Salt Lake City Police Invested in Training and Haven’t had an Officer-involved Shooting in Two Years

by Kelly Macias –

In the United States, we’ve come to accept a narrative that part of being a police officer means that an unfortunate reality of the job is that someone (a civilian) may lose their life in a justifiable shooting. This line of thinking is simplistic and prevents us from looking at much-needed reform within the institution of policing and it doesn’t have to be true. Less than six months into the year, police officers have already shot and killed 367 people—a number slightly higher than the last two years. But there is evidence that when police embrace training tactics that involve communication and empathy, they don’t have to take lives.

In Utah’s capital, police have actively embraced a tactic called de-escalation.

The officers being trained in de-escalation are encouraged to communicate and empathize with suspects, take stock of the factors contributing to a confrontation, and consider ways to disengage before the situation spirals out of control, leading to the use of force.

With this policy in place, there hasn’t been a fatal encounter between officer and civilian in Salt Lake City since September 2015. 

A few things are important to note here: the population of Salt Lake City is less than 200,000 so they do not experience the same levels of crime that major cities experience. What would be interesting to explore is whether or not some of the historical racial tension that makes up some of the policies and practices of police departments in other places with more diversity and different history exists in Salt Lake City considering that it’s nearly 80 percent white. Of course, police violence is not exclusively a white cop on people of color problem (though it’s largely framed that way and there are many good reasons to explicitly discuss the interracial and historical nature of it). It is important to frame this as a larger societal and systemic issue—one all of us should care about, though not all of us are at the same risk of death at the hands of police. At any rate, the lesson here is critical. The cops in Salt Lake City have found ways to improve their policing and to learn new techniques and have managed to stop killing people.

Controversial shootings over the past few years swept Salt Lake City police into the broader debate around reform. […]

All three incidents of gunfire were ultimately deemed to have been justified, and [Detective Greg Wilking, a public information officer for the Salt Lake City Police Department] suggested that appropriate efforts to de-escalate would not have changed the outcomes in those cases.

But with each shooting came renewed calls from activists and community members demanding change. In the wake of the Mohamed shooting, Chief Brown told the city council that his officers were spending nearly a quarter of their training time learning various de-escalation techniques.

That remains true today, said Wilking. “We’ve spoken with and listened to members of the community and we’ve looked into other types of training that the community has felt would be beneficial,” he added.

Imagine that—actually listening to the community and looking into training that could be beneficial as well as investing time and resources into was to de-escalate violence. It seems as if the law enforcement community around the country could learn a lot from their colleagues in Salt Lake City. They continue to kill a record number of people and the impact has taken a serious toll on the level of trust that individuals and communities have in officers.

Since the rate of shootings nationwide hasn’t decreased, however, it appears that police departments will remain under the microscope. A significant number of these incidents, which have taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color, have involved civilians who weren’t carrying weapons. In other instances, officers have fatally shot suspects who were armed, but who seemingly did not pose an immediate threat to others.

Law enforcement experts have begun endorsing de-escalation as a potential way to reduce the violence. In January, a coalition of national police organizations added these sorts of tactics to its model policy, stressing the need for law enforcement “to value and preserve human life.”

Unfortunately, we know that the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions will not support any policies that value and preserve human lives particularly if they are black and brown. But it’s heartening to know that at least one police department out there is working hard to do better and save lives.


Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos