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New documentary 'Shots Fired' examines police use of lethal force in Utah


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: A new PBS Frontline documentary that examines police shootings in Utah will air on Tuesday. "Shots Fired" is a collaboration between Frontline and the Salt Lake Tribune -- here's a preview: I spoke with the program's director and producer Abby Ellis about the investigation and how the team was able to piece together data and videos from police use of force cases.

So, Abby, what sparked this film in the first place?

Abby Ellis: Two days before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, there was a shooting of a 22-year-old man, Fernando Palacios Carbajal, in Salt Lake City. He was a suspect in an armed robbery case, and he was running away from police when they shot at him 34 times. It created unprecedented, you know, protests in it. It happened in the same timeframe as George Floyd. And so it just sort of catapulted. The community was in uproar and they were demanding answers. And the reporters at the Salt Lake Tribune had been, you know, trying to get to the bottom of it as well. And so I met the Tribune reporters at some of these events around the shooting of Fernando Palacios Carbajal and we decided to team up to better understand, you know, the issue of police shootings in Utah specifically.

Hari Sreenivasan: So were there patterns that the reporters and yourself were able to see?

Abby Ellis: Yes, we looked at 226 shootings over a 10 year period, and in that time 94 of those people who were shot at were experiencing a mental health event in some capacity, either they were suicidal or they had a mental disability. We found that a third of the people shot were racial and ethnic minorities, even though they only make up a quarter of the population. And we found 107 of the shootings, out of the 226 the officers involved had graduated from training five years or less.

Hari Sreenivasan: One of the scenes that's really difficult to watch in the film is someone who, his relatives and friends wanted him to get help. They sent the police because they thought that he might do harm to himself, and it just goes completely sideways and the guy is literally sitting in the police station begging to be sent to basically the psych ward. And that's not what happens.

Abby Ellis: Yeah, that's the story of Michael Chad Breinholt, and that's actually a call that was a mental health call. It was a welfare check. It should have been a welfare check, that turned fatal and that police officer was ruled justified in his use of lethal force. And we also found that he had shot two other people over the course of his career. Both of those shootings were ruled justified as well.

Hari Sreenivasan: What has Utah done, either the city police or the state, considering the amount of attention that's been paid now to the patterns of behavior?

Abby Ellis: You know, the one thing that I can say stands out from this last legislative session is if you get a call that a suspect or a person is suicidal, it's the officers not allowed to respond with lethal force. So that was a big thing that happened, that, you know, some of the people in our film, you could argue if that happens now, the legal ruling might have been much different. What's really important for people to understand is that while it feels like police use of lethal force is getting wall to wall coverage in this country, there's actually a data desert when it comes to the hard numbers and facts and figures around who is being shot, who is doing the shooting under what circumstances. And until we have better data collection, until the department starts collecting more data and it's mandated at a state level, at a federal level, we're going to continue to kind of try to come up with these solutions in the dark without having a full picture of what's actually happening. And that's something that came into sharp focus when we were trying to collect the data that we were collecting in Utah.

Hari Sreenivasan: Abby Ellis of Frontline. Thanks so much.

Abby Ellis: Thank you.

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