Is the Fear Factor Overblown in Police Shootings?
Police cadets participate in simulation training on Dec. 2, 2020, at the Peace Officer Standards and Training academy at the Salt Lake Community College Miller Campus in Sandy, Utah. (Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune)
SANDY, Utah — At issue in the review of every police shooting, whether it’s at night or in daylight, whether it’s an officer’s first shooting or third, or whether the person has a gun, a knife or no weapon at all, is one factor.
For Utah officers to legally fire, the law says they must believe their life or another person’s life is in danger. And this fear must be “reasonable.”
Some reform-minded law enforcement leaders and experts argue the definition of reasonable fear has been stretched by police training that focuses on worst-case scenarios and overemphasizes officer safety.
Some question how reasonable one’s fear can be when decades of research have shown that the general public, including officers, are preconditioned to see racial and ethnic minorities as scarier than white people.
Utah’s police trainers defend their practices, saying they have just a few days to get cadets prepared for a world of dangerous possibilities.
When a shooting does happen, it gets reviewed by prosecutors. Nearly every time, they determine the officer’s actions meet the legal standard.
Utah prosecutors have found police officers unjustified in 12 of the 226 shootings between 2010 and 2020. In those cases, prosecutors charged officers three times, though they eventually dropped two of the cases. In the third, a judge dismissed the matter after a preliminary hearing.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, an advocate for criminal justice reform, has not only handled the most police shootings in Utah over the past decade, but his office also is the one that prosecuted the three cases where officers were criminally charged. Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police, a group that advocates for officers, considers him an adversary and has encouraged members to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and not give interviews in his or other prosecutors’ police shooting investigations. That makes it more difficult for prosecutors to determine what a shooting officer perceived or felt.
Gill has also faced harsh criticism and widespread protests from activists after ruling some controversial shootings legally justified and for not filing criminal charges in a few cases he decided were unjustified.
These are shootings that end in deaths. Like Dillon Taylor’s in 2014, when an officer was “100% convinced that it was going to be a gunfight,” but Taylor was unarmed. Or the 2018 shooting of Cody Belgard, who an officer believed would start firing “any minute or any second” and police later found had no weapons, just a cellphone. Gill ruled both cases legally justified.
Last year, Bryan Pena-Valencia was also unarmed, but the shooting officer was convinced he had a gun.
The officer wrote in a statement to investigators that he “immediately felt scared” because Pena-Valencia “was wide eyed and kept saying, ‘OK…’”
Gill determined the shooting wasn’t justified, but said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the officer with a crime.
What is reasonable?
As Gill has reviewed these shootings, he told The Salt Lake Tribune and FRONTLINE, he has come to believe that the law, the reasonable fear standard itself, should be changed to require more from police before they pull the trigger.
“What is the moral expectations of our citizens? And what do they expect from law enforcement, from prosecutors, from our criminal justice system?” Gill asked. “And how well does that align with the outcome that that system provides? And if there is an incongruence there … that is the seeds of injustice, and we have an ethical and legal responsibility to respond to that.”
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Gill cites that decision as a “relevant legal standard” in all of his police shooting findings.
Tracie Keesee, the senior vice president of justice initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity, said in an interview that most officers begin to realize in the academy how dangerous policing can be — that there is a lot to be afraid of.
The problem, she said, is that most of the scenarios cadets train with are more violent and volatile than the calls they’ll take once they get a badge and a gun.
“If I’m a new recruit, and I am going through scenario-based training, and that scenario-based training is based on just officer-involved shootings or scenarios where the outcome was not good, then I begin to build on my fear, of what do I need to do to protect myself and to stay alive,” Keesee said. “Again, not saying that the job of being a police officer is not dangerous. But the question becomes one of how dangerous is it?”
She said that, nationally, a very small percentage — a New York Times analysis found about 1% — of police calls are about violent crimes. The majority are general calls for help.
Since 1853, 147 Utah officers have died in the line of duty. Fifteen officers died between 2010 and 2020, and 10 were killed in homicides.
Cadets in Utah get trained at Peace Officer Standards and Training, known as POST. Training Sgt. Scott Lauritzen said cadets learn from different, often worst-case, scenarios because trainers must distill lessons learned throughout entire careers into just five days or so.
While most police officers will never fire their weapon on duty, Lauritzen said it’s important trainees understand they may one day need to and not hesitate if they find themselves in that situation.
“To put on this badge, and to put a gun on your hip, to go into somebody’s house to protect them, if you haven’t made that decision that taking someone’s life may be a possibility,” he said, “it’s too late then.”
