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Killings by Utah police outpacing gang, drug, child-abuse homicides

First Published      Last Updated Nov 29 2016 08:47 pm


Over a five-year period, data show that fatal shootings by police officers in Utah ranked second only to homicides of intimate partners.

In the past five years, more Utahns have been killed by police than by gang members.

Or drug dealers. Or from child abuse.

And so far this year, deadly force by police has claimed more lives — 13, including a Saturday shooting in South Jordan — than has violence between spouses and dating partners.

As the tally of fatal police shootings rises, law enforcement watchdogs say it is time to treat deadly force as a potentially serious public safety problem.

"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 served in Washington, D.C., and in Utah, including six years on SWAT teams and several training duties. "It definitely can't be written off as citizen groups being upset with law enforcement."



Through October, 45 people had been killed by law enforcement officers in Utah since 2010, accounting for 15 percent of all homicides during that period.

A Salt Lake Tribune review of nearly 300 homicides, using media reports, state crime statistics, medical-examiner records and court records, shows that use of force by police is the second-most common circumstance under which Utahns kill each other, surpassed only by intimate partner violence.

Saturday's shooting, which occurred after an officer responded to a trespassing call, remains under investigation.

Nearly all of the fatal shootings by police have been deemed by county prosecutors to be justified. Only one — the 2012 shooting of Danielle Willard by West Valley City police — was deemed unjustified, and the subsequent criminal charge was thrown out last month by a judge.

Does that mean such deaths should be treated as the inevitable cost of keeping police and the public safe?

"Police are trained and expected to react to deadly threats. As many deadly threats emerge is the exact amount of times police will respond," wrote Ian Adams, a West Jordan police officer and spokesman for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police. "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?"

But Robert Wadman, a criminal justice professor at Weber State University and former chief of the Omaha, Neb., police department, said the factors leading up to the decision to shoot a subject are more subtle than what prosecutors consider when reviewing the legal justification. Under Utah law, an officer is justified if at the moment of the shooting the officer reasonably believes deadly force 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 may use any force available'

The Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) division of the Utah Department of Safety oversees, directly or indirectly, the basic training of all police recruits in Utah. At its four-month academy, cadets are introduced to the use-of-force continuum, a diagram showing officer force options — simply showing up at the scene; verbal commands, touching or holding a subject, pepper spray, police dogs, baton, Taser, or deadly force — arrayed in a circle for the officer's selection.

"Officers may use any force available provided they can justify the reasonableness of force used," the manual states.

Adams maintains that officers in Utah typically use less force than may be justified.

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