Justice and Due Process

Utah Still Faces Challenges Mitigating Police Use of Force

Twenty-two-year-old Bernado Palacios Carbajal was shot 34 times by police officers just two days before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Carbajal was a suspect in a robbery and was running from officers when shot. Bodycam footage of the scene clearly depicted a man who was not a violent threat to officers and who could’ve been restrained without 34 bullets. 

Nearly two years after the death of George Floyd and Bernardo Carbajal, Utah’s police force is still under scrutiny. While most officers act in good faith with no incidents, scrutiny is still justified from continued incidents of inappropriate use of force.

Recently, a Frontline documentary titled Shots Fired examined the use of lethal force in Utah. 

In this documentary, reporters from the Salt Lake Tribune teamed up with Frontline reporters to better understand the issue of police shootings within the state. 

What they found was disturbing. After looking at 226 shootings over a 10-year period, it was determined that nearly half (94) of those shootings were directed at individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Many of these individuals were either suicidal or had a diagnosable mental illness. Additionally, a third of those who were shot were of racial or ethnic minorities.

When this data is examined, it becomes clear that police officers are not being correctly trained. This view is supported by the fact that of the 226 shootings, 107 of them involved officers that had graduated from training in the last five years. 

During training, depicted in the documentary, officers in Utah are taught how to respond to worst-case scenarios. These situations are often unrealistic and often involve the officer needing to shoot an individual they are responding to.

In the aforementioned documentary, it becomes obvious how harmful this training is. For example, when responding to a hypothetically suicidal woman who is spinning a gun on her coffee table officers are directed to view her as a threat and take action accordingly. This scenario, while hypothetical, shed light on how these officers are being trained to be overeager in utilizing their firearm. 

The woman in this scenario clearly only posed a threat to herself. It is alarming that police are being trained to use potentially lethal force in cases that exhibit the need for mental health support and de-escalation, especially when so many of their calls involve those who are mentally ill. 

The negative impacts of this training were demonstrated in real life when Michael Chad Breinholt was shot and killed inside a West Valley City Police Department building. This is perhaps the most disturbing and powerful example of unnecessary use of force detailed in Shots Fired

Breinholt was arrested after what was initially a mental health-related call. The officers responding to the call were supposed to perform what was originally a welfare check. Instead, Breinholt was arrested. 

After his arrest, and being taken to the police department, Breinholt was shot by officers in a back office. Officers chose to shoot Brienholt despite him posing no real threat and there being enough officers present to assist in any disturbances non-violently. It is worth noting that the officer who killed Breinholt had also shot two other people throughout his career.

Police training needs to be reformed, and excessive use of force from police officers needs to be diminished. Libertas has long championed criminal justice and police reform efforts in Utah.

Some of Libertas’ legislative victories in this area include:

This year, Libertas reform efforts include banning the practice of police lying to children during juvenile interrogations.

Despite this great work, it is clear that there is still a need for more police reform within the state. This belief in a need for more police reform is not just something held by a small group of individuals or democrats. In fact, a poll from 2020 shows that Utahns overwhelmingly support police reform efforts.

Most officers choose their line of work out of a desire to help and protect their communities. The narrative that police are all bad people is simply wrong. However, Libertas — along with most Utahns — believes that the police should not be able to infringe on the freedoms and liberties of individuals. 

Police need to receive better training to decrease their use of lethal force. Training that does not emphasize discharging a firearm is necessary if police officers intend to keep their promises of maintaining peace and order in the communities they serve. To keep citizens safe, police cannot be a source of violence and death within communities.