The Salt Lake City Police Department has gone more than a year and a half since its last fatal officer-involved shooting. Twenty months without a death.
Across the country, police officers have shot and killed at least 367 people so far this year, according to a Washington Post tally. That’s a slighter deadlier pace than the previous two years, despite the national debate over police reform sparked by the 2014 killing of Michael Brown.
But officials in Salt Lake City have done more than talk, according to a heartening report on KSTU this week. 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. That case involved a home intruder who had just stabbed a woman. The officer’s actions were found to be justified.
In 37 instances since June 2016, officers have managed to de-escalate situations in which they might otherwise have been justified in using lethal force, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown told KSTU. To emphasize the importance of this approach, officers in those incidents have been given the department’s new de-escalation award.
“The Salt Lake City Police Department is probably one of the leading agencies in the country as far as how we train and deploy and use these tactics to de-escalate and save lives,” Brown said.
In one such incident, captured in a body camera video, an officer confronts a knife-wielding suspect following a traffic stop. As the man advances, the officer backs up, using his cruiser as cover ― “giving ground” in police terminology. This gives the cop time to regroup and draw his Taser. He then stuns the suspect and disarms him, before pulling out the handcuffs.
“I think he saved a life,” said Brown.
Watch the KSTU report here.
To be fair, the greater use of de-escalation tactics is likely not the only reason for the low number of police-involved shootings, Detective Greg Wilking, a public information officer for the police department, told HuffPost.
“We don’t have some of the problems that some of the major cities and metropolitan areas have,” Wilking said. “It’s a fairly calm place to be a police officer.”
Plus, the city’s population is less than 200,000 and it has experienced fairly low levels of crime compared with other cities of similar size. Of course, no one can promise there’ll never be another police-involved killing.
Controversial shootings over the past few years swept Salt Lake City police into the broader debate around reform. In an August 2014 incident that received nationwide coverage, an officer fatally shot Dillon Taylor, an unarmed 20-year-old, just days after the Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
In January 2015, an officer shot and killed James Barker, 42, who was armed with nothing more than a snow shovel, which he’d used to strike the officer.
In February 2016, the department again drew citywide criticism ― and at least one protest that turned violent ― when an officer shot Abdi Mohamed, then 17, leaving him paralyzed. Mohamed was a suspect in an assault and was reportedly armed with a metal mop handle at the time he was shot.
All three incidents of gunfire were ultimately deemed to have been justified, and Wilking 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.
De-escalation is not a new concept in law enforcement, and Salt Lake City officers aren’t the only ones trained in its use. Wilking said many other police departments have also been working to revamp their policies, even if those efforts don’t get recognized.
“You often hear about when a shooting incident happens, but you don’t hear about all the times someone doesn’t get shot,” he said.
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.”
But some police departments have been slow to de-emphasize the use of lethal force, with officials expressing concern that doing so could place cops in danger. In Chicago, for example, the department recently adopted a new use-of-force policy that says officers have to try de-escalation only “when it is safe and feasible to do so.” Although Chicago officers have been receiving mandatory de-escalation training over the past year, the new language softened a previous draft that had called for officers to use the least amount of force necessary.
With due respect for the differences between departments, Wilking suggested that some might be able to learn from Salt Lake City’s example.
“Police work is ever evolving,” he said. “We’ve gotta continue to learn from our mistakes. If we don’t, we’re losing the battle. You can’t ever say that you’ve got it right and you’re always gonna do it right. You gotta keep looking at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do better?’”