UTAH (ABC4) – With the passage of House Bill 237, which goes into effect on Wednesday, Utah law enforcement officials will have more defined limitations on when to use deadly force.
Both those in law enforcement, as well as those who championed the bill’s passing in the legislative session, say that the changes will have a profound effect when called to scenes of suicidal individuals who are considering or attempting suicide by cop.
“Allowing and advising officers to tactically withdraw from situations where the suspect is a danger only to himself is a positive thing not just for the suspect and the officer, but also for the communities we serve given that courts across the country are more and more likely to allow civil rights cases against officers who use deadly force against a suicidal suspect,” West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine says in a press release from District Attorney Sam Gill’s office, “HB237 is long overdue, and will result in more and better training for officers on how to more successfully engage, or disengage when necessary, when people are in crisis.”
Suicide by cop, which is when a person who is in a suicidal crisis either plans or improvises an attempt to take their life by forcing a law enforcement officer to use lethal force, has taken up a significant chunk of reported fatal officer-involved shootings. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, approximately 10 to 29% of such shootings are suicide by cop incidents.
Changes in the Utah law will restrict an officer from using deadly force if the suicidal person is a posing a danger only to themselves. Representative Jennifer Dailey-Provost, who sponsored the bill, explained her reasoning for pushing the agenda.
“I sponsored this bill because I wanted to do something positive not just for my community but for law enforcement officers, too,” says Dailey-Provost in that same press release. “In my conversations with officers, it became clear to me that interactions with suicidal people, especially those considering ‘suicide by cop,’ are some of the most dangerous, potentially devastating situations for everyone involved.”
Gill himself found that the bill’s passing was necessary for a variety of reasons and will benefit multiple groups that can intersect in a difficult situation.
“Permitting officers the ability to step back strategically and thoughtfully, to take a breath, and to re-engage in a different way with someone in crisis will, we hope, lead to fewer officer-involved shootings and better results for community members and their families experiencing mental illness,” Gill said in his press release.
There have been some local incidents of a suicidal person forcing police to use their weapons. In October 2020, Ogden Police were called to a scene where an 18-year-old male was threatening to kill himself while armed with a shotgun and in close proximity to two other people. As police entered the home, the man approached officers with his weapon, forcing police to fire upon him, hitting him in the abdomen. The man was taken to the hospital and treated for a gunshot wound. At the time of the report, police said the injured person was in good condition at the hospital.
In that situation, the person who was ultimately injured, was posing a risk to others, which justified the action taken by police.
In another case from January 2020, a Cedar City man was taken into custody after posting on Facebook that he wanted to shoot up a grocery store and force those who would respond to end his life by suicide by police. Cedar City Police Sgt. Clint Pollock told ABC4 at the time that they proceeded to take the suspect into custody with caution, not wanting the arrest to end in a suicide by cop situation.
“He said he wanted to kill police officers and then be killed by police officers, so we’ll take a different approach with those,” Pollock said. “We don’t want to force an issue if he hasn’t followed through with those threats, and we don’t want to show up and have him force us to shoot him.”