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Officer credits training for making shot that saved lives

Uppsen Downes likely saved many lives by stopping gunman at Grand America

Sen. Gene Davis shakes hands with Salt Lake City police officer Uppsen Downes as the Senate honors him for stopping a gunman near the Grand America Hotel in August.
Sen. Gene Davis shakes hands with Salt Lake City police officer Uppsen Downes as the Senate honors him for stopping a gunman near the Grand America Hotel in August.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As Salt Lake police officer Uppsen Downes crouched behind the front fender of his patrol car to take cover from a man wearing full military clothing and armed with an AR-15 rifle who was firing at him, he knew his choices were either to stay down and wait, hoping backup would arrive on time, or act.

"I have to act; otherwise, I might die there. In an ambush, you just don't sit there," he said Wednesday. "I thought, 'He's going to come and do something.' "

When the gunman briefly stopped shooting on Aug. 27, Downes used the opportunity to make his move. He stood up from behind his car and fired three times from 75 feet away. One of Downes' shots struck Brandon S. Barrett, 28, in the head, just below his helmet and above his bullet-proof vest.

On Wednesday, the honors for Downes' heroic actions continued.

Earlier this week, Downes, 34, received a Purple Heart and the Medal of Valor, the department's highest honor, for possibly saving the lives of the many people who were in the area. Also honored Monday was Robyn Salmon, 59, a hotel security employee who was awarded a public service medal.

On Wednesday, the Utah Senate read a proclamation honoring Downes for his service. Downes received a standing ovation from everyone on the Senate floor and the gallery as he was presented with the award.

Salmon, who wasn't able to attend Wednesday, was expected to be recognized by the Senate officially at a later date.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said Downes "epitomized commitment to public service" and "saved countless lives."

To many, it was not only what Downes was able to do, but how he accomplished it, that were both heroic and amazing.

He was still under fire, had already been shot in the leg and was armed with only his handgun.. The gunman was armed with an assault rifle and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition with his bullet-proof vest and helmet. Downes, however, was able to end the threat with just three shots while firing from 25 yards away.

Several law enforcers told the Deseret News that, according to national statistics, police officers using deadly force in stressful situations only hit their intended target 30 to 40 percent of the time.

Downes has only been with Salt Lake City police for a year. Before that, however, he served with another police department, as well as six years in the U.S. Army. He had also recently completed brush-up training on firearms.

The Deseret News briefly talked to Downes in the hallway of the state Capitol on Wednesday, after he received his recognition. The humble Downes, who is soft-spoken about the incident, called it luck. But others believe it was more a matter of Downes making his own luck by being well-trained and well-prepared.

"For the most part, it was training," Downes said. "You fall back on what you know."

"Our goal is to prepare all our officers for every possible scenario," added Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank.

The exact scenario of an officer just pulling up to a scene and immediately being fired upon after stepping out of the car was practiced just a month earlier during training, he said.

Just as important, if not more so, than keeping an officer's shooting skills sharp, is keeping him mentally sharp.

"To stand and respond, that's a mind-set," Burbank said. "That is a mind-set we work on right at the beginning. That's the most important thing."

When faced with a scenario similar to the one Downes found himself in, Burbank said officers are taught, "You are the solution to the problem."

Downes said he kept his cool as he grabbed and tossed a nearby pedestrian behind his squad car before taking cover himself.

"No point in being frantic," Downes said.

Once he felt confident Barrett was done firing, he stood up and made his move.

Unified Police range master Nick Roberts, in charge of the department's firing range, complimented the Salt Lake City Police Department on their training. Once Downes saw what he was up against, his training automatically kicked in. It's another reason, he said, that training for all law enforcers is so important.

"If he hadn't been trained and he didn't use that training, he might not be here today," Roberts said. "It's because of that officer's training that he's here."

On the floor of the Senate on Wednesday, Downes appeared with his girlfriend and 4-month-old daughter. Waddups noted that everyone was happy Downes was still around to be with his little girl.

Downes called the recent attention he had received "a little overwhelming."

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com