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Salt Lake police fired more than 135 shots in 18 months. Where did those rounds end up?

Most incidents involved injured deer, though most rounds were fired at suspects

SHARE Salt Lake police fired more than 135 shots in 18 months. Where did those rounds end up?
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John Lee, Deseret News

Salt Lake City police officers fired at least 135 bullets in the line of duty over 18 months in 2022 and the first six months of 2023, more than half during a single shootout with a man who had carjacked a vehicle at gunpoint.

The figure comes from counting the number of shots listed in a statistical report the Salt Lake City Police Department provided to the Deseret News in response to a public records request for all incidents in which an officer discharged a firearm on the job for any reason from Jan. 1, 2022, through July 31, 2023. It also comes from new stories, critical incident reviews and police body-worn camera video of officer-involved shootings.

The Deseret News request also sought the disposition of each round fired from a weapon in each incident over that time period — in other words, where every bullet landed. While the department provided a statistical report compiled from its system, it noted that not every summary contained the requested information, specifically the disposition of each round fired from the weapon in each incident.

With about 565 sworn officers, the Salt Lake police department is the largest in the state.

Why did police use their guns?

The report listed 29 incidents by date over the 18-month period in which an officer fired a service weapon, and in most cases included a brief description of the incident. Almost all of the rounds came from handguns. About a dozen came from rifles.

In most of the cases, the gun was used to put down an injured animal: a deer 20 times and an elk and a fox once each, as well as one unidentified animal. Unless the number of shots was specific in the report, one shot was assumed. The report listed four officer-involved critical incidents, which typically involve use of force, but did not give any details. The vast majority of all rounds were fired in those four incidents. In two cases, officers accidentally discharged their weapons at home.

Of the accidental discharges, one happened when an officer attempted to dry fire his weapon but fired a live round through a bedroom wall and into a neighbor’s house. The report notes the neighbors were not home and no one was injured.

The other occurred when an officer accidentally discharged his gun at home, causing property damage to his house and a neighbor’s house.

Both officers were found in violation of the department policy on safe handling, inspection and storage of firearms.

The Salt Lake Police Department through its communications administrative director Brent Weisberg declined the Deseret News’ request for an interview. Instead, he provided a statement saying officers are highly trained on the safe use of firearms per department policy and legal standards.

“Firearms are public safety tools and the primary reason officers carry firearms is to protect life during situations of imminent threats of serious bodily injury or death. Additionally, department policy allows officers to use their firearms to humanely put down animals, such as deer hit by vehicles but not killed on impact,” Weisberg said.

“All sworn members of the department must maintain firearm proficiency throughout their career. The use of firearms outside of training is rare and that is a testament to the strict and comprehensive training officers receive on developing skills to handle each situation with the least and most reasonable amount of force.”

Officer-involved shootings

While the police department did not provide details of the four officer-involved critical incidents, some of which it says are still under investigation, the Deseret News used news reports to match up the dates with the cases. In two of the cases, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office had issued a review of the shooting.

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Salt Lake City police work at the scene after shots were fired following a carjacking on Orange Street near 200 South in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

  • On March 26, 2022, two officers were involved in a shootout with a decorated war veteran who may have been suffering a mental health crisis when he carjacked a vehicle at gunpoint.

It started after officers Dale Nicholas and Jesus Rivera gave chase to a stolen vehicle. Minutes later, the car crashed and became high-centered in an industrial area. Almost immediately, Matthew Henry Cieslak, 38, of Idaho, started shooting at the officers while sitting inside the stolen car. The officers took cover behind a patrol car and returned fire.

“In total, the gunfight lasted about 43 seconds. Based upon the available physical evidence in this case, including the weapon downloads, it is likely that officer Nicholas fired up to 52 rounds and that officer Rivera fired up to 26 rounds. In addition, the evidence indicates that Mr. Cieslak likely fired at least eight rounds during the gunfight,” according to an officer-involved critical incident report from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

Thirteen rounds hit Cieslak. The report found the officers were justified in killing him.

The report included Nicholas’ observation that the suspect’s actions indicated that he had extensive training and was “firing accurately” at officers. “I tell myself slow down, take well-aimed shots,” Nicholas wrote.

While the district attorney’s report tried to account for the shell casing of each round fired from the officers’ guns, it did not include where the bullets ultimately landed, except for the ones that struck Cieslak.

  • On July 9, 2022, firefighters were twice called to the home of Peter Michael Larsen, 45, who had set the weeds in his backyard on fire. As firefighters tried to put out the fire the second time, Larsen threatened to shoot them. Police were called and officers Taylor Adair and Carson Jones arrived.

Larsen stepped out of his house holding a shotgun. After the officers yelled commands for Larsen to drop the weapon, he briefly went back into the home, then came back out and “started bringing his shotgun up and leveling it at the officers,” according to a Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office report.

Adair fired a total of 12 rounds from his rifle, while Jones fired two shots from his handgun, the report says. Larsen was shot in both hands. He pleaded guilty to assault on a police officer and is incarcerated at the Utah State Prison.

The report found the officers legally justified in shooting Larsen.

  • On Nov. 8, 2022, two social workers and a family member were trying to talk to George Gulla, 37, inside a detached garage where he was lying on a bed cluttered with many items. Police body cam video shows Gulla sitting up in the bed and appearing to reach for something. The crisis worker is then seen quickly moving away and the two officers fire more than a dozen shots. Gulla was hit 11 times, according to court documents, but survived.
  • On Jan. 13, 2023, officers tried to stop a vehicle with at least two occupants who had outstanding felony warrants. After a pursuit, police say the passenger surrendered, but the driver got out and began to run toward a home. Three officers fired their weapons at Penisimani Halai, 41, before he broke through a basement window into the house.

