Police sometimes shoot people.
Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City. Officer-involved shootings occur seemingly daily.
Across the U.S. law enforcement has shot and killed at least 648 people this year, the Washington Post reports. In July alone, 104 people were killed by law enforcement. An FBI report found that between 2008 and 2012 there were about 400 justifiable homicides. Data by year is very sparse and shootings are only voluntarily submitted by agencies to the FBI.
Eastern Idaho hasn’t been immune.
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Area law enforcement shot four men in the first eight months this year. Two were fatal; two not. Two appear to have been motivated by what is known as “suicide by cop.”
There have never been four police-involved shootings in one year in eastern Idaho.
Local authorities believe this year is an outlier and not the beginning of a trend. Some believe the root cause of the shootings is a loss of respect for law enforcement, others say it is an odd year — a blip in the radar.
Eastern Idaho’s police-involved shootings have little in common, except the victims were all men and the officers were justified, according to independent department reviews.
• On June 29, Ricky Mosley survived being shot by two Idaho Falls Police Department officers and two Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
Mosley repeatedly refused to comply with officers’ demands to show his hands. Mosley pointed his cellphone at the officers , mimicking a gun , and was shot. Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office deputies Austin Flegel and Chris Rix, along with Idaho Falls Police Department officers Bart Whiting and Dan Godfrey, all fired their weapons. In all, officers fired 22 shots, hitting Mosley five times. Officials ruled the shooting justified. Mosley is in fair condition at the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, a spokesman said.
• Tyrell “T.J.” Larsen died April 6 following a pursuit into Jefferson County by a Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office deputy. The deputy told Larsen to drop a .22-caliber rifle he had in his hand. Sgt. Nathan Bennion shot Larsen after Larsen refused to drop the gun. Larsen had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but authorities have said he was not attempting suicide by cop. The officer was cleared May 12.
• Lemhi County Sheriff Lynn Bowerman shot and injured Blair Kauer in the wrist after Kauer pointed a .22-caliber rifle at the sheriff April 6. Kauer reportedly had threatened several of his family members before Bowerman arrived. Kauer was charged with two counts of assault or battery to an officer and one count of eluding an officer in relation to the incident. He has a jury trial scheduled Nov. 4.
• Rexburg Police Department officers and Madison County Sheriff’s Deputies shot and killed Darryl Myler on Jan. 24. Myler pointed a 9 mm pistol at the officers and shot four times while Rexburg Police officers Robert James “Jimmy” Koller, Kenneth Tadao “Kenny” Marler, Benjamin S. Johnson and Madison County deputy Braden Bestor fired their weapons at Myler 28 times, hitting him six times. Myler had robbed a Walgreen store before trading fire with the officers.
During the same time frame, three other men have been killed by police across Idaho.
The five fatal officer-involved shootings in the Gem State this year marks the most since 2012 when six people were shot and killed, according to the website fatalencounters.org.
Bonneville County Sheriff Paul Wilde said this year does not mark the beginning of a trend.
He said his deputies never go on patrol intending to shoot and kill someone.
“We don’t operate to be out just gun-wielding slingers,” Wilde said. “When you have a case where a gun is pointed at you, do you wait to be shot? I don’t think that’s how we do it.”
He said a possible reason there have been so many recent shootings is an increasingly antagonistic criminal element. He said he has noticed a change in society; criminals seem less willing to follow law enforcement commands. Wilde said if he were approached by law enforcement he would always obey an officer’s commands regardless of what is happening.
“If law enforcement says ‘Stop and show me your hands,’ I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t have to.’ I would say ‘Yes officer,’” Wilde said. “I would make sure he knows I’m not a threat to him or anybody else in society.”
Wilde said many seem to have lost respect for the badge. He said the criminal element especially seems to care less about life in general, their own or otherwise.
Wilde’s sentiments were supported by Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, in a May 30 Washington Post article.
“There is a heightened danger to police officers today,” Johnson told the newspaper. “More people today have an anti-public-safety mind-set.”
Idaho Falls Police Chief Mark McBride, said his department and the Sheriff’s Office often deal with the same offenders who tend to re-offend and can begin to feel a general distrust with law enforcement. McBride said his officers are trained to make a bad situation as pleasant as possible for suspects, so the next time an offender interacts with police they don’t feel the need to be combative.
“We teach our officers to be respectful of everyone, how that respect is interpreted or received is up to them,” McBride said. “It’s just human nature to try and resolve those issues, but a lot of times that means they go to jail.”
