A Rare Look Inside Police Training in Utah

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November 23, 2021

In Utah, there’s no source that tracks police shootings statewide.

The Salt Lake Tribune and FRONTLINE have been working together through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative to fill that gap and to go a step further: Building on years of the Tribune’s earlier reporting on police violence, the team has been trying to understand the patterns and factors involved when Utah police fire their weapons.

In some cases, the data is incomplete and the numbers too small to draw broad conclusions.

But in the reporting team’s review of 226 Utah police shootings over the past decade, a few things stood out. More than half of the shootings were fatal, and the vast majority were ruled justified. Racial and ethnic minorities were disproportionately represented among the people at whom police fired. More than 40% of people shot at were identified by police or families to have had a mental health issue, a mental disability or to have been suicidal.

And over and over again, when talking about why they fired, officers referenced their training.

A new documentary from FRONTLINE and The Salt Lake Tribune, Shots Fired, explores these findings and offers a rare look inside police training in Utah, examining how it may impact whom, when and why officers shoot.

As the above excerpt reports, police in Utah attend 16 weeks of basic training at Peace Officer Standards and Training, known as POST. They spend time inside the classroom and out, including five days of intensive scenario training in which cadets go through role-playing: traffic stops, domestic-violence situations, responding to someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The absolute most important thing is officer safety, so all of the other procedural stuff that they learn will be at their own individual agencies,” Sergeant Scott Lauritzen, who oversees the scenario training at POST, says in the above excerpt from Shots Fired.

“[W]e’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,’” Lauritzen says.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins and FRONTLINE/Hollyhock filmmaker-in-residence Abby Ellis were allowed to observe and film scenario training sessions over several months. In the above excerpt, instructors push cadets to make life-or-death decisions.

“You’re in the wrong profession, my friend, if you can’t live with that,” a POST trainer tells a cadet who’s reluctant to make the choice to shoot in one role-play situation with an individual twirling a gun.

“We don’t want to shoot people, OK? But who makes that decision?” the trainer asks.

“They do,” a cadet responds.

“Bear with me for a minute: When you picture a criminal, what do you think?” the trainer continues. “Have you pictured somebody you love? 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.”

Many of the role-play scenarios the team filmed ended in a shooting.

“Every situation that we send police officers in doesn’t require lethal force,” Lauritzen says. “But if we take an officer’s career, how many situations are they going to be in, let’s say, in a 20-year career? Thousands, right? But we only have these cadets for five, six days, maybe seven days at the most. So we have to take this experience of a 20-year career and condense that into a few days.”

Over the past 10 years, 15 police officers died on the job in Utah, 10 of them killed by a suspect.

As covered in the above clip, the focus on worst-case scenarios in training has become increasingly controversial among experts concerned about police shootings.

Randy Shrewsberry, who worked as a police officer in multiple departments around the country and now advocates for training reform, calls it “fear-based training,” driven by “the possibility of an action versus the probability of an action.”

Shrewsberry, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, says the “endless exploration of what could happen … in every circumstance of their job” creates a narrative where officers are always on edge.

The reality,” Shrewsberry says in the documentary, “is that policing is as safe as it’s ever been. And so it doesn’t match up to this disproportionate emphasis that we place when we’re constantly telling officers that at any moment they can be murdered, at any moment that they can be killed.”

Read more: “Is the Fear Factor Overblown in Police Shootings?”

In the film, Ellis asks the director of Utah’s POST program, Maj. Scott Stephenson, if it’s possible that training with worst case scenarios results in cadets entering the field “with a heightened sense of paranoia, seeing threats where there might not actually be threats.”

“I think it is a valid observation. But I do not believe so,” Stephenson says.

How would you want us to train?” he asks. “If those situations are so infrequent, do you want somebody … going in without any type of experience at all? And if so, how do you expect them to perform? We put officers in ugly situations, we really do. And then we expect it to be perfect every time. If I can teach them in that situation where the potential outcome is a shooting, then maybe they’ll try to avoid it.”

As of early November 2021, there had been 26 fatal police shootings in Utah this year, similar to a record pace set in 2020.

Watch Shots Fired in its entirety below.

Shots Fired is  available to stream on FRONTLINE’s website, the PBS Video App and FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel. Shots Fired is a FRONTLINE production with Five O’Clock Films. The writer, producer and director is FRONTLINE/Hollyhock filmmaker-in-residence Abby Ellis. The reporters are Taylor Eldridge, Paighten Harkens, Jessica Miller, Muna Mohamed and Sam Stecklow. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. Shots Fired is the first nationally televised documentary to result from FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, an innovative effort to support and strengthen investigative reporting in communities around the country that is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and is based in FRONTLINE’s newsroom at GBH in Boston.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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