside and I could hear him put in the request to look up the plate number for my truck. They verified that it was in my name, and the officer kept staring at my ID for a long time. Finally they realized that they had the wrong person, so they started making their way outside.
As they were leaving, the same officer that had me in the handcuffs picked up my baseball bat, spun it around, and said “a Louisville slugger, huh?” I said yeah. He said “well you’re lucky you didn’t come upstairs with a gun, because I would have wasted ya.” He slammed the door shut, and they were gone.
LI: When they left, they didn’t apologize or act remorseful for what had happened?
EH: There were never any apologies, nothing. At one point I was trying to reassure my oldest daughter (while I was in handcuffs) that things would be alright, that we would get it all sorted out. The officers never said or did anything to try and help my kids feel better at all, or anything. They never apologized. They made us feel like it was my fault that they came to the wrong house.
LI: What was it like for your little girls to watch you be handcuffed?
EH: For the first two weeks afterward, they slept in my bed. Then they moved to the floor by the bed, and now they’re in their rooms again. Our neighbor sometimes brings us eggs from his chickens, and once he knocked on the door and both my daughters got scared and went to hide. My youngest recently drew a picture of cops with guns and knives.
They don’t think that cops are good people now. I’ll try to tell them that not every cop is bad, but it still lingers on. Even with me, too, I have a hard time when I hear a car door in the middle of the night, I can’t sleep… I leave early in the morning to go to work, and my wife and kids are left at home, and it bothers me.
LI: One of the comments made after the event is by the Deputy County Attorney Gary Heward, who said that serving warrants on innocent people, and the trauma because of it, is unavoidable. “It’s very unfortunate, but it’s the world we live in today,” he said. Does that seem like a dismissal to you?
EH: That’s exactly how I feel about it. When I went forward to the media, only then did people start trying to call and apologize to me. I got a call from the police chief in Ogden one morning, and he said he wanted to hear my side of the story. I told him what happened, and he started making excuses for his officers, saying that they’re way more professional than that, and that he didn’t have any indication they behaved as they did.
The only reason he called to apologize, I felt like, is because his guys were portrayed in the media as bad people. It didn’t feel sincere at all. He told me that they could get my side of the story to start an internal investigation, but I told him there wouldn’t be any point since they would just cover up their own butts. He told me that’s not how it works at all, and I told him that’s exactly how it works. I see it all the time.
LI: So you haven’t filed a complaint?
EH: I haven’t. The conclusion wouldn’t be credible. Eventually we spoke at a city council meeting, and the Mayor said he wanted an internal investigation anyways, and that he wanted to get to the bottom of it. He wanted a full report by three days later. Three weeks later he got the report, and it was basically calling me everything short of being a liar.
The report said that after the event happened we were all laughing about it, and that they apologized and we shook hands. It said that one of the officers was hugging my child and making her feel better. It said that my kids were asking the officers what the neat things on their belts were. It said that my wife made a comment about how the event would be a funny story to tell around the water cooler at work. None of that ever happened at all.
I know mistakes happen. If it were to happen, and they would have apologized and tried to make it right, I never would have went so far with it.
LI: Heward is the lead prosecutor in the Matthew David Stewart case, where officers invaded the home of a man suspected of growing some marijuana, and in the volley of bullets from both sides one officer died. Even before that, the same narcotics strike force invaded a home where the suspect no longer lived, and ended up shooting and killing a man, Todd Blair, who grabbed a golf club in self defense, likely not knowing who was barging into his home. Do you worry that police officers have become a bit too trigger-happy, or that they’re doing these things in the middle of the night and in ways that produce bad results rather than properly investigating and doing due diligence?
EH: I am worried about that, and it’s really opened up my eyes lately, the more I follow it. It happens so often! It’s almost as if police officers think their bullets have expiration dates, and they need to use ‘em or lose ‘em. That’s how it seems, at least.
I feel lucky, because initially I thought to pick up my shotgun. But seeing my two kids in my bed, scared of the pounding noises, I didn’t want to scare them any further so I grabbed the bat. If I would have grabbed the shotgun, I’m sure I wouldn’t be doing this interview…
Troy Burnett is the officer who shot and killed Todd Blair a couple years ago, and he was assigned to my case. He kept calling me, wanting to talk it out, wanting me to go into his office so we could get to the bottom of things. I never answered, thinking that he would have a biased opinion, and I didn’t want to talk to him. He’s a killer.
LI: In a Tribune article about your story, Lieutenant Will Cragun said that your wanting to defend yourself with a baseball bat was understandable. “He has the right to protect his family,” he reportedly said. But you also have the right to defend your family with a firearm, and yet you were told by one of the officers that they very likely would have shot and killed you had you done so. Do you sense some sort of disconnect with that?
EH: Exactly. I should be able to defend myself. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t, but that’s the first thing that crossed my mind — to grab a firearm. It’s a crappy deal.
LI: Ogden officials told a reporter that the issue of officer safety has to be raised, even when it’s the officers creating the danger. How does that make you feel?
EH: Yeah, the title of that article said that “officer safety comes first.” I thought they were involved in “public safety,” you know?
LI: Your wife told the city council, “I want to raise my kids in a safe environment, and to be victimized by the same people that you felt should have your back is horrific.” Do you think there’s a systemic problem in law enforcement where the citizens they’re supposed to serve are instead fearful of them and in many cases not actually being “served”?
EH: Yeah, for sure. It shouldn’t be that way. Something needs to change and it doesn’t look like the officers are going to change it themselves as a result of internal investigations.
LI: If you could wave a magic wand and change something related to law enforcement, what would it be?
EH: I think there needs to be a complete reprogramming. Police need to unlearn all the things they’ve grown used to lately, and learn how to actually serve people, how to treat them, etc. The entire system and culture needs to be reworked because what’s happening now isn’t working.