Utah’s largest police forces use Tasers more than any other weapon
Analysis • Police use Tasers more than any other weapon against unruly suspects.
Published: December 30, 2013 10:59AM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:50PM
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Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Unified Police Range Master Nick Roberts demonstrates a new five-screen training simulator used to put officers through realistic situations in Salt Lake City, Thursday November 7, 2013.

The man was armed with a gun — until he threw it at a Salt Lake City officer standing about 15 feet away.

Then the man tried to jump into a vehicle with children inside and flee.

The officer reacted quickly, pulling out his Taser and zapping the guy for 5 seconds until he dropped to the ground.

The incident was one of 118 during the past three years in which a Salt Lake City officer used a Taser on a suspect, according to use-of-force statistics released by the department as part of a public records request.

The Salt Lake Tribune collected and analyzed data on each case in which an officer used a weapon against a resisting suspect for Utah’s three largest traditional police forces — Unified, Salt Lake City and West Valley City — from 2010 through 2012.

The analysis found departments by and large are using force at similar rates.

Officers are given such tools so they will emerge the victor in a struggle with an unruly suspect, according to Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor and expert in police violence.

“It’s going to be in response to something that a suspect is doing,” he said, noting that use of force is not random. If you’re in a fight, “you have all these tools that you use so that you win the fight.”

But he said each use needs to be considered in context to determine whether an officer was justified in using the weapons or whether some departments are using them more frequently than others.

For instance, it’s important to consider factors such as how many citizen encounters are occurring, how often officers have the opportunity to use deadly force, crime rates and whether the use of force is legitimate and lawful, he said.

The chiefs at Utah’s three largest police departments say they carefully monitor the use of deadly force.

Salt Lake City, for example, in response to The Tribune’s records request, released dozens of pages outlining each Taser deployment, the deploying officer’s name and a description of why the officer used the stunner.

“Our goal is to always minimize the risk,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said. “Both to the victims, the involved parties and the officers. We need to balance that always.”

Tough to compare • Unified and Salt Lake City each has 420 peace officers. West Valley City employs 194.5 sworn officers. Unified and Salt Lake City officers come into contact with more than a million people each year and take hundreds of thousands of reports. UPD estimates about 200,000 reports and Salt Lake City closer to 400,000. West Valley City said it’s hard to pin down how many contacts officers have but place the number in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands and said they took an estimated 58,000 initial reports.

“You look at the number of people we deal with,” Burbank said. “We have a lot of activity going on in Salt Lake City that they don’t have. In percentage of contacts, [our use of force] is a really low number.”

But the chiefs caution against comparing each entity with the other because while statistics may look dramatic on the surface, they don’t tell the entire story.

“If we were to compare ourselves to Sandy, we’d look like we were out of control,” Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said. “It’s a bedroom community, lower crime rate.”

Burbank said the numbers aren’t as important to him as reviewing each use of force to make sure it complied with department policy. He said he has disciplined, retrained and even terminated officers in instances of inappropriate use.

National comparisons are also difficult. Alpert said while national mandates require departments to report annual crime statistics, reporting use-of-force statistics is entirely optional, though he would like to see it be made mandatory.

Still, West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said the use-of-force numbers paint a picture of whether officers are receiving adequate training and the tools needed to do their jobs.

“Certainly you need to look at those statistics and determine what types of contacts are we having,” Russo said.

He uses that analysis to determine whether there are new strategies, technologies or opportunities to improve his agency “not because we’re doing anything wrong, but we’re always looking to do things better,” he said.

“Every agency needs to be doing that. Nobody should be [sitting back] and believing their policies are sufficient now and forever.”

The Taser • During the past three years, Burbank’s officers used Tasers at a similar rate to Unified Police officers, but they used batons seven times more frequently than West Valley City.

Burbank said he is not sure if his department’s numbers reflect an actual strike on a person or simply a deployment of the device — such as using it to gain entry or simply pulling it out of an officer’s belt.

“I question the other numbers that you’ve gotten from other agencies,” he said, noting that the baton is considered a lesser use of force than the Taser.

“If you’ve only had one [deployment], why would you bother carrying it?” he asked.

Ultimately, Taser use was a common thread across all three departments.

Salt Lake City had the most Taser deployments, followed closely by Unified Police.

But it was Unified’s use of the device that increased the most since 2010, more than doubling.

Winder acknowledged his department’s numbers are up but he attributes that to adding more than 100 officers with the addition of Midvale and Taylorsville to the ranks and about 100,000 new residents to the coverage area.

“I don’t think our use has gone up, as much as the volume of reporting by increased officer [numbers],” he said.

Winder said officers in his department use fewer impact weapons — such as batons — and instead rely more heavily on Tasers, which is good from his point of view.

“From my standpoint, 29 years of [policing], it’s a lifesaver,” Winder said of the Taser. “It’s superhandy. It reduces the assaults [on officers]. It sure has saved a lot of problems for us and the public.

“It’s significantly reduced our use of K-9. It’s reduced our officer-involved shootings. It’s reduced our officer injuries. Now they’re not having to wrestle suspects. They can just Tase them.”

Policies and review • When it comes to regulating Tasers and use of other weapons, The Tribune analysis found the three departments each have similar policies outlining when officer’s can use force against a suspect.

Perhaps the highest level of review comes from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, which closely scrutinizes each officer-involved shooting.

Since 2010, the three departments have been involved in 24 total shootings. The District Attorney’s Office has found 84 percent — or all but four shootings — to be justified. West Valley City and Salt Lake City each had two unjustified-shooting findings, while Unified was found to be fully justified in every shooting it was involved in. In the unjustified shootings in the past three years, no officers have ever been convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Utah law defines certain circumstances in which use of force is justified and implies a review must be conducted. Historically, the district attorney’s office has been tapped to conduct that review.

He said it’s difficult to analyze shootings due to perceptions that agencies might have conflicts of interest investigating themselves, that the system isn’t fair or transparent or that there are questions about whether cases are getting objective reviews.

“[The] majority of the time you’re going to find these cases justified because first, officers are well trained and second, use of force is a reality of policing,” he said. “But the integrity of the system isn’t measured by all the justifications you find, but by being able to recognize and capture that one [shooting] that is not justified.”

And with any use of force, each department has procedures in place to review it.

Both West Valley City and Salt Lake departments have citizen review panels.

West Valley City’s panel reviews every use-of-force incident, even if it didn’t result in a complaint. The city’s Professional Standards Review Board then keeps detailed statistics of every incident, which was what the department quickly released to The Tribune. Salt Lake City’s board reviews any complaint filed against an officer for using force and every officer-involved shooting.

Burbank said his department also does a lot of national comparisons and pays close attention to case law, which is always changing.

“In this day and age, we have a small world,” he said. “You’re very naive not to be looking at a broader picture. If we don’t learn from our mistakes or the mistakes of others, we might fall into the same pitfalls or traps.”

Unified Police has an internal affairs system it uses to monitor use-of-force incidents and Winder said he closely monitors complaints against officers.

“We like to ensure that we don’t have spikes in utilization, and if we do, we want to correlate that to something specific,” Winder said.

jstecklein@sltrib.comTwitter @sltribjanelle