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SALT LAKE CITY — Public perception is that Utah is part of a national trend in which officer-involved shootings are skyrocketing.
But things may not be what they seem, according to data acquired through extensive open records requests over the past two months.
The data became especially relevant after two high-profile police shootings of men in their early 20s. One of the shootings was caught on an officer’s body camera video.
Dillon Taylor, 20, was killed by Salt Lake City police in August.
“(Family members) have seen their brother, their best friend, their cousin killed in cold blood,” Taylor's aunt, Gina Thayer said.
Cindy Moss, aunt of Darrien Hunt, also expressed frustration toward officers after Saratoga Springs police killed Hunt, 22, in September.
“It seems very easy to me that they could have handled that without using their guns,” Moss said.
Hunt carried a katana sword. Police contend that in both cases, the men wouldn’t comply and officers feared for their lives.
KSL’s research shows Utah officers have killed or factored into the deaths of 87 people and 59 injuries since 2004. Police have fired more than 900 shots, compared to suspects firing just over 200 rounds.
The numbers for 2014 are incomplete. The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office is still investigating the shooting of a man who was killed last month in an officer-involved shooting,Ty Worthington. The Weber County Attorney’s Office is also investigating four shootings that have occurred since Sept. 9.
KSL presented the current numbers for review to Director Scott Stephenson of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy.
“These numbers are very good, not only from an administrative side, but in direct application for basic training for new officers,” he said.
But no state agency tabulates this data. There are no mandates for city and county agencies to provide these numbers, which would require staff members and analysts. Stephenson wishes that would change.
“Not only for training, but also for information purposes for the media, for the public,” Stephenson said. “So that they can size the measurement of how a department is performing.”
But Stephenson said numbers don’t go far enough.
“It does not give you the story of that second when that officer decided his or her life was in danger, or somebody else’s life was in danger,” he said.
KSL’s review of all the documents showed the majority of people were either threatening police, armed, suicidal, drunk, desperate, angry, mentally unhealthy, had criminal records, or a combination thereof.
It does not give you the story of that second when that officer decided his or her life was in danger, or somebody else’s life was in danger.
–Scott Stephenson,Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy
But in Salt Lake County, trends for fatal officer shootings declined over the past decade, while trends of armed suspects rose.
The records show that, of the 175 officer-involved shootings since 2004, only seven were ruled “unjustified,” or in violation of departmental policy, by county attorneys.
Of those, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill tried to prosecute two, both involving former West Valley City officers.
In 2011, Jared Cardon faced a single charge of reckless endangerment for firing at a man fleeing from a crash. That charge was dismissed at the urging of Gill’s office for lack of evidence.
This year, a judge dismissed Shaun Cowley’s manslaughter charge in the death of Danielle Willard outside a West Valley apartment complex in 2012.
But statistics show police have not been unaffected. Since 2004, 29 Utah officers have been injured — some shot — in the line of duty. Seven have died.
According to FBI statistics, 1,500 Utah officers have been assaulted while on duty from 2011-13.
Still, Moss says the data must be tracked and reviewed.
“If they see there’s a problem, they’re finally fixing it, I’m thankful for that,” Moss said. “We’re trying to fight for change.”
Contributing: Susan Bushaw, Steven Hummer and Jed Boal