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It's a split-second decision for law enforcement – when to pull the trigger – it can mean life and death for a suspect or a police officer.
With the recent deaths of unarmed Dillon Taylor, 20, and a 2-year-old Weimaraner named Geist as background, the Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday asked Police Chief Chris Burbank if his officers were getting enough training on the use of lethal force.
The tension was palpable and the temperature high, helped along by over 50 Salt Lake City police officers who packed into the council's afternoon work session.
Among the highlights of the sometimes contentious meeting is that Salt Lake City police officers are now getting new training on confronting animals. Another takeaway was that the council asked the department to quantify and report its efforts at building public trust.
The chief told the council that minimizing force goes into all aspects of Salt Lake City police training. "Deadly force is at the end of the scale," he said.
"We appreciate that," said Councilman Luke Garrott, "but we want to know if you can do a better job."
Garrott noted that Taylor, who had a hand in his waistband, was not armed. "Is that a problem for you?" he asked Burbank.
The chief shot back that officers were called to respond to a man with a gun at a 7-11 store near 2100 South State.
"You are viewing this in hindsight," the chief said. "We are putting officers in harm's way where they may have to use lethal force."
When Garrott asked the chief if officers shouldn't validate suspicions that a suspect is armed before shooting, the gallery of police officers erupted in laughter.
Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said she'd like to calm the meeting, but told the chief the council had heard many concerns from the public. "They want us to look at your policies and procedures," she said. "Part of our duty as a policymaking body is to give our citizens the very best policy."
Burbank told the council that his department has an excellent record with only two shootings per year across his eight years as chief. It is one of the lowest levels in the country, he said.
"Time and time again, our officers respond properly ... we do an excellent job," the chief said. "We don't put officers out there to use force."
Nonetheless, police officers can find themselves in a deadly situation at any time and within seconds, Burbank said referring to the shooting of two of his officers earlier this year.
Officers Dan Tuellar and Mo Tafisi were seriously wounded in the early morning hours of March 28 near 300 South and West Temple while responding to a suspicious vehicle. In the exchange, the assailant was shot dead.
Both Tuellar and Tafisi underwent numerous surgeries, according to spokeswoman Lara Jones. The men have only recently returned to duty.
Another hot point in the meeting came when Councilman Kyle Lamalfa asked Burbank if there was anything the public could do to keep their animals safe.
A visibly steamed Burbank told LaMalfa that while it was unfortunate that the dog Geist was killed, it was during an effort to find a missing six-year-old.
"The officers were looking for a missing child ... we take that very seriously."
Since the death of Geist, the police department has instituted a new training protocol for dogs something the council discovered indirectly.
Council Chairman Charlie Luke, too, sought to bring a conciliatory note to the meeting, saying the police department had the full confidence of the City Council.
He then asked the chief how the council could help the police department improve its day to day operations.
"It's important for the public to understand the department is doing something," Luke said referring to the new dog training. "We need to make sure we have the public trust."
The City Council staff will continue discussions with the police department on such things as funding a new lethal force simulator and other items the department may request. Those discussions will be ongoing leading up to annual budget discussions in March.