Utah Attorney General’s Office ‘surprised’ police shot at so many people in 2020

Tribune and FRONTLINE collaborate to investigate police shootings after state fails to collect data.

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department) Salt Lake City police shot and killed 34-year-old Andrew Preece on July 25, 2020, after responding to a call that two men had been fighting outside a Smith's at 455 S. 500 East.

Police across Utah shot at a record 30 people two years ago.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office announced it would study the shootings in reaction to a detailed summary in The Salt Lake Tribune, which at the time was the only entity compiling a statewide tally. The idea: Examine what happened and identify opportunities for police to respond differently after a violent encounter.

But Attorney General Sean Reyes’ team never finished the study. No findings were shared. His staff stopped because it was too difficult to collect the information from police departments.

To this day, no government entity is tracking police shootings in Utah.

[Read more: How Utah police respond to mental health crises]

And then, in 2020, the state tied its own record. On Dec. 17, State Bureau of Investigation agents shot at a man who reportedly drove a car at them in Salt Lake City. It was the 30th and final police shooting of the year, according to the database maintained by Tribune reporters.

“I was surprised, actually, that it was that high,” said Scott Carver, the director of training for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, who is in charge of the A.G.’s review. “I thought we were more around 16, 18, something like that.”

Carver said his office will revisit the study. And this time, he plans to seek five years of investigative reports into police shootings.

Collecting more and better information is not a divisive issue. The police union wants it. Law enforcement leaders want it. Activists want it.

Yet as the Legislature prepares to open its annual session on Jan. 19, and with a number of police reforms being proposed by lawmakers, Utahns do not have a clear picture of why this level of violence persists and what can be done about it.

Ian Adams is the executive director of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police, an organization that represents thousands of officers. He says without better data, policymakers are making changes based on what “feels right.”

Adams said Utah should be tracking not just the most extreme instances of police force, but also times when officers used less-than-lethal force.

“Utah has lacked the political will to fund the ongoing collection of important law enforcement data,” he said. “Before we begin trying to write constructive laws, we ought to make some effort at understanding the underlying phenomenon. And we haven’t done it.”

What we know about the 2020 shootings

The Tribune has kept track of when Utah law enforcement fired a weapon, relying on law enforcement records, interviews with family members and friends of people killed by police and news reports. The 16 years of data is the most comprehensive database available.

Analyzing the data from 2020 shows that:

• Officers fired at 30 people and 17 died. The fatality rate of 56% is slightly higher than the average year tracked by The Tribune.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

• A majority of those shot at were men, and the average age was 32. The youngest was 13.

• 40% of shootings occurred while police were interacting with someone experiencing a mental health crisis. These are cases in which police determined or family members reported that a person had a mental health issue, mental disability or was suicidal.

• The agencies with the most shootings are also the largest. Unified police officers shot at six people, Salt Lake City officers shot at five, and Ogden police shot at four.

• 60% of those shot at by police had a gun, real or fake.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

• One Utah police officer — Ogden’s Nathan Lyday — died in a shootout with a suspect. The person who shot him died when police returned fire. On average, one Utah police officer per year is killed while on duty.

In collaboration with PBS FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, The Tribune will expand its data gathering in 2021 to move beyond what we know today. This will include an examination of ethnicity of those shot at, where the shootings occurred, the training of the officer and what happened afterward.

When officers fire their weapons in Utah, an outside police department or task force is required to investigate under state law. Carver said his new plan is to request those reports from the past five years in an effort to understand why the shootings occurred. He said he hoped to complete the review in six months, but said, “I don’t know what roadblocks I’ll run into.”

The Tribune-FRONTLINE investigation and the A.G.’s study should help Utah deepen its knowledge, and either bolster or refute the theories offered by police leaders, advocates and family members of those shot.

Some say Utah experiences an elevated level of police shootings because of a lack of mental health training for officers or a lack of consequences for officers who do shoot. Maybe the encounters, some police officials say, are driven by people who refuse to follow an officer’s orders.

Some police leaders suggest the increase in shootings should be expected as Utah’s population grows, or that the shootings in 2020 correlate with a rise in violent crime. The head of the police academy theorizes officers may pull their gun because they are afraid to get in a fight. He’s planning more hand-to-hand combat training.

One fact we do know: Utah experienced more fatal police shootings over the past five years than states with similar populations, like Iowa, Kansas and Connecticut.

Were the shootings necessary?

The first shooting of 2020 took place eight days into the year. Tyler Keaton Webster was driving a stolen car and Salt Lake City Officer Jordan Winegar and his partner, Steven Hunter, pulled him over.

Video shows Webster backing the car up as he tried to escape. The sudden move trapped Winegar near a guardrail. He pulled his gun and fired, striking Webster, who survived.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the shooting was legally justified. Police officers can use lethal force if they reasonably fear for their safety or the safety of another person. But when the Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board investigated the shooting, it determined that Winegar used excessive force.

