Police officers have been responsible for more homicides in the state of Utah since 2010 than gangs or drug dealers, a new report has revealed.
Of the nearly 300 homicides in the state in the past five years, from the beginning of 2010 through October 2014, Utah police have killed 45 of those victims, or 15 percent, according to a review of records – ranging from media reports and crime statistics to medical-examiner and court documents – by the Salt Lake Tribune. Police account for more killings than gangs, drug dealers or from child abuse, the newspaper reported, but less than spouse or dating-partner fatalities.
A fatal police shooting that occurred on Saturday was not counted and remains under investigation, the Tribune reported.
“The numbers reflect that there could be an issue, and it’s going to take a deeper understanding of these shootings,” said Chris Gebhardt, a former police lieutenant and sergeant who worked in Washington, DC and Utah. “It definitely can’t be written off as citizen groups being upset with law enforcement.”
In addition, almost all uses of deadly force by police have gone unpunished by county prosecutors across the state. Only one fatal police shooting since 2010 was ruled unjustified – but that criminal charge was later dropped by a judge.
Some say there are conflicts of interest in the process of investigation and prosecution.
“You’ve got a very close relationship between officer, prosecutor and judge in this state,” Gebhardt said.
Others said cozy relationships or not, the appearance of such, coupled with a lack of information offered to the public, can give rise to such accusations.
“I don’t want to defame the quality of those investigations, but in that process there is a gap in the release of information that I think increases the mistrust between the community and police,” said Robert Wadman, a criminal justice professor at Weber State University and former chief of police in Omaha, Nebraska.
One recent police homicide fueled conflict-of-interest allegations in the state. Weeks after the Utah County Attorney’s Office found the police shooting of Darrien Hunt, 22, was justified, new information surfaced that cast a shadow over the decision.
Police had not disclosed that one of the officers was wearing a body camera that he failed to activate during the Sept. 10 encounter. Investigators did not review testimony by a witness who initially stated that Hunt swung a sword at police before the shooting, but who later said to reporters that Hunt was not aggressive. And Hunt’s aunt, Cindy Moss, said the family has photographic proof of a shot-out windshield of a car at the scene, marked with a police evidence tag. The photo counters prosecutor claims that stray bullets were only found embedded into the ground.
“There’s inconsistencies through the whole thing,” said Moss, who is now pushing for legislation that would mandate civilian oversight boards and body cameras for police officers.
“By having a citizen review board, we have people who really want to see the truth – not to be covering it up and making it look like it’s fine. And that’s what it truly looks like at this point.”
Police disputed the narrative that officers are too quickly resorting to deadly force.
“Police are trained and expected to react to deadly threats. As many deadly threats emerge is the exact amount of times police will respond,” Ian Adams, a West Jordan police officer and spokesman for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, told the Tribune.
“The onus is on the person being arrested to stop trying to assault and kill police officers and the innocent public. … Why do some in society continue to insist the problem lies with police officers?”
The state of Utah allows an officer to use deadly force if, in the heat of the moment, the officer believes it is necessary to prevent death or serious injury.
“Sometimes the line between is it legal and is it necessary becomes difficult to distinguish,” Wadman said. “In the judgment of the officer, ‘Is my life in jeopardy? Yes.’ At that point in time, they’re legally grounded in using deadly force. But the question is, is it necessary? That’s something that needs to be firmly addressed, for example, in training.”
Officers in Utah are trained on how to approach a volatile situation using an array of tactics – and weapons. But Adams said deadly force situations are “truly abnormal,” as Utah officers make 125,000 arrests per year versus nine average fatal shootings, according to FBI data.
“In the vast majority of cases where lethal force was a possibility, the suspect was successfully arrested without the use of lethal force,” Adam said. “Of course, these cases do not garner much attention from the press, politicians, or the public.”
Others said police can often heighten tensions – in situations known as “police-created urgencies” – rather than de-escalate during a potentially dangerous moment.
“[It’s] where force may be legally justified for an officer, who, but for their bad decisions and bad tactics, wouldn’t be in that position to begin with. There may be issues involving the officers’ decision-making that are worth noting and may be problematic,” said Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
Utah officers are trained for de-escalation, but only through taking a one-time 12-hour class, along with shorter sessions on mental illness and drug abuse response.
“When they receive the verbal Judo class, it’s one time, done and over with,” Gebhardt said. “Baton training, OC spray, firearms are done on a quarterly, annual or two-year basis. They should integrate that de-escalation training into it. When a situation deteriorates, the officer reverts to their training. … Departments really need to own, from the top down, de-escalation. They need to stress and emphasize de-escalation with the officers.”
Wadman, the former Omaha police chief, said police departments must stress community outreach.
“It’s my concern, both as a former police chief and an instructor, that we’ve lost touch with the communities that we serve,” Wadman said. “If they’re in their cars, going from call to call with their windows rolled up, it’s a much more fearful situation than if they are in the communities.”
Adams, the police officer, pointed out that assaults on police officers in Utah are the tenth-highest in the nation despite a relatively low state crime rate.
“Utah does not have a police force problem, it has a violent criminal problem,” said Adams. “Is it too much to ask that society support officers who are violently attacked? Is it too much to ask that an officer, after sacrificing his mental and physical health for the community, can expect that the community then gather round and support him during one of the most devastating moments of his life?”
Scrutiny of police actions, Gebhardt said, is the only way for police departments to learn from any deadly encounter.
“Law enforcement gets very upset with Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said. “They shouldn’t. They should be embracing these events, debriefing these events. ‘What can we do better? What can we train on that needs to be a component of every use of force scenario?’”