Committee meets to discuss police use of deadly force

By Caleb Larkin
Capital West News

Salt Lake City – State lawmakers met Tuesday to address guidelines on the use of deadly force by police. Lawmakers, police investigation prosecutors, and the Salt Lake City police chief gathered to discuss what measures could be taken to address this issue.

“We know little about how to reduce police shootings. But two factors nationwide have consistently proven to have the greatest influence: better training and greater responsibility,” said Spencer Austin, the Chief Criminal Deputy with the Attorney General.

The Utah Capitol under sunny skies on the second day of the 2015 Legislative Session.

The Utah Capitol under sunny skies on the second day of the 2015 Legislative Session.

Utah State Law 76-2-404, Peace Officer’s Use of Deadly Force, established when the use of force, including deadly force, is justifiable. Individual police departments, however, may set their own policies. These policies may be more restrictive than the state law, but not less.

The Law Enforcement and Community Issues Committee Chairman, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, explained that the committee’s purpose was “to evaluate regulations, policy and local ordinances governing the use of deadly force or other force.”

The FBI does not maintain complete records of police shooting incidents; existing data suggests that the incident per capita rate in Utah is on par with other states of similar standings. Also, instances of police shootings appear to occur in clusters. In Utah, three recent police shootings have caused a spike in public protests and police brutality: Darrien Hunt in November, James Barker on Jan. 8 and Jeffrey Nielson on Jan. 16.

Sen. Jim Debakis, D-Salt Lake City, who requested the meeting, believes improved training will ensure an increased confidence in police officers statewide. But in order to have better training, more money is required.

“Can we make a difference?” asked Ken Wallentine, Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. “The answer is clearly, we can.” Wallentine described the impact of body cameras as one example, citing statistics from Rialto, California where the use of the devices resulted in a 60 percent drop in deadly force incidents and an 85 percent drop in citizen complaints.

The committee hopes increasing personal responsibility through the use of body cameras will lead to greater transparency and improved community relations. “Body cams have a psychological effect on both officers and citizens to improve behavior, even when they are not turned on,” Wallentine said in response to inquiries regarding their efficacy. Still cameras alone do not constitute a solution.

“First, it is important to note that in Salt Lake City, police shootings are down,” Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank commented in Tuesday’s meeting.  “It is also important to note that body cameras have been in use for four years [in Salt Lake City]. But cameras do not prevent the use of deadly force. Cameras do not provide final truth. We seek factual representation from the recorded evidence, yet regardless of whether I think the officer acted correctly in the situation I will always release the body cam footage,” Burbank said. 

Trainings in assessing human behavior, particularly with mentally ill behavior patterns, could also reduce police shootings. Crisis Intervention Training, Verbal Judo and Verbal De-escalation Courses could help better prepare police for hostile situations, said Wallentine. Still, he said, “there will always be the situation where no matter your skills you will not be successful in avoiding the use of force.”

Rep. Curtis Oda, R- Clearfield, addressed risk management issues in the meeting, citing concerns over the liabilities of officers without proper training. “The task force will determine at what point evidence can be made public and how to encourage the general public to be more knowledgeable about these situations,” Oda said.

Oda also suggested the possibility of creating statewide procedures on investigating deadly force incidents. The procedures for investigations differ greatly with different police departments across the state.

“[A prosecutor’s] job is to determine whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction.” said Paul Boyden, Executive Director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.  “We will investigate to the extent of determining if the use of dead force was justified or not.” 

According to Chief Burbank, last year there were over one million instances of a citizen calling for police assistance and only 60 significant complaints against the Salt Lake Police Department. A significant complaint deals with a police officer failing to perform their duties properly.   

“We need to reevaluate what we are sending our officers out to face and what our expectations are for them,” Burbank said.

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