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Training, mental health, growth behind Idaho's spike in police shootings, says expert

A Meridian Police Department officer was shot Sunday afternoon in an neighborhood near Maple Grove and Overland roads. The officer shot and killed one suspect. Police were still looking for two others, a man and a woman.
A Meridian Police Department officer was shot Sunday afternoon in an neighborhood near Maple Grove and Overland roads. The officer shot and killed one suspect. Police were still looking for two others, a man and a woman. kmoeller@idahostatesman.com

Three factors may be contributing to Idaho's spike in officer-involved fatal shootings: a lack of mental health care, rapid growth and under-trained officers.

In the first six months of 2018, Idaho law enforcement officers shot and killed 10 people — surpassing the annual record for the last 20 years.

The 10 shootings took place across the state, in both urban and rural locales. But there are some similarities: Six of the suspects fired or brandished a gun at officers. Nine occurred during a traffic stop or a domestic dispute call.

"Just as we struggle to understand crime trends, we also struggle to understand trends in officer-involved shootings," said Gary Raney, a former Ada County sheriff who now works as a criminal justice consultant.

"Boise Police experienced a statistical anomaly 20 years ago when they had an unusual number of shootings over about two years. Their frequency of shootings ever since has been about average. What happened in those two years? We still don’t know."

But Raney has some suspicions about current trends. He shared his thoughts with the Statesman on Monday, one day after a Meridian police officer shot and killed a state parole fugitive while trying to serve a warrant.

Trend or anomaly?

Since 2000, Idaho has averaged 3.5 officer-involved fatal shootings a year, according to statistics compiled by the Statesman.

Prior to this year, Idaho's two deadliest years were 2007 and 2015, during which officers fatally shot seven people.

Among its neighboring states, Idaho has had the most fatal shootings involving police so far this year. Oregon has had nine fatal shootings, Nevada and Utah eight each, Washington six, Montana four and Wyoming two. Nationwide, police have shot and killed 516 people this year, according to a Washington Post database.

"We do know a couple of things," Raney said. "Idaho has been labeled as the fastest growing state in the nation, and not all of those people are law-abiding citizens. Growth brings all kinds of people and some of those have a propensity toward criminal conduct."

The Treasure Valley also has generally had a low crime rate.

"We have not had a lot of problems that similar cities, like Spokane for example, have had," Raney said. Spokane County had a spike in officer-involved shootings last year, Raney said — more than double its 10-year afverage — but 2018 "seems to be back to normal for them."

Another factor: "Many of these appear to be tied to mental health and 'suicide by cop,'" Raney said. "Idaho has a rather abysmal system for mental health care and, while no one can point to any one of these shootings and say it would have been prevented, we can point to the suicide rate and know that many of those could have been prevented. So, whether it is suicide or suicide by cop, we have to recognize mental illness is a factor in at least some of these."

In addition to addressing mental illness, Idaho needs to do better by its law enforcement officers, Raney said.

"Idaho law enforcement is made up of really good people overall, with really poor training overall," he said. "We do not have the frequency of law enforcement misconduct that many other states have, but law enforcement training in Idaho is clearly inadequate. Our academy is seriously underfunded and there are a lack of opportunities for in-service training."

Raney said crisis intervention team training hosted by the academy "is nationally recognized as one of the best in diffusing dangerous situations. However, it is 40 hours long and costs money. Most small cities and counties can’t afford to either pay the cost of training or to be without that officer or deputy for a week because they are often the only person on duty. We need to be enhancing our statewide training, not cutting the budget for it."

Idaho also must expand its training for de-escalating tense situations, the former sheriff said. So far this year, almost all of Idaho's incidents took place during traffic stops or domestic dispute calls.

"A lot of police contact comes from situations that are emotional, also making them volatile. Without proper training, it is easy for an officer to make things worse because we have traditionally been taught command and control," Raney said.

"By our nature, people tend to react strongly when we perceive a threat and in these situations that only escalates the tension. Agencies across the country are avoiding the use of deadly force by teaching their officers techniques on how to slow things down, talk and employ techniques to lessen the volatility. When that happens, officers and suspects are safer and live longer."

2018fatalshootingsJuly2.JPG
2018 now marks the highest number of fatal, officer-involved shootings in Idaho in almost 20 years, according to a Statesman review of publicly available information. Graphic by Cynthia Sewell

Justified but avoidable?

Of the 73 fatal shootings across the state since 2000, those with completed investigations have been deemed justified except for one.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said there was not enough evidence to determine if two Adams County deputies were legally justified in the November 2015 shooting of Council rancher Jack Yantis. That case is the subject of a pending civil lawsuit.

Investigations are still pending on about a half-dozen of the shootings.

"The system in Idaho, as with most other states, continues to look at whether officer-involved-shootings were legally justified," Raney said. "That is an important first step, but afterward we need to not just look at whether the officer could shoot, but whether they should shoot.

"Some agencies are doing this individually, but we need a larger system to create 'lessons learned' and share those lessons with others. There are many cases nationally where the shooting was legally justified, but could have been avoided had the officer used better judgment and tactics."

Fatal shootings in 2018

Jan. 4: Boise police officers shot Robert Hansen, 27, after he pointed a gun at a woman and himself when police pulled them over on a traffic stop.

Jan. 16: Gooding police officers shot Kerry Nield, 53, after officers responded to a domestic dispute and found her standing in the road with a rifle.

Jan. 23: Idaho Falls police officer shot Shane McVey, 54, after he charged and sprayed pepper spray while officers tried to apprehend him.

Feb. 27: Coeur d’Alene police officers shot Curtis Bradley Ware, 33, during a traffic stop for a felony warrant after he fired multiple shots at police.

March 5: Sandpoint police officers shot Brandon Kuhlman, 28, after he began firing at officers responding to a call for service at his grandparents' house.

March 27: Nampa police officers shot Evan C. Bashir, 29, after he stabbed 3 women, killing one.

May 11: Blackfoot police officers fatally shot Jacob T. Eldridge, 24, after he stabbed a woman he was holding hostage.

May 25: Elmore County sheriff’s deputy shot Jon Jay Lewis, 33, who was driving recklessly in a field and then brandished a large military-style knife at the deputy.

June 23: Meridian police officers shot Robert L. Barton, 48, while responding to a domestic violence call. Barton pulled out a gun, which was later determined to be a replica Western pistol.

July 1: Meridian police officer shot Daniel Isaiah Norris, 33 after Norris shot the officer during a confrontation.

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Cynthia Sewell is the Idaho Statesman’s government watchdog reporter. Contact her at (208) 377-6428, csewell@idahostatesman.com or @CynthiaSewell on Twitter.
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