As officers took Halai into custody, they found a weapon in his possession, according to Salt Lake police. Halai died a week later. Police have not said how many times the victim was hit or where he was shot. At least five shots can be heard coming from the three officers on body-worn camera footage released by police.

Accounting for every round

The Deseret News sought the firearms discharge information to understand how often and under what circumstances police officers use the service weapons on the job.

“As a society, we want officers to be accurate and to be accountable for every round fired,” Chris Donner and Nicole Popovich, of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University Chicago, wrote in a study titled “Hitting (or missing) the mark: An examination of police shooting accuracy in officer-involved shooting incidents.”

“For a good reason, society empowers the police to use force — including deadly force,” the study concluded. “Unfortunately, given the fluidity of most OIS incidents, officers often miss their target, which can have far-reaching consequences (e.g. dangerous suspect gets away; innocent bystander is shot).”

While the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office investigates police shootings, tracking down the landing spot for every round fired isn’t always successful.

“Investigators try to identify where each bullet went during an officer-involved critical incident; however, many factors can contribute to not every bullet being located,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

There is no evidence in the Salt Lake police data of shots hitting bystanders during shootouts with suspects.

How often do cops fire their guns?

A Pew Research study in 2016 found several disconnects between what the public thinks police work is like and the reality of law enforcement, including how often officers fire their guns.

Perhaps influenced by popular television police dramas that routinely feature vividly choreographed shootouts, 83% of Americans believe that typical police officers fire their service weapon while on duty at least once in their career — and 31% believe police discharge their weapon at least a few times a year, the study says.

In fact, only about a quarter of all officers (27%) say they have ever fired their service weapon outside the gun range, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 7,917 sworn officers working in 54 police and sheriff’s departments conducted by the National Police Research Platform.

But when officers do exchange gunfire with a suspect, they typically fire more rounds than one.

Of the Salt Lake City incident in which two officers fired nearly 80 shots, Donner, an associate criminology professor, said in an interview, “That does sound a little crazy to me, especially that the one (officer) fired 50.” But he said police are trained to fire as many times as it takes to “neutralize the threat” or bring the suspect down.

“It’s not always unjustified for an officer to fire that many times but at the same time, an officer does have to be accountable for every round that’s fired,” Donner said. He added that police must always consider what’s behind their target before squeezing the trigger.

So the question becomes, how many rounds that police officers fire hit the intended target?

Are police accurate shooters?

Several studies, including Donner’s, show police aren’t all that accurate, and that several factors account for their inaccuracy. Overall, about one-third to one-half of rounds actually find the mark.

The Loyola Chicago study of the Dallas Police Department examined 149 officer-involved shootings from 2003 to 2017, finding “officers are not very accurate with their firearms in deadly force situations, which is consistent with prior research.” In 15 incidents, the total number of rounds fired could not be determined. But in the 134 cases where researchers could establish that figure, police hit their target just over a third of the time.

“When considering the total number of rounds fired, officers landed 123 of 354 rounds, for a hit rate of 35%. This means, incredibly, that 231 rounds missed their mark,” according to the study. “Unfortunately, the data do not provide a clear picture of what happened with these rounds, but, at worst, they struck other officers or innocent bystanders.”

Reporting on the Metropolitan Police Department in Las Vegas identified a hit rate accuracy ranging from 23% to 52% over the period of 2008–2015. In 2017, the New York Police Department officers fired 170 shots and hit their targets 75 times, a hit ratio of 44%, the New York Daily News reported. In 2016, New York police landed 107 of a total 304 shots fired, a roughly 35% hit ratio.

What affects shooting accuracy?

There are many studies on hit rates, but limited research on factors associated with shooting accuracy. Experience on the job, familiarity with firearms, lighting, time of day and distance are among some of those factors.

Studies have routinely shown that whether or not the suspect has a weapon and type of weapon can play a role in shooting accuracy due to heightened levels of stress and anxiety, according to the Loyola Chicago study. One study found that officers were significantly less accurate when the suspect was armed with a gun and fired first, and when the officer and suspect were in a physical struggle. 

Given the fluidity of officer-involved shootings, police often miss their target. Donner said situational factors such as whether a suspect is barricaded, moving, charging or shooting figure into police accuracy as well as whether the officer is on the move or behind cover.

“I think all those things just sort of contribute to overall inaccuracy that officers have, even though they go through tons of training,” he said.

Physiological effects such as adrenaline also come into play in a shootout.

Donner said officers interviewed by investigators after an incident will be asked how many shots they fired. Even though they might have clicked off 10 or 12, they might honestly say five.

“They genuinely don’t know that because of some of the physiological effects that happen,” he said.

A study published in 2022 in the International Journal of Environmental Medicine and Public Health attempted to identify the factors that affect law enforcement shooting accuracy.

The research suggests that physical exertion does not decrease shooting performance, nor does tactical load carriage (the gear on their body), with the latter subjectively reported by officers as improving performance. But the physical capability of officers came into play, notably grip strength, which evidence suggests is positively correlated with marksmanship up to a given point.

Additionally, although anxiety was found to negatively impact shooting performance, studies indicate that training under stress may counteract that factor, albeit for a short period (approximately four weeks), highlighting that training needs to be continued to maintain the positive results.

The study concluded that increased “specific and realistic” training can improve shooting accuracy, time and precision, especially under high-stress situations.