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Utah Police Shoot At Minorities A Disproportionate Amount — The Salt Lake Tribune Dove Into The Numbers

A group of protesters march down the street holding signs with slogans like “Don’t shoot” and “Skin color is not reasonable suspicion.”
Ivana Martinez
Last year, protesters in Utah marched as part of the nationwide Black Lives Matter Movement. A new report shows minorities are more likely to be shot at by police than their white counterparts.

For more than a year, the Salt Lake Tribune and PBS Frontline have been compiling records that detail who gets shot at by police. This week, they released their findings. One of the main takeaways was that the data doesn’t line up with Utah’s demographics. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Salt Lake Tribune criminal justice reporter Paighten Harkins about the investigation. She said the paper had been looking at some of these records for years, but during last summer’s racial justice protests nationwide they really dug into the work.

Caroline Ballard: Walk me through how you collected and organized the data. 

Paighten Harkins: It was around that time [of the protests] that we linked up with Frontline PBS and they gave us money and resources and people. We requested all sorts of records from police departments. We called family members of people who had been affected in some way by these police shootings — and tons of interviews with law enforcement. But a lot of it was just doing the legwork of filing open records requests to get all these reports for these shootings so that we could start trying to log this information. In this case, it's the race data.

CB: So let's take a look at the numbers that your reporting uncovered. First off, who was shot? And just to clarify, this is people who were shot at. So they weren't necessarily injured or killed — but the people that police officers fired a gun at.

PH: Over this time span, between 2010 to 2020, there were 230 people shot. The majority of people who were shot by police in Utah over that last decade were white. And then once you start looking at racial and ethnic minorities, those numbers get a lot smaller. What we wanted to look at was how those numbers compare to the population makeup in Utah. What we found is that white people make up the highest number of people shot, but there is a disparity. Racial and ethnic minorities make up about a third of all police shootings, but they only make up a quarter of the population here, according to the most recent census numbers.

CB: How often does a person who was shot at by police have a gun?

PH: One hundred and twenty-four people out of our data that had guns or a fake gun. But then when you break that down by the race or ethnicity of the people that had guns, white people were so much more likely to have a gun than racial and ethnic minorities. It was 62.3% of white people had guns, compared to 43.4% of racial and ethnic minorities.

CB: So there are these disparities between who gets shot at and also things like who is more likely to have a gun or a weapon. One thing that the head of Utah's Fraternal Order of Police said was that it was disappointing that the Salt Lake Tribune was the first to put this information together. Why hasn't this data been available before now?

PH: That's a good question. I have wondered that myself. I know in talking to Ian Adams, the person you were just referencing, he has just said there's been no political will for it. Of all the problems that Utah has encountered over the last X years or whatever, this just hasn't been super high on the priority list.

CB: What kinds of reactions did you hear from members of Utah law enforcement and Utah lawmakers as you talk to them about this data?

PH: It seems like most people that I spoke with, they weren't surprised. Sim Gill, the Salt Lake County district attorney, told us “this backs up what I see in my office.” We talked to Rep. Angela Romero [D-Salt Lake City] and this is stuff that she had just kind of known intuitively from growing up here. Basically, everybody we talked to who had some familiarity with the criminal justice system here said this wasn't surprising. And it's not surprising because this is a trend that has kind of been repeating in Utah no matter how you kind of slice the criminal justice system. Like [the] ACLU analysis from 2017 that showed 43% of Utah's prisoners were racial and ethnic minorities. This is a problem that has existed in Utah. We just didn't have the numbers to prove it. And now we do.

CB: I think the obvious first place to go here is, "Well, police should just have more training about things like implicit bias." But in a separate article, you say that just having more training won't necessarily solve this problem. What could help?

PH: There are a lot of different opinions about what could help, but it's like this idea that you can't train your way out of the implicit bias that is just sort of ingrained in everybody by virtue of growing up in the United States. What some of these experts we talked to are kind of pointing to are like — you can have trainings — trainings are good — but you should also create policies and practices that remove officers from situations wherein they might shoot somebody. Some of the people we talked to said that you could do something like have more unarmed officers doing certain types of enforcement or cut down on certain traffic enforcement completely. We go back to the training piece too and talk about an instance where training can work. And it all depends on who's doing the training and what the training is about. So, yeah, I hope everybody takes a look at that.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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