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Utah’s largest police forces use Tasers more than any other weapon

Analysis » Police use Tasers more than any other weapon against unruly suspects.

First Published Dec 29 2013 02:49 pm • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:50 pm

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.

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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.

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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.

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Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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