AFP Photo / Justin Sullivan
Police officers have been responsible for more homicides in the state of Utah since 2010 than gangs or drug dealers, a new report has revealed.
Of the nearly 300 homicides in the state in the past five years, from the beginning of 2010 through October 2014, Utah police have killed 45 of those victims, or 15 percent, according to a review of records – ranging from media reports and crime statistics to medical-examiner and court documents – by the Salt Lake Tribune. Police account for more killings than gangs, drug dealers or from child abuse, the newspaper reported, but less than spouse or dating-partner fatalities.
A fatal police shooting that occurred on Saturday was not counted and remains under investigation, the Tribune reported.
“The numbers reflect that there could be an issue, and it’s going to take a deeper understanding of these shootings,” said Chris Gebhardt, a former police lieutenant and sergeant who worked in Washington, DC and Utah. “It definitely can’t be written off as citizen groups being upset with law enforcement.”
In addition, almost all uses of deadly force by police have gone unpunished by county prosecutors across the state. Only one fatal police shooting since 2010 was ruled unjustified – but that criminal charge was later dropped by a judge.
Some say there are conflicts of interest in the process of investigation and prosecution.
“You’ve got a very close relationship between officer, prosecutor and judge in this state,”Gebhardt said.
Others said cozy relationships or not, the appearance of such, coupled with a lack of information offered to the public, can give rise to such accusations.
“I don’t want to defame the quality of those investigations, but in that process there is a gap in the release of information that I think increases the mistrust between the community and police,”said Robert Wadman, a criminal justice professor at Weber State University and former chief of police in Omaha, Nebraska.
One recent police homicide fueled conflict-of-interest allegations in the state. Weeks after the Utah County Attorney’s Office found the police shooting of Darrien Hunt, 22, was justified, new information surfaced that cast a shadow over the decision.
Police had not disclosed that one of the officers was wearing a body camera that he failed to activate during the Sept. 10 encounter. Investigators did not review testimony by a witness who initially stated that Hunt swung a sword at police before the shooting, but who later said to reporters that Hunt was not aggressive. And Hunt’s aunt, Cindy Moss, said the family has photographic proof of a shot-out windshield of a car at the scene, marked with a police evidence tag. The photo counters prosecutor claims that stray bullets were only found embedded into the ground.
“There’s inconsistencies through the whole thing,”said Moss, who is now pushing for legislation that would mandate civilian oversight boards and body cameras for police officers.
“By having a citizen review board, we have people who really want to see the truth – not to be covering it up and making it look like it’s fine. And that’s what it truly looks like at this point.”
Police disputed the narrative that officers are too quickly resorting to deadly force.
“Police are trained and expected to react to deadly threats. As many deadly threats emerge is the exact amount of times police will respond,” Ian Adams, a West Jordan police officer and spokesman for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, told the Tribune.
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