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Police in Utah kill more people than gang members do

People look over a memorial for Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.
People look over a memorial for Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  1. Utah police officers have killed more civilians than gang members, drug dealers, or child abusers have over the past five years, according to a new report from the Salt Lake Tribune.
  2. Use of deadly force by police is the second-most common circumstance in which Utahns killed each other over that time period. Only intimate partner violence killed more people.
  3. But in 2014, more Utahns have died to police use of deadly force than violence between spouses and dating partners.
  4. "The numbers reflect that there could be an issue, and it’s going to take a deeper understanding of these shootings," Chris Gebhardt, a former police lieutenant and sergeant, told the newspaper. "It definitely can't be written off as citizen groups being upset with law enforcement."

It's difficult to know how many people die nationwide at the hands of police

The report from Utah comes as many are questioning police use of force around the country, particularly against black men and boys. Several high-profile cases this year — including the deaths of  Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; and John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio — have sparked outrage and frustration.

There's not much reliable data on how often police kill civilians nationwide. As my colleague Dara Lind explained, the data collected by the FBI on police shootings should be treated as a minimum count, since it's voluntary and therefore incomplete. But the data does give a good idea of who is targeted by police — and there are some clear racial disparities.

killed by police - circumstances

These victims are overwhelmingly black, young, and male. Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the available, limited FBI data.

FBI 2012 SHR justifiable homicide age race

Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify a shooting

That legal justification for police shootings comes from two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s: Tennessee vs. Garner and Graham v. Connor. Those decisions outlined two key factors behind whether a police shooting is justified:

  • Police can shoot to stop a suspect they believe is an immediate threat to them or other innocent parties, or to stop a suspect from escaping if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect has committed a serious violent felony.
  • The shooting victim doesn't have to be an actual threat to police or others. Instead, police just have to reasonably believe that the suspect may be a threat.

These legal standards give police officers wide latitude to use of deadly force without facing criminal punishment, even when a suspect poses no actual threat to anyone. Vox's Lind reported:

There are plenty of cases in which an officer might be legally justified in using deadly force because he feels threatened, even though there's no actual threat there. [Criminologist David] Klinger gives the example of a suspect who is carrying a realistic-looking toy gun. That example bears a resemblance to the shooting death of John Crawford, an Ohio man who was killed by police last week while carrying a toy rifle in Walmart.

Hypothetically, if the gun looked real, Klinger says, "the officer's life was not in fact in jeopardy, but that would be an appropriate use of force. Because a reasonable officer could have believed that that was a real gun." In fact, toy gun manufacturers — including the maker of the air rifle Crawford had — have started using this standard to limit their liability, putting on a warning label that tells consumers police could mistake their products for real guns.

This broad use of force standard is seen in a recent Utah case that got national attention:  Darrien Hunt, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in September. At the time of his death, Hunt was dressed up as a Japanese samurai and was wielding a decorative sword. Police said he became violent and attacked them with the sword when they tried to take it away, but an autopsy found four of six gunshot wounds hit Hunt on his back, suggesting he was fleeing when he was killed.

The police officers involved won't face any criminal charges. Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman had this to say earlier this month: "I find that Saratoga Springs Cpl. Matthew Schauerhamer and Officer Nicholas Judson were justified in their use of deadly force against Mr. Hunt. Their belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury was reasonable."

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