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Salt Lake City Looking To Expand Its Less-Lethal Arsenal

Police vehicle with emergency lights flashing at night.
Brian Albers / KUER

The Salt Lake City Council met Tuesday night for the first of two public meetings this month. Apart from the standard fare on the agenda — things like budget amendments, road closures, and zoning changes — they also talked about adding new less-lethal shotguns to the Salt Lake City Police Department’s arsenal.

The shotguns are one item the city hopes to buy with a potential award from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance (JAG) Grant, which offers state, local, and tribal law enforcement money from the federal government for crime reduction efforts. 

If awarded, the SLCPD would receive $333,520 from the Department of Justice, which would go to line-items including cell phone analysis software, a new mobile command center and the less-lethal shotgun program.

In a staff report about the grant, City Budget Analyst Sylvia Richards said police officers have little choice right now between close-contact batons and tasers and deadly force. SLCPD Detective Greg Wilking said the officers currently share a handful of 40-caliber grenade launcher-like shotguns, which shoot one big rubber ball at a time and are notoriously unreliable. 

“There were times, with that 40-mm platform, that we weren’t accurate and so it didn’t resolve the situation,” Wilking said. “So we had to look at those things and say is there a better platform out there?” 

They eventually turned to newer, less cumbersome models, and Wilking said the department has been considering upgrading for some time. Not only are they more accurate and hold up to 12 bean bag rounds, they're cheaper.

“Having more of them available to more officers, that’s the key,” Wilking said. 

It’s an option cities around the country have been experimenting with — Florida, Minnesota and other parts of Utah have all started using less-lethal rounds. 

Last year, a police officer from Woods Cross in Davis County stepped in to help neighboring North Salt Lake City officers take down an armed man who had been threatening a woman and her 5-year-old son.

“I made the decision to deploy that because I figured everybody else had a lethal option already,” the officer said in an interview with KSL. “I do believe if this option hadn’t been around, this man probably would have lost his life.”

City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who is also a criminal defense attorney, said she supports measures that make the city safer for everyone. 

“Of course we want police officers to be safe themselves and to be able to execute their duties,” she said. “But that should happen in a way that doesn't also put other people's lives in danger.”

Utah police officers shot 25 people in 2018, which the Salt Lake Tribune said was more than any year in recent memory. Of those, 19 were killed. This year, eight people have been shot and killed by police, according to a Washington Post database. While that number may seem low, Utah ranks 18th in the nation when it comes to police shootings per million people.

Detective Wilking said this less-lethal choice is important for police. 

“You know, having that option there is just another tool in our toolbelt that allows us to hopefully go home at the end of the day," he said. "And hopefully the person we’re dealing with goes home at the end of the day.” 

If the city does not get the grant approved, the department will try to scrape money together from its own budget, and if that doesn’t work, it would ask the city step in.

Correction 10:50 a.m. MST, 12/27/19: An earlier version of this story misspelled Salt Lake City Police Detective Greg Wilking's name.

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