More Utah officers were shot at in 2021 than in recent history. Here’s why officials say violence against police is rising.

Police officials say hostility towards officers and a surge in stolen guns could be leading to more violence against police.

A collection of body camera footage from six of the 31 Utah police shootings in 2021. Utah broke a record last year for the highest number of police shootings in recent history.

Utah police from around the state fired their weapons in 31 shootings last year, a record high. But officers were also shot at more in 2021 than any other year in recent history.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows that officers were shot at in about half of all police shootings last year. Eight officers were wounded in six of those shootings. None died.

Local law enforcement leaders said police shootings in the state have trended in line with the state’s increase in gun thefts and gun-related crimes last year, which followed record-high gun sales in 2020. And they said officers have noticed an increase in encounters with noncompliant or hostile people, some whom are more willing to fire at officers.

Given the national rise in violent crime, homicides and firearm assaults against officers reported in 2020, Ian Adams, executive director of the state’s Fraternal Order of Police, said he would have predicted Utah police would have shot at more people last year.

“I’m glad it didn’t [happen],” he said, “but it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Stolen guns are a piece of the puzzle

In one shooting last year, two Salt Lake County sheriff deputies were injured when they went to check on a man who had been lying on the grass near the sheriff’s headquarters on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

It quickly escalated to a gunfight after the deputies tried to handcuff Joshua Michael Johnson when they noticed an ammunition magazine fall from his pants after they asked him to move.

Johnson pulled out a gun and fired it once during the struggle. The bullet grazed one deputy’s cheek before lodging into the other’s eye. One deputy returned fire, killing Johnson.

But the gun that Johnson fired wasn’t his — it had been reported stolen from an unlocked car less than a month earlier, along with an AR-style rifle and another handgun.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials say they’ve seen an increase in cases like this, where someone fires a stolen gun at an officer.

“We do believe that the stolen firearms play a huge part,” Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said. “It’s not the legal gun owners out there shooting at police. You get those kinds of guns in the wrong hands, and it’s not just a danger to law enforcement. If they’re willing to shoot at police, they’re willing to shoot at our community as well.”

Data from the FBI shows a surge in Utah gun thefts in recent years. Rates rose by nearly 48% from 2011 to 2020.

In 2020, as firearm purchases in Utah soared to record-highs, the data shows 1,019 guns were reported stolen in the state, compared to 929 in 2019.

Rivera and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said this uptick continued in 2021. They pleaded with gun owners in a fall news conference to store their guns securely.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, District Attorney Sim Gill and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown announce a moratorium on plea bargains for gun-related crimes during a press conference at the District Attorney's office on Wednesday, October 20, 2021.

“I’m really imploring lawful gun owners to help us,” Gill said in a recent interview. “Because these guns are not only being used in subsequent crimes, but also against police officers.”

Adams, with the FOP, said that when people fire at officers more often, it’s reasonable that police will shoot more, too. He said that Utah police shooting tallies staying relatively the same even as officers were under fire more “is probably a signal of the restraint and professionalism of Utah police officers.”

In Utah, 20 of the 31 police shootings last year involved someone who police said had a gun. In 15 of those cases — 75% of all cases that involved someone who reportedly had a gun — the subject also fired at officers.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It’s a stark uptick compared to previous years when the number of police shootings were similarly high. In 2020 for example, officers opened fire 30 times, which tied a state record set in 2018. Police were under the impression that 23 of the subjects they fired upon in 2020 had a gun. Five shot at officers.

Nationally, two of the three major databases that chronicle police violence in the U.S. saw increases in the number of fatal police shootings last year, said Justin Nix, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

The third such database reported a dip in 2021. Nix said that could be the result of a lag in data collection. He mentioned researchers from Sam Houston State University have recently shown all three databases often track with each other.

The 2021 end-of-year preliminary report from the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum shows a 38% increase in officers who are fatally shot. Nix’s recent research on firearm assaults on officers — which documents when officers were shot but survived — shows increases from 2018 to 2020.

Accountability means different things to different people

It’s rare for a Utah officer to face charges in connection with a police shooting.

In the decade prior to 2021, Utah prosecutors found that officers were not justified in using force just 12 times — 5% of police shootings in that time frame. Criminal charges were filed against officers three times. None were convicted.

So it was unusual for Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings to charge a Woods Cross police officer with a pair of felonies last September. It’s the first time Rawlings, who has been the top Davis County prosecutor for 14 years, has filed criminal charges after a police shooting.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings during a news conference at Salt Lake County District Attorney's building on Monday, March 1, 2021.

The officer, Joshua Lindsey, has pleaded not guilty to two third-degree counts of aggravated assault for allegedly shooting at a fleeing vehicle last February. He was fired from the Woods Cross police department five months later.

Lindsey told investigators he spotted a “suspicious truck” near an auto auction yard. When he ordered everyone inside to get out, they didn’t comply, according to prosecutors. The driver then tried to maneuver his vehicle away from Lindsey. That’s when Lindsey allegedly fired four shots at the truck.