Phillip Robert Dawalt, professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, began his career as a probation officer but now teaches criminology. Dawalt echoed Wilde and said in the 1980s and 1990s people trusted their police thanks to the implementation of community-oriented policing — officers trained to talk to citizens and diffuse tense situations.
“Then we retreated from that,” Dawalt said. “Since then we’ve seen a falloff and there is a growing divide between the public and police. Children used to be taught that police would protect you if you have a problem. But now there’s distrust and negative feelings.”
Dawalt pointed to several potential causes for an increase in shootings nationwide. He said a lack of mental illness awareness and training, poor hiring processes in law enforcement and racial disparity cause tensions which all contribute to an increase in shootings.
“It’s a difficult thing to pin it down to just one cause,” Dawalt said.
Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said the State Police help investigate many of these shootings. She said the spate of shootings in eastern Idaho is definitely an outlier.
“Unfortunately, nationwide, there have been events that some people perceive law enforcement isn’t acting in the citizen’s benefit,” Baker said.
From 2008 to this year, six men were shot and killed by law enforcement in eastern Idaho, past Post Register reporting shows. Statewide since 2000, the earliest data available, Idaho law enforcement officers have shot and killed at least 49 people, according to numbers gathered by fatalencounters.org. The website was created by a Nevada journalist in order to gather officer-involved shooting statistics because there was no cumulative database for those numbers.
Since 2000, law enforcement has shot and killed 47 people in Montana, the website said. Wyoming has seen law enforcement shoot and kill 29 people since 2000, the website said. Utah officers shot and killed 141 people since 2000, the website said.
Baker said a lot of shootings are paraded in the court of public opinion before all the information is available.
“When things show up in the media and on social media, they don’t have all the facts and are quick to judge,” Baker said. “We reserve our judgment with the cases we deal with … that’s why we have the system of justice.”
While the vast majority of police shootings are ruled justified, some aren’t. A recent Washington Post article explores how since 2005, only 54 officers have been charged in fatal police shootings, despite many more appearing to be unlawful.
Each shooting in eastern Idaho is investigated by an independent group of investigators from multiple agencies. The Southeast Idaho Critical Incident Team is called whenever police shoot someone in eastern Idaho.
A dangerous job
Data from the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization that tracks all line-of-duty fatalities, shows that 79 officers have been killed nationwide by gunfire this year, including one in Idaho.
Coeur d’Alene Police officer Greg Moore was killed in the line of duty May 5, becoming the first Idaho officer killed on the job in nearly eight years. (According to the website, the last time a Bonneville County or Idaho Falls officer was killed in the line of duty was 1938.)
Nationally, there have been 275 officers shot dead since 2010, the memorial page reports. Five officers have been shot dead this month, including two last week.
The Washington Post article said preliminary FBI figures show 51 law enforcement officers were “feloniously killed” in the line of duty in 2014, That was nearly double the 2013 tally of 27 officers.
But, as the Post reported June 30, statistics suggest that working in law enforcement has gotten safer. The 2013 toll was the lowest in more than 30 years, according to federal statistics reported by the Post. The newspaper said on average, about 50 police officers have been fatally shot each year over the past decade. That number has fallen by more than half since the 1970s, according to the memorial fund, the Post said.
Stopping the threat
Wilde said his officers are trained to shoot to stop the threat, not necessarily to kill or to wound.
“It’s not about using power, it’s about taking care of the problem,” Wilde said. “I remind my deputies all the time they don’t work for me, they work for the community.”
He said many of his deputies carry non-lethal weapons such as batons, pepper spray and Tasers. He said deputies are trained to quickly evaluate each situation and decide what type of force, if necessary, should be used. He said if a gun is pointed at an officer, a bean bag shot is not the answer.
“It may deter that first shot for a second, but the bullets are going to fly,” Wilde said.
He said his officers also are not trained to shoot at a limb and try to disarm someone with a lethal weapon.
“The most highly trained and skilled operatives don’t try to take an arm, unless you have time on your side,” Wilde said. “The rest of it is all on TV and smoke and mirrors because it doesn’t happen.”
Wilde said there is one solution to stopping shooting incidents, but it may put him out of a job.
“The simple solution is for us to go back to what this nation used to be, a nation of law-abiding citizens. Most citizens will do the right thing,” Wilde said. “I don’t profess to be the almighty … we are all a member of the community and we all act in our own way, hopefully that’s lawful.”