Making the decision to shoot
Last winter, Tribune and FRONTLINE reporters observed these drills. Normally, training scenario days began with a refresher on cadets’ priorities: officer safety and communication.
“As we’re going through these different scenarios,” Lauritzen said, “we’re trying to get them to understand the importance of ‘If I’m going to be safe, I have to understand everything that’s going on around me.’”
He started one of the days by asking cadets to think about dealing with someone in a mental health crisis “whether they’re suicidal, whether they have a gun to their head, whether they’re in a delusion, whether they’re fighting dragons.”
“Understand your ability to communicate today is going to be crucial. So kinder, softer, gentler will be very successful,” he said. “But do we sacrifice that for officer safety?”
The cadets responded no.
“We do not,” Lauritzen agreed. “We go home. Those that we’re dealing with will go home if they choose to, right?”
In one of these scenarios, which played out on a Wednesday in November 2020, a woman with short dark hair sat in an armchair and spun a fake gun made of rubber.
For this exercise, the woman is called Cassie, and the alcove where she’s sitting near the elevator at Salt Lake City Community College is supposed to be her bedroom. Two police recruits approached her from a hallway after being told Cassie had come home sobbing and wouldn’t come out of her room.
The officers talked to Cassie and eventually entered, where they found her spinning the gun in front of her. She picked it up and waved it, with her finger on the trigger as she talked. The cadets pleaded for her to put it down, their own rubber guns drawn.
Trainer Casey Hadfield yelled “out of role” and the scenario ended. Hadfield asked the cadets why they let Cassie point a gun at them.
One cadet said her demeanor seemed “casual,” not threatening. Another said Cassie was spinning the gun, not pointing it.
Hadfield asked, “And where was her finger?”
“On the trigger. Right,” the cadet confirmed. “That’s why it would have been hard for me.”
Hadfield said it shouldn’t be. It’s “simple” — police don’t let people point guns at them or their partners. “Why is this so hard?”
“Because we have to live with it,” the cadet answered.
“You’re in the wrong profession, my friend, if you can’t live with that.”
Police can’t control how a suspect acts, Hadfield told the cadets after an earlier scenario. But officers can control their own behavior and ensure they and their partners get home at the end of that shift. That may one day mean shooting someone.
“Have you guys made that decision to shoot?” Hadfield asked. “If you haven’t, go home and do some soul-searching. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Can I kill a kid? Can I shoot a grandma? Can I shoot a mom? Can I shoot a dad? Can I shoot a brother?’
“Because if you can’t, it’s not you that’s going to get hurt, it’s your partner. Can you live with that? Because you didn’t act? Because you were staring down the barrel of the gun and you had second thoughts?”
Training for the worst
Randy Shrewsberry, the founder and executive director of The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, reviewed footage from POST training and told FRONTLINE that this sort of fear-based scenario training focuses on the “possibility of an action versus the probability of an action.”
Shrewsberry said this exposes trainees to a “constant level of threat” that doesn’t exist in the real world and can predispose officers to shoot when it isn’t necessary.
“There’s an old saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail,” Shrewsberry said. “I think that illustrates kind of perfectly one of the really big problems that we have when we’re only teaching force, and so little emphasis on de-escalation.”
Maj. Scott Stephenson, who runs POST, said an outside observer may think POST is just training cadets to shoot, but the point is to show them how to avoid that possibility.
In scenarios The Tribune and FRONTLINE observed, trainers instructed role players to grab for a recruit’s gun if they weren’t paying attention, or pull a weapon on them and fire. Stephenson said cadets learn that any call could go from routine to deadly in a moment if an officer lets it.
“If I can expose them to that situation, and they in the debrief, they pick up on the cues that may have led them to not shoot, then hopefully,” Stephenson said, “that’s applied in the field.”
When asked if the scenarios in training may make officers more fearful on the job, Stephenson said that it’s a “valid observation” — but he didn’t think so. Instead, he said it gives them “some kind of experience,” a reference point on which to look back.
And Stephenson posed his own question.
“How would you want us to train? If those situations are so infrequent, do you want somebody going in without any type of experience at all? And if so,” he asked, “how do you expect them to perform?”
Whose life is preserved?
Police haven’t always been trained this way. There has been a shift over time, and it was documented in 2015 by 40-year law enforcement veteran Sue Rahr, who worked for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, and Seattle University criminal justice professor Stephen K. Rice.
“In some communities,” they wrote, “the friendly neighborhood beat cop — community guardian — has been replaced with the urban warrior, trained for battle and equipped with the accouterments and weaponry of modern warfare.”
