OGDEN -- It's not like the movies.
Bob Wadman, a retired criminal justice professor for Weber State University and former police chief in several states, said that's the most common misconception about officers facing the decision to use deadly force against a suspect.
"There's this idea that you can shoot a gun from someone's hand or shoot warning shots," he said. "That's just media-driven nonsense."
Instead, he said officers are carefully and meticulously trained to deal with stressful situations where they may have to shoot an individual who is endangering the life of the officer or those nearby.
Statistics about officer-involved shootings are not easy to find. Searches through FBI and Bureau of Justice data did not yield any numbers involving the number of officer-involved shootings.
Kelly Sparks, the deputy director of the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training, said they don't have any records that he is aware of that documents the number of such shootings in Utah.
According to various other media outlets, 11 officer-involved shootings occurred in Utah in 2010. Two of those shootings were in Davis County and one in Weber. All 11 were ruled justified.
There has been one such shooting in 2011, that one in Davis County. An investigation is continuing into that incident.
Utah state law says officers are justified using deadly force if they have probable cause to believe the suspect poses a threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officers or others.
Police cadets receive more than 600 hours of training, everything from the very basics of how to hold a gun, how to run a certain way and how to communicate with those they will meet in the line of duty. About 52 hours are spent working scenarios specifically related to the use of deadly force, said Jack Rickards, director of Police Officer Standards and Training at Weber State University.
"They are approaching individuals, and some are armed, and some aren't armed," Rickards said. "That's the problem with a lot of shooting cases. You don't have all the details."
Some of the scenarios are worked out in the classroom, while others are played out in real time at the Swanson Tactical Training Center. The center has a large urban environment that duplicates a real city, complete with homes, a school, a bank and a convenience store. The environment is as realistic as can be: the convenience store is stocked with snacks and soda, the bedrooms have beds and night stands, and the school is complete with lockers and hanging artwork.
It's here where cadets are faced with several scenarios. They are armed with guns that shoot plastic bullets filled with paint and are set in situations where they must decide whether to use deadly force or if a less lethal approach is better suited.
Wadman said officers in training are taught a process to follow that leads up to lethal force.
"It's not just a snap decision," he said. "It's ongoing training with a variety of steps with less-than-lethal force."
If at all possible, officers are told to use other, less lethal, methods, such as pepper spray or a Taser.
"We teach them all these options," Rickards said. "If they can move out of the way in order to avoid deadly force, they should do that. If they can't, they are forced to make a judgment. If someone is about to shoot you, or about to stab you, you have to use force that is going to stop that individual from committing that crime and to save your life, or the life of another. So you can't take up that time to first try to Tase the individual, and then if that doesn't work to spray them with pepper spray."
But sometimes, it's just too dangerous to use alternative methods.
"Oftentimes, if the officers are in a deadly situation, they don't have that opportunity," Rickards said. "What a lot of people don't understand is that they are presented with a situation where the officer has no choice. The individual is using force that will likely cause death or serious bodily injury. Then the officer really has no option."
Center of mass
Rickards said it would be nearly impossible for an officer who has decided to fire his or her weapon to shoot a suspect in the arm or leg.
"When officers are in a stressful situation, their fine motor skills diminish. It's very, very difficult with someone who is moving around and agitated to say that I will shoot them in the arm where the gun is or shoot them in the leg to disable them. What you are trying to do is disable the individual and to stop that individual. You've got to aim for the largest area of the body."
Officers are trained to aim between the chest and stomach -- an individual's center of mass -- to stop the suspect.
"You don't shoot to kill them," Wadman said. "Police bullets are designed to knock people down. The caliber of the bullet, the weight of the bullet is designed to make people stop. Often, it kills them."
When an officer shoots a person -- whether the shot is fatal or not -- two separate investigations begin. The officer's home department and the appropriate county attorney's office both conduct investigations to determine whether the officer was justified under state law in shooting.
Craig Webb, the chief of Investigation Bureau for the Davis County attorney's office, said he organizes an investigative team drawn from several different law enforcement agencies to examine the scene. This practice of taking investigators not directly involved, or maybe not even acquainted, with the officer who fired the shots helps to keep the investigation neutral, Webb said.
"We try to take a lot of the emotion out of it," he said. "It's a very matter-of-fact investigation. We collect as much evidence as fast as possible. There's many times when we know the officers involved, but if I have an investigator from North Salt Lake, chances are slim that they know each other."
