There are a few, a very few, people out there who need to be shot.
Being able to figure out which ones they are, and to do so without harming innocent bystanders, is the difference between a skilled law enforcement officer who has received extensive training and a foolish vigilante who has seen too many movies.
When it comes to the ability and history of law enforcement and the use of weapons in Salt Lake County, there is good news and questionable news.
The good news is that Sheriff Jim Winder and District Attorney Sim Gill recently rolled out the Unified Police Department’s state-of-the-art firearms training center. The $451,000 "use-of-force" simulator, which surrounds officers with five screens of rapidly changing situations, all of them dangerous, is light-years ahead of the traditional firing range, where officers are merely expected to hit a silhouette of a man at various distances.
That’s because being able to hit a target isn’t as important as knowing what target to hit. Officers may be exposed to any number of situations, usually without warning, where one or more people may pose a lethal threat to those around them. Or not. Exposure to such situations in a controlled environment, where officers are evaluated by experts, is about all we can do to steel their nerves for the chaos of a school shooting or hostage situation.
It is also a big savings over the kind of multimillion-dollar payout taxpayers will face if and when any officer is held liable for an unjustified shooting.
The questionable news is from a recent Salt Lake Tribune review of reported uses of weapons — guns, Tasers, clubs, even police dogs — by the larger police agencies in the county.
At first glance, the statistics suggest the West Valley City Police Department may be a little Taser-happy, having deployed the electric stun-guns almost as often as the much larger, and busier, UPD and Salt Lake City Police Department.
That could be good, as Tasers are less lethal than pistols. But those immobilizing devices do sometimes kill their targets and, without more detailed analysis, it can be difficult for the public, elected officials, or even police chiefs, to know if officers have made the best decision possible.
Also, reports are not always clear as to whether a Taser was just drawn or actually fired.
Few police officers chose their careers for the opportunity to do more paperwork. But officials, and the public at large, need more detailed information to be able to determine if better policies, and better training, are necessary.
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