Utah police now banned from shooting at people who are suicidal but only a threat to themselves

A law that went into effect on Wednesday clarifies that police should not use deadly force against a person who is suicidal and isn’t threatening anyone else.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Police officers warn protesters that they will be arrested if they come any closer on 1300 East, during the Vice Presidential debate, on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

Utah police officers are now prohibited from shooting at someone if the person is suicidal but isn’t a threat to anyone else, under a new law that went into effect on Wednesday.

The state law previously said a police officer was allowed to use deadly force if a suspect poses “a threat of serious bodily injury to the officer or to others.”

A bill that passed during January’s legislative session clarified that police should not shoot if the suspect is only a threat to themselves. It was one of a handful of modest — but meaningful — policy changes that came out of the session after a summer of protests and calls for changes in policing.

The change in how police respond to those who are suicidal was a priority piece of legislation for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

“Allowing, even expecting, police officers to use deadly force when dealing with someone who is a danger only to themselves is a recipe for heartbreak, not just for the family of the individual but also for any officer forced to make that terrible decision,” district attorney Sim Gill said in a statement. “Permitting officers the ability to step back strategically and thoughtfully, to take a breath, and to re-engage in a different way with someone in crisis will, we hope, lead to fewer officer-involved shootings and better results for community members and their families experiencing mental illness.”

Rep. Jennifer Daily-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored the bill. She said in a Wednesday statement that she wanted to run the legislation to bring positive change for both the police and the community.

“In my conversations with officers, it became clear to me that interactions with suicidal people, especially those considering ‘suicide by cop,’ are some of the most dangerous, potentially devastating situations for everyone involved,” she said.

The measure also drew support from law enforcement officials. West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine said this was a “long overdue” reform, and will result in better training for officers on to engage — or know when to disengage — with people who are experiencing a crisis.

Ian Adams, the executive director for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, noted that it’s rare for line officers, supervisors, prosecutors and civil liberties groups to agree on a piece of legislation. But he said this change necessary.

“It allows officers to dis-engage or withdraw from highly charged, dangerous situations, and could prove crucial to lowering the number of ‘suicides by cop,’” he said, “meaning fewer lives lost and fewer careers on the line when an officer was just following the law and her training.”