Details take time
But investigating a shooting is not like a television show and it isn't wrapped up neatly in an hour's time.
Webb said it takes about a week to gather data -- everything from the temperature and lighting at the time of the shooting to interviews with family members of both the suspect and the officer to see what was happening in both their lives before the shooting occurred -- and another week after that to organize all the data to present to prosecutors for consideration.
Sometimes a toxicology report or a medical examiner's report takes longer. Webb referenced the July shooting of William Oakden, where Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings recently cleared the two officers involved in the fatal shooting. Webb said it took investigators longer to provide all of the information to prosecutors because of one holdup.
"We needed to wait because there was one bullet in the deceased and two agencies shooting identical guns," he said.
"Sometimes there is a rush. People want this done now, there are officers off duty, and government agencies concerned with liability. There's always a rush. Unfortunately, that's something that can't be rushed."
Webb said it is not his job or that of his investigators to draw any conclusion about whether the shooting was justified. They collect data and organize it in a presentable way for the county attorney, who then makes the decision as to whether the shooting was justified.
Webb said there is no leniency given just because those involved are members of law enforcement.
"I would say it's almost the opposite," he said. "Law enforcement officers are aggressive toward each other because it hurts us all."
When an officer shoots someone, the emotional toll it takes is significant.
"You can't go out and kill somebody and then go back to work the next day and everything's normal," Wadman said. "They are police officers, not military officers. It's a different environment, they have had training to not be involved in that in the first place."
Rickards said he has never encountered an officer who felt like he or she wanted to shoot another person or take someone's life.
"A shooting is an officer's worst nightmare," he said. "I don't know of one individual in the 27 years I've been a police officer that comes to work hoping to get into a shooting. Their whole goal is to keep from having to use deadly force."
Along with their own emotions, officers also see their actions replayed and scrutinized by investigators, the victim's family, the media, and the public.
"There's all kind of arguments that take place when these events occur," Wadman said. "There isn't any family that would say that he deserved it. No matter how my children behave, they are still my children."
The officer who fired the shots is placed on administrative leave while the shooting is investigated. This break also allows the officer to internalize what happened. Many agencies require the officer to see a psychologist or counselor to discuss their feelings, and most offer some sort of internal support system for the officer.
"Often if you hire and recruit quality people who are emotionally mature and stable, they're able to understand that what they did was necessary," Wadman said.
That's the key, Rickards said: Hiring and training quality officers who have a reverence for human life and integrity.
"We don't find a lot of cadets who are real trigger happy," he said. "And they wash themselves out anyway, those who do. If we feel they are not performing correctly in scenarios, they don't graduate. If you find someone who is real gung ho -- too gung ho -- who doesn't understand the reverence of the law and reverence of human life, they are washed out before they normally even get to the scenarios. Those who can't use deadly force will be dismissed also."
Wadman said the type of person who takes pride in taking another's life would most likely not be found in law enforcement..
"The nonsensical approach of the Wild West where the cowboy would put a notch in his gun is a media-driven image," he said. "If any officer did anything close to that, they would be immediately terminated."
Was it justified?
The decision on whether an officer-involved shooting was justified is left to the county attorney's office. The attorney and prosecutors will decide whether the officer's actions were in line with Utah state law. They will draft a document and send it to that officer's police chief, explaining whether the use of force was justified or not.
Wadman has served as a police chief in Orem, Omaha, Neb., Aurora, Ill., and Wilmington, N.C. He has seen both sides -- those where an officer killed someone and he thought their actions were appropriate, and also those who had their actions deemed unjustified by state law.
He recalled one case where an officer killed a man who was trying to break into a pharmacy. The man had a screwdriver, which the officer had mistaken for a gun. When the man saw the officer, he ran in the opposite direction. The officer shot the man in the back. The officer was charged with manslaughter, but was found not guilty.
"The community was trying to evaluate if those actions were appropriate," he said. "That did not match the officer's training, or anything close to the officer's training. Where he shot him in the back, it showed the individual was going away."
Wadman said this case shows that an officer saying that he or she felt their life was threatened is not enough to justify a shooting. The situation and evidence must also be consistent with the officer's belief that a threat exists.
Webb said the goal when investigating is to determine whether a normal person in that situation would have felt their life or that of another person was being threatened.
"We try to figure out how a reasonable person would feel in those circumstances," he said. "Not just a police officer, but a normal person from Utah."