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Racial Equity in Policing Commission asks for answers in shooting of 13-year-old boy with autism

(Mike DeBernardo, KSL TV)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — When Darlene McDonald read about Salt Lake police officers shooting a 13-year-old boy with autism whose mother had called for help with a mental health episode, she saw herself in the tragic situation.

But when the mother of a young man with autism and member of Salt Lake City’s newly formed Racial Equity in Policing Commission learned that a new policy about enhanced de-escalation tactics went into effect hours after he was shot, she was “floored.”

“So this seemed to me that there was a disconnect, either between what we thought was already in place or what’s not in place,” said McDonald, who chaired Wednesday night’s commission meeting that discussed several specific policies, conducting a survey of Salt Lake officers, police officers in schools and the possibility of pairing officers with commissioners for research purposes.

“Is that something that you could speak to because when I read that article, I almost hit the floor. I was so shocked by that,” McDonald asked.

Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown was listening to the virtual meeting, and he responded to the concerns by letting her know the new policies were refining what already existed.

“With these new policies, we’re going to try to expand upon it, and we’re going to really talk about when we do it, but also report back,” he said. “Again, we’re going to foot-stomp that even more into the culture of our organization.”

He mentioned that officers are recognized for utilizing de-escalation tactics, and a commissioner asked for more insight into what kind of accountability there is for officers who fail to utilize these techniques.

There was some discussion of the use of K-9s in the use of force policies, and McDonald asked how “imminent threat” is defined in policy.

“There is a definition of imminent and that means it’s ready to take place,” said Mark Kittrell, an attorney with the city. “But it is distinct from immediate or instantaneous.”

Kittrell pointed out that the new policy says, “‘Officers should not place themselves or others in jeopardy by unreasonable, unlawful or excessive conduct.’ In my world, that is sometimes called officer-created jeopardy. You certainly don’t want to have an officer get into a situation where ... they’re now forced to use deadly force.”

He also suggested they look at the “duty to intercede,” which requires police officers to intercede “to prevent an unlawful use of force.” Commissioner and attorney Nicole Salazar-Hall asked what the definition of “immediate and serious threat or serious offense” was.

When Kittrell brought up the sections of policy that guide an officer’s behavior in a situation like Linden Cameron’s, the 13-year-old shot after his mother called for help, Salazar-Hall said this is where she sees an opportunity for the commission to make some improvements.

“I think the larger issue that I think we’re going to keep coming across are people with developmental delays or who are on the spectrum,” Salazar-Hall said. “And I, I think this policy could be updated to reflect those persons in our community that do need to be protected. Because in my reading of this, yes, they engage in erratic, disruptive or dangerous behavior that may be accompanied by impaired judgment, all that could fit the the definition of what Linden Cameron was experiencing and other people with autism spectrum disorder could be experiencing, It doesn’t, from the outset, include those individuals in this policy.”

The commission approved a motion to discuss these policies in greater detail with someone from the department’s training staff.

While some commissioners expressed interest in having both one-on-one access to officers, as well as ride-alongs, commissioner Carol Shifflett expressed concerns that members needed to be clear in their purpose of such partnerships and make sure they’re working from the same knowledge and understanding of the issues.

“A 3-year-old doesn’t know racism,” she said. “It’s taught and it’s a learned behavior. So it could be, and we need to think about this, the people coming into law enforcement are coming into law enforcement with biases that they’re not even made aware of. So sitting down with me, is not going to change your mind. I’m one person.”

She shared results of a Pew Research study that revealed how differently Black officers see policing issues, including fatal encounters, than their white and Latino counterparts. The study said 57% of Black officers see fatal encounters as evidence of a “broader problem,” while only 27% of White and Latino officers see them that way. Brown agreed to conduct a survey similar to the one cited by Shifflett for the commissioners to utilize in their work.

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Amy Donaldson

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