New laws proposed for use of deadly force by police

Thursday , January 29, 2015 - 1:58 PM

By CALEB LARKIN
Capital West News

SALT LAKE CITY – State lawmakers met Tuesday to address new policies for police use of deadly force.

Lawmakers, police investigation prosecutors, and the Salt Lake City police chief discussed possible changes in police officer training.

“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.

Utah State Law 76-2-404, Peace Officer’s Use of Deadly Force, sets regulation on justifiable use of force, including deadly force. Individual police departments, however, may set their own policy that can be more restrictive than the state law, but not less.

The Law Enforcement and Community Issues Committee Chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, stated the committee’s purpose would be “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. The existing data suggests 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, recent police shootings have caused public protests about police brutality. Among the three incidents were: 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 training will ensure an increased confidence in police officers statewide. In order to have better training, more money is required.

“Can we make a difference?” said Ken Wallentine, Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. “The answer is clearly we can.”

Wallentine described the impact body cameras have, 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.

Training in assessing human behavior particularly with mentally ill persons 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.

Oda 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.

“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.

“(A prosecutor’s) job is to determine whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” said Paul Boyden, the Executive Director from 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 more than one million instances of a citizen calling for police assistance and only 60 significant complaints. 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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