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Politics & Government

Mountain West Has The Highest Rate Of People Killed By Police In The Nation

A still image from Salt Lake City Police Department body camera footage from September 2020. The person in the image, a 13-year-old boy with autism who police believed might have been armed, would be shot moments later. The boy was unarmed.
A still image from Salt Lake City Police Department body camera footage from September 2020. The person in the image, a 13-year-old boy with autism who police believed might have been armed, would be shot moments later. The boy was unarmed.

This is the first story in the Mountain West News Bureau series "Elevated Risk," a project powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

Last summer, parks and streets across the country filled with the sound of violins. They were played by people protesting the death of 23-year-old violinist Elijah McClain. The young black man was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colo. when he was stopped by the police after someone called saying he looked "sketchy."After a tussle police placed him in a chokehold and he lost consciousness

McClain was 5-foot-6, weighed 140 pounds and was a chronic asthmatic. When he briefly regained consciousness, police claimed he had "crazy strength." 

Paramedics on the scene gave him the powerful sedative ketamine. He had a cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died days later.

McClain was just one of more than 1,100 people killed during interactions with police in the Mountain West since 2015.

That's according to our analysis of data from the website Fatal Encounters. It counts these deaths by tracking media stories online. Its founder, former Nevada journalist D. Brian Burghart, began tracking cases nearly a decade ago after he had an "aha" moment.

"I was driving home from work, Friday night, and I just saw this scene of chaos," he recalls. "Dozens of cop cars parked haphazardly and I just got a feeling that either a cop had killed somebody or somebody had killed a cop."

As a newspaper editor, this sparked his curiosity. How often do police kill civilians?

"And it did not take me very long to figure out that nobody really knew," he says.

The federal government does have a homicide database but reporting those incidents is voluntary and many law enforcement agencies don't participate. So Burghart eventually figured the best way to track this data was to gather stories from local media outlets. He estimates he misses a few cases.

"But whatever we have is twice as good as anything that was ever released by the government," he says.

According to the Mountain West News Bureau's analysis of that data, the fatal encounter rate in our region is more than one and a half times the national average. 

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There are a lot of theories as to why this is, but the most common one boils down to this: "Guns."

"Guns."

"The gun culture that's here."

"It really is as simple as guns."

That's Burghart along with law enforcement experts Gabriel Schwartz, Robin Engel and Justin Nix, respectively. They all say that in places where there is a high level of household gun ownership, there's often also a high level of people killed by police. Police officers are also more likely to be victims in the region.

"Officers from day one are trained and socialized to anticipate danger and be prepared for any interaction to potentially go sideways and present a lethal threat for their own safety," says Justin Nix from the University of Nebraska at Omaha explains. 

And Mountain Westerners own more guns than most anywhere else in the country. Nix posits another contributing factor – the lack of access to trauma centers after someone is shot. 

"It's just a little bit farther on average to trauma care, and minutes matter," he says. "And so when you're looking at data that only capture those deaths, it might lead you to believe that officers are using deadly force at a higher rate, when maybe they're using deadly force at similar rates and it's just people are dying at a higher rate."

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And then there's mental illness."Something like one in four people shot and killed by police displayed signs of or were known to have a mental illness," Nix says.

Many states in the Mountain West rank among the highest when it comes to prevalence of mental illness and lack of access to care.

'Tell my mom I love her'

In Salt Lake City, in September, Golda Barton called 911. 

"We need a mental health worker. It's super important. Because I really, um...he's sick," she said.

Barton's 13-year-old autistic son was having a crisis. She warned that he might be carrying a BB or pellet gun. She wasn't sure. She also told the operator that her father had been shot by police last year and that her son saw it happen. Now he hated cops. When the police arrived what occured next was recorded on their body cameras.

"We need him to go to the hospital," Barton said. "I need him to go to the hospital. I cannot get him there on my own."

The police found her son in the backyard and he took off running. A chase ensued. 

On the recording you can hear officers yell, "Get on the ground! Get on the ground!" Then, several gunshots. The boy was shot 11 times.

Moments later you can hear him say: 'Tell my mom I love her.'

Barton's son survived. He was unarmed. The city's mayor said in a statement soon after the shooting that she was "heartbroken and frustrated" by the incident. 

The family has filed suit against the Salt Lake City Police Department in U.S. District Court. 

"It's a bleak picture," says Gabriel Schwartz, who tracked police violence as a doctoral student at Harvard University. Overall, he says, the United States is a perfect storm of mental health issues, guns, and inequality.

"And," he adds, "police are much more often armed with guns and other military equipment."

He says many of the solutions posited by law enforcement – more body cameras, a more diverse police force, implicit bias training – don't seem to address the problems. 

Put it all together and, as Schwartz says, "it's a disaster." 

An FAQ about this series and the data behind it can be found here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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