Most police officers will go their whole career without firing their guns outside a shooting range — but 33 Utah officers have pulled the trigger in not just one shooting, but two.
Three have fired three times. Two officers have fired four times.
A Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows 38 Utah officers have shot in more than one encounter over the last 17 years. The officers were involved in 24% of the police shootings tracked in a Tribune database, expanded with help from the PBS series FRONTLINE as part of an ongoing investigation and soon to be released documentary.
Tribune and FRONTLINE reporters relied on police records and news reports to document each time a Utah officer fired his or her weapon from 2004 to 2020, tracking 318 shootings. They then conducted additional reporting to verify details of each shooting, and analyzed data points gleaned from record reviews and interviews.
There may be ready explanations for why officers have fired weapons in multiple shootings. Police leaders said some officers have more dangerous assignments than others. But the shootings could also be an indication that some have become overreliant on their weapons, said former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who now works at the California-based Center for Policing Equity.
Some shootings remain in dispute long after the officer pulls the trigger. Like the killing of Jovany Mercado, who had schizophrenia and was holding a knife at his Ogden home in August 2019 when he walked toward four officers who shot him. The Weber County attorney found the shooting legally justified. The family alleges in a lawsuit that officers used excessive force because Mercado wasn’t threatening anyone when police fired.
One of those officers, Brandon Sevenski, shot 33-year-old Christopher Parrish nine months before shooting at Mercado. Weber County prosecutors also ruled that the shooting was legally justified because Parrish charged police with a rock.
Mercardo’s sister, Ruby, said these two shootings, so close together, are “clear proof that maybe they should take better action toward repeat shooters.”
Sevenski left Ogden a year after the shooting and now works at the police department in Gilbert, Ariz. Ogden police didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, Ian Adams, says he doesn’t see a problem with officers shooting someone if it’s lawful.
“We train and we equip them, and we expect them to go out in the community and confront situations in which they might be exposed to potentially lethal consequences,” Adams said. “And we give them the right to defend themselves, and we expect them to do so.”
Burbank said each shooting should be investigated on its own merits. But departments should — and often don’t — pay extra attention if an officer fires in multiple cases. They treat an officer’s fourth shooting like the first.
“Just the mere fact that someone’s been involved in multiple shootings is an indicator that you should be watching, right? Or investigating further,” Burbank said. “Many departments do nothing about it.”
There are a few ways to examine this data.
The first is by counting the number of shootings. The Tribune database includes 318 shootings and 75 of those — nearly a quarter — involved an officer who had shot at someone before, or would do so later.
There are shootings where more than one officer fires, so it is also useful to look at the total number of officers involved. The Tribune database shows 443 officers have fired at someone from 2004 to 2020, and 38 have done so more than once. That’s 8.5%. That’s about half of what one national study found.
That study was an analysis of police shootings by the National Police Foundation. It found 1,605 officers fired in police shootings from 2015 and 2017 and just under 20% of those officers had been in more than one. This study focused on the 70 departments that are members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association in the United States, including Salt Lake City, and another nine in Canada.
The Washington Post published a national analysis in 2015 and found that more than 50 officers involved in the 994 fatal shootings that year previously fired their guns in other deadly shootings. The Post found an additional 45 officers who shot and killed someone that year had previously shot at someone but didn’t kill them.
The Post findings exposed a gap: There’s no federal database for tracking when an officer shoots in multiple events. That data also does not exist in Utah, beyond the record-keeping of The Tribune.
With limited available data, it’s unclear why some officers are involved in more than one shooting, but police leaders have theories.
Adams, the Utah FOP executive director, said the most likely explanation comes down to officers’ potential “exposures,” or encounters in which an officer feels they need to shoot.
Most officers start their careers in patrol, where they look for crimes and respond when dispatchers get calls for help. Typically, when officers have more experience and move into a more specialized role, they lessen their exposures, Adams said, but that isn’t the case for all.
Some work on units that investigate gang cases or are deputized into roles with federal task forces that serve warrants on people believed to be violent. This would increase their exposures and, thus, predispose them to using deadly force more often.
The Tribune’s data analysis shows that 35% of cases with a repeat shooter involved situations in which a special unit, like a SWAT team or a U.S. Marshals Service task force, was present — though the officer who shot was not always part of those units.