Professor emerita Dolores Jones-Brown, who worked at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said officers’ mindsets have shifted from trying to protect civilians’ lives to focusing more on saving their own lives. And, she said, racial and ethnic minorities feel the brunt of that shift.
She cited research that found officers in the U.S. are conditioned to see racial and ethnic minorities as “more threatening,” or scarier, than white people, regardless of whether officers are aware of that perception.
A Tribune analysis of a decade of Utah policing data showed racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted by police shootings. These groups make up about a quarter of the population, yet accounted for a third of police shootings between 2010 and 2020.
“There are fewer people of color to be shot [in Utah], but they are still being disproportionately shot, in the same way as places where there are more people of color to potentially be shot,” Jones-Brown said. “So, yeah, this pattern of disproportionality is consistent across any investigation that I’ve seen of this issue.”
Justin Nix, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said that disparity may be the product of police bias, but it is also influenced by other factors, like who is calling the police.
“There are myriad reasons for institutional disparities,” he said, “including officer bias and societal forces that extend way beyond whatever any individual officer believes.”
POST objected to The Tribune’s analysis comparing police shooting race data to Utah’s population, saying it was an “inaccurate depiction of law enforcement’s contact with communities of color.”
POST said the most accurate depiction would be comparing police shootings to the number of interactions police have with people from each racial and ethnic background. That data does not exist.
The “most reasonable” available data, POST said, would be to compare shootings to arrest data. Nix said that, too, can be problematic, since research has shown police are more likely to stop and feel threatened by Black people.
Rahr and Rice, in their study, suggested that law enforcement could change the “warrior” mindset if training focused as much on teaching officers how to think critically about and communicate with the people they’re policing as it does on tactics for “high-risk, low-frequency attacks.”
“Seasoned cops and statistics tell us,” they wrote, “that the officer’s intellect and social dexterity are often the most effective officer safety tools.”
Utah lawmakers, responding to protests of police violence in 2020, passed a bill earlier this year that requires POST to spend more time teaching cadets de-escalation techniques and how to respond to calls about people experiencing a mental health crisis. This and other reforms came as the state tied a record high 30 shootings in 2020.
One thing lawmakers haven’t touched: the fear standard.
One Utah legislator did try to raise that bar last year. Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, pushed a bill that would have allowed police to use deadly force when it was “reasonable and necessary,” not just “reasonable.” Her proposal had the support of Gill, the Salt Lake County district attorney.
While Dailey-Provost spent weeks in negotiations with law enforcement groups on the legislation, she got nowhere.
Other states have also been grappling with when police are justified in using deadly force. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill into law in June 2020 that required police to be facing an “imminent threat” before they fired their weapons. Minnesota also recently upped its standard, but the law is currently on hold after multiple state police lobbying groups sued, saying it violated officers’ rights by forcing them to give statements about their shootings.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, sits on Utah’s House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. He told The Tribune he doesn’t think lawmakers, who in Utah are overwhelmingly Republican, will pass a law that changes the deadly use of force standard — and they shouldn’t.
If they did, he said: “You’re going to lose lives.”
The current law, Ray said, is rightly skewed toward officers, bystanders or victims because officers have seconds to make the decision to shoot someone.
Gill argues that police training conditions officers to be suspicious and fearful. And when he’s ruling on a shooting, he has to decide it based on the perception of a reasonable officer at the scene. It leads him to ask, “Are we systemically creating a definition of a reasonable officer which is, by its own process, unreasonable?”
In a training sequence in early December, days before cadets finished the academy, Hadfield led a group in the community college’s parking lot. That day, cadets and role players used real cars as props. The firearms on the training officers’ hips fired less-lethal rounds.
“Run at them with your hands up,” Hadfield told a role player, “just run at them with your hands up and say, ‘Why you stopping? It’s Black Lives Matter. Blah, blah, blah. Do all that.’”
When the cadets pulled up in a police cruiser, the role players went toward the car yelling that their friends were filming. That they know their rights.
“Get on the ground,” a cadet shouted. The man continued walking slowly. He held his hands up.
“Get on the ground or I’m going to shoot you,” she said again. He took a step. She fired multiple times.
Hadfield said it was a bad shooting. She had used her gun as a panic button, and the role player had done nothing that would make her reasonably fear death or serious bodily injury.
“That panic button could cost you a lot. It could send you to jail. It could cost you your job, your house, your car, your family. It can cost you everything” Hadfield said. “So why are we so quick to hit it?”
“What happens in three days,” Hadfield asked later.
A cadet responded, “Graduate. We’re on the streets.”
“Real bullets,” Hadfield said. “Real bad guys, real guns, real repercussions.”
This story is part of a collaboration with The Salt Lake Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.