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Utah's police use-of-force law 'wishy-washy', lawmaker says

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SALT LAKE CITY — A state lawmaker Monday questioned Utah's law describing when police officers are justified in using deadly force.

State law allows officers to use deadly force in making an arrest or preventing an escape from custody where they reasonably believe there is a threat of injury or death to themselves or others.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, wondered about the term "reasonably believe" as it pertains to police assessing whether to fire their weapons. Deadly force, he said, gets into extenuating extremes of what might be reasonable, expected or likely.

"I think this is wishy-washy," he said.

Madsen said he's concerned about whether police are being trained to be peace officers or enforcers.

The Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee is studying police tactics and training in the wake of fatal shootings in Utah and around the country. Police in the state have shot and killed four people and wounded at least one so far this year.

Committee members were told in the meeting that police officers don't often get physical with people or use their guns in Utah.

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Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy reported that of the 26,000 incidents his deputies responded to last year, 80 to 100 resulted in the use of force. He said the sheriff's office averages about 2.5 uses of deadly force every five years.

Draper Police Chief Bryan Roberts said his officers used force nine times while making 934 arrests last year. The department responded to 23,000 calls, he said.

Roberts, who sits on the Utah Chiefs of Police Association board, said he believes the statistics are indicative of police departments and that there isn't a use-of-force "epidemic" across the state.

Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan, said he wanted to know how often use of force escalates to deadly force.

"That's a number I'd like to see. I think it tells a better story," he said.

Some lawmakers wondered whether police could shoot to warn or wound instead of shooting to kill.

Roberts said officers can't just shoot an armed person in the leg because he or she could still use the gun.


When that officer pulls the trigger, what they're trying to do is stop the threat.

–Draper Police Chief Bryan Roberts


"When that officer pulls the trigger, what they're trying to do is stop the threat," he said.

The committee also talked about the merits of pre-employment psychological evaluations for police officers.

Tracy said his department requires the assessments and any applicant deemed to be a high risk is not hired. Even so, he said there's a small percentage that falls through the cracks.

Roberts said most people who get into law enforcement are service oriented and want to make their communities a better place. The biggest problem, he said, is those who think the job is going to be what's portrayed in Hollywood.

"We've got to kind of fight that a little bit and ferret that out," he said.

The committee intends to study police-related issues throughout the summer, and then decide certain policies and practices that should be adopted as statewide rules so they can could be monitored and regulated, said co-chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Any proposed changes in state law would come through the Legislature's criminal justice and law enforcement committee.

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Dennis Romboy

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