The database also shows that 65% of shootings involved an officer who was under some kind of attack, or responding to one. In a third of the shootings, the officers were shot at during one of those confrontations. For five of these officers, both of their shootings involved a suspect firing at them or other law enforcement. None of these officers died, though two were shot. And in two instances, other officers were shot and survived.
Unified police, led by Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, has had seven officers who fired in multiple shootings, the most in the state. She said her department — one of the largest in Utah — tracks this data. The department would investigate officers for patterns of excessive force, Rivera said, if they were identified, but often the shootings are not similar.
She used one officer, Scott Lloyd, as an example of how different shootings can be. His first shooting was in 2012, when he found Jose Rodriguez-Castro attacking his girlfriend outside a government building and fatally shot him. Then, years later, he was one of 15 officers who fired at and killed Harold Robinson, who was shooting at people at random while driving through Salt Lake City.
“An individual had a knife to his [girlfriend]’s neck, and he had to take action to save that woman’s life,” Rivera said. “That was in 2012. But then in 2019, he’s driving down the road and somebody’s shooting everything they can see on State Street. He has to take action.”
Are more shootings more concerning?
The vast majority of these shootings have been ruled legally justified, with prosecutors finding three unjustified. Criminal charges were filed against only one officer — Unified police’s Jared Cardon — and they were later dismissed.
In May 2011, Cardon pulled over a car on a stretch of road without a shoulder, backing up traffic. Jose Contreras couldn’t stop in time and swerved off the road, nearly hitting two cyclists and their children. As he drove away, in the general direction of Cardon, Cardon fired at Contreras’ car. Contreras wasn’t injured.
Prosecutors later filed charges because witnesses said Contreras tried to drive around the officer, not at him — a fact Cardon’s attorney disputes.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill dismissed the case after he said expert testimony had changed, and he couldn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Gill said he couldn’t be more specific about what changed in the expert’s testimony.
Police leaders warn against assuming an officer firing in more than one shooting did anything wrong. Most of the time, Adams contended, officers are doing what they are trained to do.
“The idea that we’re going to somehow punish people for doing something lawful more than once seems counterintuitive to me,” said Adams, with the Utah FOP, an organization that represents officers.
West Valley City Sgt. Jason Vincent has been in four shootings, as has Unified Police Department’s Brett Miller. No Utah officer has been in more.
Vincent has not been disciplined for any shooting, according to public records.
Even though prosecutors determined Vincent wasn’t justified in his fourth shooting, charges were not filed, and the department determined he didn’t violate its own policies. He was working with a U.S. Marshals task force team and his shot didn’t hit Damien Evans, though other task force members later shot and killed the man.
In the span of his 19-year career, police administrators found that Vincent had been out of compliance with department use-of-force policy just once, for pepper-spraying a man who was hiding in a bush.
Vincent did receive a 10-hour suspension after he hit a landscaping rock while driving his police car in 2003.
While police say there are reasons officers may be in more than one shooting, the fact is still jarring to families who have lost a loved one.
A neighbor called police on an August night in 2019 to report a man, later identified as Jovany Mercado, had arrived at his house party and was acting strange.
“I tried to talk to him,” the man told the dispatcher. “He’s not really responsive. He looks very confused and then he has a knife pulled out.”
Mercado had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and when he was having an episode, like he was that night, he would hear things or become emotional and easily confused. He went from the nearby party back to his house. Surveillance footage at the family’s home showed Mercado talking to people who weren’t there and wiping away tears.
Ruby Mercado said she came home after hearing something had happened to Jovany to find officers standing around her brother outside their carport. She thought they were there to help him. Instead, she discovered they shot him. An autopsy found he was hit 16 times.
The family later learned the four officers who shot at Jovany were relatively new, with fewer than five years of experience. One of them, Sevenski, shot 33-year-old Christopher Parrish less than a year earlier, as Parrish reportedly came at him with a rock about the size of a softball. Weber County prosecutors also found that shooting justified.
“After my son’s death, we discovered a lot of stuff,” Juan Mercado said, “We realize that, ‘Oh my God, it’s been more than one shooting. I’m not the only one who’s been dealing with this. There’s been multiple families here in Utah that’s been dealing with this before me and after me.’”