“Fortunately for all concerned, the defendant’s shots hit the vehicle and missed the victims inside,” Rawlings wrote in charging documents.

Rawlings declined to comment about the case because it’s still pending.

Lindsey told investigators he was trying to pop the truck’s tires to stop it. But that’s a violation of Woods Cross police policy, which states that officers can’t shoot at a vehicle unless it poses an “imminent threat.”

Two of the three officers charged in the decade prior were accused of the same conduct — firing at moving vehicles. The third case involved an officer who shot a man he believed had a gun, but didn’t. Gill’s office later dropped the case because of issues with witness testimony, and the fact that the alleged victim was facing unrelated federal crimes.

Gill said the state’s laws make it easier to build a case against an officer shooting at someone driving away in a car than someone who is running away.

“It’s hard to argue that a car that is moving away from you continues to pose a danger to you,” Gill said.

A person running away who had been noncompliant or was reaching into their pockets, however, could conceivably pull a gun, turn around and shoot an officer faster than an officer could react, he said.

That’s why the state’s use of force laws give officers leeway to shoot in situations where they “reasonably believe” someone’s life is in danger, even if they aren’t certain.

“That hesitation could cost lives,” said Scott Carver, training director at the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

But Gill said there are ways to rework laws so that police can still protect themselves, and prosecutors can still hold officers accountable.

“If you create a law that is so broad, that says that every conduct will be pretty much justified,” Gill said, “then the facade of accountability is a false promise to our community.”

Citizens recognize that “false promise,” Gill said, which can lead to a rise in anti-law enforcement sentiment — the same sentiment local police leaders, like Rivera and Carver, said played a role in increased violence against police last year.

Tensions are high

Rivera said the uptick in violence against police she saw last year wasn’t just relegated to shootings. She said police often feel targeted, and noted a recent instance where a deputy was assaulted and spat on while on the job.

She cited negativity toward law enforcement as a possible reason why there’s been an increase in violence against police, and added that many of those who are violent are repeat offenders who should be in jail.

It’s not just happening in Utah. Nix said he’s talked to officers across the country who say they’re encountering more hostility, and more people willing to challenge their authority, “even if it’s not by shooting at them, but by not going along with the process.”

“We’d be out there talking about something like seatbelt policy,” Nix said, “and the conversation would devolve into like, ‘Every time I get out with somebody, I got some yahoo on the other side of the street, running across the street with a cell phone saying, ‘Hey, why are you messing with this guy? Why are you profiling?’ and just making their jobs harder and more frustrating.”

Nix said these experiences are important to consider in discussions about officer use of force, even though he hasn’t seen enough evidence to prove a “war on cops,” which some in law enforcement have cited.

Carver and Will Fowlke, both training specialists at the Utah attorney general’s office, said if more people complied with police, officers would shoot fewer people.

They’ve been preaching a mantra of “comply, then complain.”

“When we talk about comply and complaining, we’re really talking about also the responsibilities by community leaders, educators, media, family members, faith based groups, and it has to be a concerted effort to regain the respect and the stability. And to encourage people to be a community of law and order,” Fowlke said. “And we’ve seen just kind of the opposite of that the last couple of years.”

Sometimes, though, people do comply and still face harm. A lawsuit filed last month alleges a Utah man was permanently injured in December 2020 after he was ordered to stay still on a dark roadway during an arrest, then hit by a car when the officer did not block traffic.

Evidence also shows officers sometimes yell conflicting commands at suspects in shootings.

Reform will be difficult

In Utah’s super majority Republican Legislature, reform often comes slowly and takes hard work.

It took years to create a true hate crimes statute. And it took years to mandate that rape kits are tested.

But it happened. Reform to reduce police shootings can too, Gill said.

“We have to have political courage and political will to understand and create laws and processes of accountability,” Gill said. “And law enforcement will rise to meet them because at the end of the day, they are there to serve the community of citizens, the very citizens who feel that they can’t trust them.”

But to understand what should change, stakeholders said the state needs more data.

While laws passed last year mandate more data collection about police use of force, Adams, with the FOP, said smaller agencies sometimes struggle to fulfill data collection mandates because they lack the staff and expertise.

Even a federal database established to track police use of force is in jeopardy of shutting down by the end of this year because of low law enforcement participation.

The FBI shows 54% of Utah’s 152 police agencies have submitted such reports. Nationally, just over half of all agencies have reported. The database needs 60% to participate to avoid shuttering. And Nix said 80% of police departments would need to report before analysts could glean solid findings.

Nix said he’s seen success in states including California and Texas, where lawmakers have allocated the resources for data collection — and agency participation levels are high.

“That seems so much more promising [than federal efforts],” he said. “You let the state attorney general’s office, or you create some state-level entity that is in charge of getting this from its local agency and putting out reports.”

Then, he said, you learn things and can make change.