Christopher Smart: PBS/Tribune collaboration sheds a chilling light on police shootings

Documentary demonstrates how police are trained to overreact to potential danger.

"Shots Fired," a documentary from The Salt Lake Tribune and the PBS series FRONTLINE aired in 2021.

Shoot first and ask questions later.

That is one of the things that jumped out of the recent “Shots Fired” Frontline documentary, a collaboration between PBS and The Salt Lake Tribune on police shootings in Utah.

The in-depth and balanced reporting stands out as a service to this community in an age of violence fueled by an unending flood of firearms.

The documentary reveals that Utah police cadets receive only five to six days of instruction when it comes to the use lethal force. The instructors at the state Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) academy emphasized worse-case scenarios and urge cadets to shoot at the first sign of danger.

In a scene from the documentary, an instructor questions a cadet who is trying to deal with a disturbed person. “You’re trying to be empathetic at the sacrifice of your officer safety,” he says.

Another instructor barks at cadets who aren’t clear what do about a woman with a gun who is not pointing it at them. He tells them they must shoot in such an incidence.

“How many brothers do you have out here? How many sisters?” he asks. “They mean less to you than some mental subject.

Such instruction isn’t without critics. Police training teaches that the dangers are greater than they really are, particularly with firearms, said Randy Shrewsberry, a former cop who heads up the LA-based Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform.

“Officers are taught to view dangers that are possible, rather than dangers than are probable,” he me last year.

For example, on average, the same number of officers die each year from automobile accidents while on duty as die from gunshots — about 50.

Shrewsberry also appears in the PBS/Tribune documentary.

There are no national standards and training varies widely from state to state. In Utah, law enforcement officers train at POST for 16 weeks. Depending on the agency, they may receive more training.

In western European countries, however, police cadets go through two to three years of training. The curriculum includes college-level courses in psychology, sociology, communications and other fields that train cadets to effectively deal with the people. The training there focuses on non-lethal outcomes.

Nationally, police in the U.S. shoot and kill 3.42 people per million (about 1,000 per year). That’s 30 to 300 times more often than in Western European countries.

Among the police shootings in Salt Lake City is that of 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who suffers from autism and anxiety and was shot multiple times in an example of police training that emphasizes force and immediacy.

During a psychotic episode, Cameron, who had committed no crime, ran from his Salt Lake City home. Officers gave chase, ordered him to stop and when he didn’t obey, they shot him nine times. He survived but was seriously injured and faces a long recovery with injuries to his shoulder, both ankles, intestines, and bladder.

And Dillon Taylor, 20, was killed by Salt Lake City Police Officer Bron Cruz, who responded to a call of “possible man-with-a-gun” at a convenience store. There, Cruz encountered several young men, including Taylor, who began walking away with his hand inside his sweatpants. Cruz ordered Taylor to turn around and show his hands. When Taylor turned and pulled his hand from his pants, Cruz shot him believing he was armed. He wasn’t.

In neither case did officers employ so-called “de-escalation” techniques, yet felt an urgency to shoot. A growing number of experts, some of whom are former cops, say significant change must be made to police training before there can be any meaningful reduction in fatalities and a better relationship between police and communities.

Law enforcement is one of the most difficult jobs in this country. Clearly cops need more resources and more training, as well as help from other agencies when violent conflict is not at issue. But a comprehensive overhaul of law enforcement training doesn’t seem likely given our inability to make meaningful changes to the political landscape.

This is a violent country, and we should not be surprised to see more unarmed suspects shot dead by police who are trained to shoot first and ask questions later.

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart is a freelance journalist in Salt Lake City and the author of Smart Bomb, which appears in City Weekly.