The oversight board wrote, “The issue to be decided is were the actions of Off. Winegar in firing his weapon at Mr. Webster both reasonable and necessary.”

The city’s review board makes recommendations. It is up to the police chief to take action. And in this case, after an internal review found no wrongdoing, the officer wasn’t disciplined.

To date, 11 of 2020′s 30 shootings were found to be justified by a county attorney. The rest are pending. It’s rare for a Utah prosecutor to say police acted outside the law.

These shootings and the resulting rulings from prosecutors have increasingly become the focal point of protests, none more so than the killing of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal by Salt Lake City officers in May, just two days before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, setting off nationwide protests.

After Gill ruled officers were justified in killing Palacios-Carbajal, who was armed and was running away from police, hundreds took to the streets. They spilled bright red paint outside the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. Some broke windows. In this case, the Civilian Review Board came to the same conclusion, exonerating the officers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters paint the street in front of the Salt Lake County District Attorney's office while marching against police brutality in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 27, 2020.

Like protesters, attorneys for Palacios-Carbajal’s family don’t believe officers needed to fire so many times — 34 bullets in all. The attorneys made this point in a civil suit, which is pending.

“Once they began firing their guns at Mr. Palacios,” the lawsuit states, “the defendant officers did not intend to bring Mr. Palacios into custody alive.”

Some activists want to abolish law enforcement, arguing officers are agents of violence in a racist and classist system. Those with less extreme views call for taking funding from police and giving it to social workers.

Dave Newlin, with the group Utah Against Police Brutality, said police are “totally unaccountable armed government agents.”

Newlin’s group has been advocating for what they call “community control” of police, a civilian board that oversees the budget and could hire and fire police leaders. In 2019, Utah lawmakers outlawed the very oversight boards this group had called for. Frustrated, Newlin said Utah leaders have been saying for years that they were going to take action, but the shootings continue.

“Everything that they’ve tried has failed. They have not reduced the amount of police violence. They have not reduced the number of shootings,” Newlin said. “All these excuses that they give us, the trainings that they’ve put people through...all of it has not helped anything.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Protesters marched in Salt Lake City and Provo and smaller towns, some of them confronted police and clashes erupted. There were also calls for change, echoed by police chiefs and mayors, state lawmakers and the governor.

The Utah Legislature made it illegal to kneel on a suspect’s neck, the way Floyd died. And at least a dozen other bills involving when police use force are being drafted ahead of the legislative session, which starts Jan. 19, including one that would require the gathering of more police data.

What is available

While Carver, who heads training at the A.G.’s office, did not finish that 2018 study, he said he has reviewed some of these cases, and he believes he spotted an early trend.

“One thing that we have discovered in the reports that we have analyzed is if the individual would have obeyed the officer’s commands,” Carver said, “nobody would have been injured or killed.”

Carver said after Minneapolis police killed Floyd, law enforcement in Utah saw fewer people obeying commands.

He also says most people don’t know how officers are trained and the decision-making that goes into how they do their jobs, especially the decision to shoot.

“And that’s why there’s a lot of the calls for police reform based upon a perception that the police are out of control,” Carver said, “When the data shows that is not the case.”

Carver is referencing FBI-maintained data that shows how many arrests police make each year. For the past three years, Utah police averaged about 100,000 arrests a year and during that time shot at an average of 20 people a year. That’s one in every 5,000 arrests.

A nationwide comparison isn’t possible. However, one in every 10,000 arrests in the U.S. end in someone dead at the hands of police, according to FBI arrest data and a database maintained by The Washington Post.

Due to data collection limitations, it’s hard to compare Utah to other states.

Utah officers, patrolling a population of 3.2 million people, killed 72 people by gunfire from 2015 to 2020. That’s considerably more than the two states closest to it in population size. In Iowa (population: 3.1 million) officers killed 35 people in the same time period, according to The Post database. In Connecticut (population: 3.5 million) 21 people were killed by police.

The FBI began a nationwide effort to collect use-of-force data in 2019, but it is voluntary and fewer than 60% of departments participated. No data has been publicly shared.

This year, Utah lawmakers will consider whether to require police to send that data to the FBI and Utah’s Bureau of Criminal Identification. This would mean that Utahns would be able to know not only when a police encounter turns deadly, but also all the other times an officer used less-than-lethal force against someone.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring the bill. She said that since this summer’s protests, she has worked with law enforcement and advocacy groups on what policy changes could be made that everyone could agree on.

Collecting use-of-force data, she said, was “a no-brainer.”

“When we start to collect data, we can find where the gaps are in the system,” she said, “and we can identify how to tackle that particular issue. The goal is definitely about transparency. But, also, the goal is to use that data to influence policy.”

Editor’s note • This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.