Fatal encounters take toll on officers

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Although the shooting had been weeks ago, Centerville police Lt. Paul Child's heart still raced as he drove near the home where he was forced to take another person's life.

He knew the man he shot had pointed a .22-caliber rifle at him first. But mixed emotions lingered for the veteran officer as he continued to replay the events of June 17, 2007 - the city's first fatal police shooting.

"That goes on for days, thinking, 'Is there anything else I could have done?' " said Child.

There already have been two fatal police shootings this year. As statistics show, Utah police are finding themselves in such scenarios more often. What's often lost in the numbers is the emotional toll on officers and their families.

Apart from public scrutiny and internal investigations, there are issues that can take an officer a lifetime to work through, said Detective Shawn Josephson, of the Salt Lake City Police Department's peer counseling program.

"I'm not a believer that those types of things are ever healed," said Josephson, who learned about the effects of fatal police shootings in 1996, after he shot and killed a suspected drug dealer who had attempted to fire shots at police. "They have a less traumatic impact as we learn to deal with them."

Josephson's program works with officers from around the Salt Lake Valley, helping them to deal with the emotional, physiological and psychological aftermath of a fatal shooting. He and other peer coordinators stay in regular contact with officers and steer them to other services they or their families might need.

That's a sea change from 20 or 30 years ago, when officers buried emotions tied to a difficult event at work - a tendency Josephson said resulted in many officers leaving the field because of problems related to post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety.

Officers may experience a range of emotions, Josephson said. Some may feel defensive or frustrated when friends or family ask innocent questions about the event. Others might feel guilt and empathy for the victim's family, or elation about surviving the incident.

Training for the day when he'd have to use deadly force at work didn't prepare Child for the aftershock of emotions that shook up his family life. His emotions flip-flopped from stunned to scared to angry to discovering a new appreciation for the family he could have lost.

Child shot Steven Lane, 29, after responding to a report of a fight in a home at 135 E. 2050 North in Centerville. Police say officers were led into a bedroom, where Lane was holding a loaded .22-caliber rifle. Officers shouted "drop the gun" but Lane swung it toward them and was shot at least twice. Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings upheld Child's use of deadly force.

Child's wife, a dispatcher, took the call of shots fired that day and knew her husband was on the scene, he said. He cried when he saw her after the shooting, knowing how close he'd come to being the victim.

In addition to having anxiety when traveling near the shooting scene, Child's family life became strained as he received death threats after Lane's shooting. He said he was forced to leave town with his family for several days to ensure they stayed safe.

Today, events surrounding the shooting aren't as traumatic for Child. He said he worked through his issues through help from co-workers, family and his church. The event is never far from mind, however.

"Every day you think about it," he said.

In addition to scrutiny from officials and internal struggles, some officers may also face questions from grieving family members. That is the case with the grieving family of a man fatally shot by South Salt Lake City police officers last month.

Family members of Ross Sullivan, 39, shot to death by officers earlier this month after brandishing a sword at them at his South Salt Lake apartment, have questioned the necessity of the shooting. The incident is still being investigated while the officers involved remain on leave.


Fatal police shootings

Of a total of 65 homicides The Tribune recorded in Utah during 2007, 14 people were shot and killed by police. That's double the number from five years ago.

* 2008: 2 (as of Feb. 1)

* 2007: 13

* 2006: 4

* 2005: 5

* 2004: 8

* 2003: 6

* 2002: 7

* 2001: 2

Source: Tribune records

Utah's deadly force law

A police officer should give a verbal warning to a suspect prior to using deadly force. Officers are justified in using deadly force when:

* The officer is acting on a court order to execute the death penalty.

* The officer believes that deadly force is necessary because an arrest is being prevented by a suspect's escape.

* The officer believes deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious injury to an officer or another person.