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Politics & Government

In-Custody Death Prompts Newspaper Investigation Into Utah Officers Involved In More Than One Police Shooting

A photo of Michael Chad Breinholt at the West Valley City Police Department.
Courtesy West Valley City police
Body camera footage shows Michael Chad Breinholt at the West Valley City Police Department on Aug. 23, 2019. Sgt. Tyler Longman (not shown) shot and killed Breinholt after the handcuffed man reached for another officer’s gun.

Editor’s note: This story includes a description of police violence that may be disturbing to some readers.

Salt Lake Tribune reporters Jessica Miller and Paighten Harkins — along with PBS Frontline — have conducted an investigation into police officers who have been involved in more than one shooting. Part One begins with the 2019 in-custody death of Michael Chad Breinholt at the hands of a West Valley police officer

The Tribune obtained unedited body cam footage of what happened at the station. KUER’s Pamela McCall spoke with Miller.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: What happened that led to Michael Chad Breinholt’s arrest by West Valley City Police?

Jessica Miller: He had gone to his girlfriend's workplace, and a coworker had called the police saying that they were concerned for him because he seemed intoxicated. He said he had taken a large number of pills, and they were worried about his mental health. When the officers arrived, they figured out that he had driven a car there. So they started a DUI investigation. They handcuffed him, they put him in the police car and then they brought him to the police department to do a more accurate breathalyzer test. And once the investigation shifts to this DUI investigation, the mention of his mental health and anxiety and struggles are never mentioned any more. It becomes all about the DUI. There's points in the video where he even asks, "Please take me to UNI," which is a psychiatric hospital. He's asking to go there, and they won't bring him there.

PM: We acknowledge that some people may find this disturbing, but what do we see and hear on the video?

JM: This body cam footage shows Chad Breinholt at the police station, and he's handcuffed. There's a moment where a scuffle ensues where he was trying to grab an officer's gun. It's kind of unclear whether he actually got his hand on the gun. It all happens very quickly -- about six seconds. Sgt. Tyler Longman rushes into the room, grabs on to Chad's head, says "you're about to die, my friend," and then shoots him at pretty much point blank range in the head.

PM: How is Breinholt's death investigated?

JM: This is actually still a pending case. The district attorney will rule on these cases whether they're justified or not, and they decide whether an officer faces charges in these incidents. It's been nearly two years on this case, and Salt Lake District Attorney Sam Gill still hasn't decided whether this is justified or not. So what we've been able to see is very limited. There's a lot of investigative records that still aren't public because this investigation is still pending.

PM: Jessica, what have you uncovered about Sgt. Tyler Longman, the officer who shot Michael Chad Breinholt?

JM: As we looked into this case — and once we figured out who the officer was that shot — we found that this wasn't Sgt. Longman's first shooting. This was the third time that he had been in a fatal shooting since his career started in the early 2000s with West Valley City Police Department. And of course, that leads us to the next question of how often is this happening? How often do police officers get involved in more than one shooting in the course of their careers?

PM: The Salt Lake Tribune has put together a database spanning 16 years of police shootings in Utah. How many other officers have been involved in more than one shooting over that time period?

JM: Well, Sgt. Longman is definitely not alone in this. We found 37 other officers who have been in more than one shooting in their careers in the 16-year period that we've analyzed. There have been studies that have shown that most officers never fired their gun in their careers. And so to have a very small subset of officers being involved in so many shootings is really interesting. And it is a topic really that hasn't been researched or talked about much in policing communities or within the media.

PM: Part Two comes out tomorrow. It explores other officers involved in multiple shootings. There could be a lot of reasons for it, Jessica, like they're assigned to dangerous cases. What do more shootings per officer mean?

JM: I think that's a big question. Is it inherently bad or wrong that an officer is in more than one shooting? There's a couple of officers, for instance, in the database, whose second shooting involved the 2007 shooting at Trolley Square — this mass shooting. They stopped a person who was killing people in a mall. And so one could argue that there's nothing wrong with them being in that second shooting. So the police are pretty reluctant to label this even as a problem. But when we talk with police experts. A lot of what they say is that officers who are in multiple shootings — it’s because they're working in SWAT units or gang units or places that just tend to be more dangerous than a detective sitting at their desk.

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