Michael Chad Breinholt’s family is one of them. Breinholt was shot and killed by a West Valley City sergeant in 2019. Handcuffed at the time, Breinholt scuffled with two officers and one said Breinholt had grabbed his holstered gun. The sergeant then entered the room and pulled the trigger.
Breinholt was arrested for a DUI after his girlfriend’s co-worker called the police to report he was at their work drunk and had taken a lot of pills. She worried he was suicidal.
The man’s family said they were shocked when they found out Sgt. Tyler Longman had shot and killed two other people while on duty before shooting Breinholt. Prosecutors said Longman’s actions were legally justified in those first two shootings. Prosecutors still haven’t made a determination on the Breinholt shooting.
[Read more: New video shows what happened before Sgt. Tyler Longman pulled the trigger and killed Michael Chad Breinholt.]
“Chad would still be here if something happened to that officer,” said Breinholt’s brother, Chase, “if he could have been put on some other duty or let go or if there was something put in place after taking the first person’s life.”
There’s a theory that once an officer shoots at someone, it’s easier to do it a second time. Burbank said that’s because most don’t make the choice to kill lightly, but if officers learn that firing their gun will eliminate a perceived threat, they’ll go back to it when under duress.
Burbank gave an example: “If I throw a right hook, and it knocks the person out, you will see officers that then continually throw the right hook. Because it’s worked for them.”
The former Salt Lake City police chief believes it’s possible that being in a traumatic event might make an officer more likely to shoot again.
“You’re just driving down the street and someone just opened fire with rifle rounds at you, that tends to make you a little paranoid,” he said. “Are you faster to draw? Are you faster to engage in some of these things?”
The Tribune’s data analysis shows that 14 officers — 37% of Utah’s repeat shooters — were in another shooting within a year, while 76% of repeat shooters were in their second shooting in five or fewer years.
James McElvain, police chief in Vancouver, Wash., studied multiple shootings in 2008, when he was getting his doctorate in sociology. He used 15 years of data from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California, where he worked at the time, and found that officers who had been in a shooting were about 51% more likely to shoot again than an officer without a history of shooting.
But McElvain has found it difficult to get enough data to understand the context of each shooting, even when he had access to department data because he worked there.
“It’s hard to answer why,” he said. “Then it just becomes assumptions.”
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, whose department has had six repeat-shooting officers over the past 17 years, pushed back on the idea that shooting once meant an officer was more likely to shoot again.
“I don’t believe that at all,” he said.
He referenced a 2017 Pew Research Center survey in which more than 70% of officers who responded said they are less willing to use force when it’s appropriate after the high-profile fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
He said that proves officers are less likely to fire now than before, regardless of prior deadly uses of force.
Since 2004, there have been 50 Salt Lake City police shootings, and six officers have fired in two shootings each. One shooting involved two of those officers, so in all, those officers were in 11 shootings, or 22%. Two officers are on this list because they responded to, and shot at, the assailant in the 2007 Trolley Square mall mass shooting.
The department’s percentage is slightly higher than the statewide number.
Calls for more data
Jason Stevenson, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said The Tribune’s data is just the “tip of the iceberg.”
“It makes us want more information about training and use-of-force incidents to better explain the complete scope of these often-deadly encounters,” he said.
Under a recently passed law, Utah police departments are now required to collect some of the data Stevenson thinks would be helpful. He hopes law enforcement agencies will use it to analyze officer conduct, like they do with crime stats to try to lower crime.
“Police agencies in Utah need to orient their data focus inward,” he said, “as well as outward.”
Pete Sorensen, a civil attorney who represents Mercado’s family, said it can be difficult to figure out whether an officer’s past is problematic because there’s no centralized hub for this information.
“When you’ve given such a heavy responsibility to a select group of people, I think that carries with it the need to be accountable,” he said. “And unfortunately, in uses of deadly force and uses of extreme force cases in the state of Utah, there seems to be a lack of accountability.”
If the state keeps track of alleged misconduct by doctors and barbers, Sorensen said, it should do the same for police — and make it available for people to see.
FRONTLINE reporters Abby Ellis and Taylor Eldridge and Tribune reporter Sam Stecklow contributed to this article.
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.
Correction: 10:56 a.m., July 20, 2021 • A previous version of this story misidentified the number of officers involved in multiple police shootings who were themselves shot.