Sanpete officers show restraint in use of force
By Suzanne Dean
MANTI—Policies regarding use of force by local law enforcement officers including Sanpete County sheriff’s deputies, are similar to policies around the county, according to a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
The main standard for judging whether deadly force is justified is whether an officer reasonably believes he or others in the area are in danger of death or bodily harm if the officer doesn’t stop a suspect, Det. Derick Taysom, one of the lead detectives in the Sheirff’s Office, said last week in an interview with the Sanpete Messenger.
And, Taysom notes, officers in Utah, including Sanpete County, have qualified immunity from criminal and civil prosecution if their actions are judged to be reasonable based on how they sized up the situation they were presented with.
The “reasonable belief” standard has come under fire as people around the country who have watched videos of police officers shooting and killing suspects have concluded the officers involved were not in danger.
Groups such as Black Lives Matter have argued that far from being given immunity, many officers in officer-involved shootings should be charged with murder.
But there’s another side of the coin. The law enforcement atmosphere in a county or community is impacted not just by policies but by the culture within police agencies. In Sanpete County, officers have long been restrained in the use of force.
In nearly 20 years, no officer in Sanpete County has shot and killed a suspect. In two cases, officers have shot and injured suspects, but both times, the officers involved were from outside the county and had come in to assist.
Taysom was asked if he knew of a case where a local officer had used a gun at all. “Not in the six years I’ve been here,” he said.
“We have phenomenally good officers in this county,” Taysom said. “I can say specifically for the Sheriff’s Office that they are men and women of integrity. They live in this community. They want to see this community thrive.”
Taysom said choke holds, or any action that restricts blood flow to the brain or restricts airflow, such as the knee hold on the neck that led to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, is a clear violation of Sheriff’s Office policies.
Such policies are now law. A special session of the Utah Legislature recently passed a bill outlawing choke holds.
In fact, Sheriff’s Office policies require deputies to get medical assistance if they have someone in custody “who exhibits signs of physical distress, who has sustained visible injury, who expresses a complaint of injury or continuing pain, or if they are rendered unconscious.”
The officers who stood by while Floyd was complaining of being unable to breathe would be in trouble under Sheriff’s Office policies, which state, “Any deputy who observes another deputy using force beyond what is objectively reasonable shall, if in a position to do so, intercede to prevent the use of unreasonable force.”
And under the policy, deputies are required to report any instances of unreasonable use of force to their supervisors.
The policy waters get a little murkier in cases where someone is resisting arrest or fleeing from officers, as in the Rayshard Brooks case in Atlanta, Taysom said.
Use of force continuum
The Sheriff’s Office uses what Taysom called the “use of force continuum.” When first trying to arrest someone, “We say, ‘You’re under arrest because of this reason. I need you to put your hands behind your back.’”
If the person doesn’t cooperate and makes a statement such as “You can’t arrest me,” deputies “escalate it up a notch. We might grab their hands and say, ‘You’re under arrest, put your hands behind your back.’”
The suspect can escalate the situation by ripping their arms away or running, Taysom said. In such a case, “there are a lot of things you have to take into account. What if you’re there alone and the person is a body builder and bigger than you? …Then there are other options you can start thinking of, such as pepper spray or the taser.”
Less lethal weapons
Sanpete County deputies carry several “less lethal” weapons. Nearly all carry tasers on their person that can stop muscle movements and make a person immobile.
Most carry either pepper spray, an aerosol chemical, or a pepper gun, that shoots pepper spray pellets up to 30 feet. Recently, deputies have received a new tool, a bean-bag shotgun, that shoots a small, non-explosive bean bag with enough force to knock a person down.
“The reason we say ‘less lethal options’ is that any of these options can end up hurting or killing someone,” Taysom said. “But that’s rare.” Often, he said, non-lethal tools “are the best way to safely effect an arrest. It protects the public, it protects the person who is getting arrested and it protects the officer. And the idea is to eliminate instances where you have to use deadly force.”
In evaluating how much force to use to get a person who is fleeing into custody, Sheriff’s Office policies tell officers to consider “the seriousness of the suspected offense or reason for contact with the individual” along with the officer’s perception of danger to himself or others.
“An example would be someone who is reported to have already been shooting at people,” Taysom said. “And you believe if you don’t stop them now, they could inflict serious bodily injury.”
Under such circumstances, the Sheriff’s Office policies state, “A verbal warning should precede the use of deadly force.”
Some jurisdictions have civilian review boards made up of non-officers investigations citizens complaints about police misconduct, including complaints of unreasonable use of force.
Call us if mistreated
In Sanpete County, such complaints are addressed administratively. “Please put this in your article,” Taysom said. “We encourage anybody who feels they’ve been mistreated, even if they’re just not happy with the service they received, or feel excessive force was used,” to let the Sheriff’s Office know. They can call the Sheriff’s secretary at 835-2191.
“We as an agency take those complaints seriously,” he said. The complaints go to the captain in charge of the division where the officer works. The caption assigns a supervisor or other officer to investigate the complaint, including talking to witnesses.
“They take their findings to the sheriff. The administration decides what action to take,” Taysom said. Typically, “it’s a group decision” by the top officers in the agency, but Sheriff Brian Nielson makes the final decision, he said.
George Floyd case
Taysom said he doesn’t agree with how the officers in Minneapolis handled George Floyd. “I’ve not talked with one officer who agreed with it,” especially considering that Floyd was handcuffed.
In the Rayshard Brooks case, Taysom said he wouldn’t want to second-guess the officers. “I don’t know what I would have done in that case. You put yourself in that position, and if you reasonably believe, as state law would say, that bodily injury or death could occur from the actions taken, then you’re justified” in shooting.
The reason the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have upheld the “reasonable officer” and “reasonable belief” standards is because officers, as opposed to the average citizen, understand the complexities of policing, he added.
“An officer has the training, they have an understanding of the policies, they have an understanding of what’s expected by the courts, the Legislature and the communities they’re in, in that incident.”