Hari Srinivasan: A new PBS documentary, Frontline, which looks at the Utah police shootings, will air on Tuesday. “Shots Fired” is a collaboration between Frontline and the Salt Lake Tribune – here’s a preview: I spoke with Program Director and Producer Abby Ellis about the investigation and how the team was able to piece together data and video of police use of force. cases.
So, Abby, what triggered this movie in the first place?
Abby Ellis: Two days before the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Fernando Palacios Karbahal, 22, was shot dead in Salt Lake City. He was a suspect in an armed robbery case and was running from the police when he was shot 34 times. This caused unprecedented, you know, protests. It happened at the same time as George Floyd. And he just catapulted. The community was in turmoil and they demanded answers. And the reporters from the Salt Lake Tribune, you know, were also trying to get to the bottom of it. So I met with the Tribune reporters at some of these Fernando Palacios Karbahal shooting events, and we decided to team up to better understand, you know, the issue of police shootings in Utah.
Hari Srinivasan: So were there any patterns that the reporters and you were able to see?
Abby Ellis: Yes, we looked at 226 shootings over a 10-year period, and during that time 94 of the people who were shot experienced some degree of mental illness, suicidal tendencies, or mental illness. We found that a third of the people shot were racial and ethnic minorities, although they only make up a quarter of the population. And we found 107 executions, of the 226 officers involved, they completed their training in five years or less.
Hari Srinivasan: One of the scenes that is really difficult to watch in the film is who and his family and friends wanted him to get help. They sent the police because they thought he might hurt himself and it just goes to the side and the guy is literally sitting in the police station, begging to be sent to a psychiatric hospital. And this does not happen.
Abby Ellis: Yes, this is the story of Michael Chad Brainholt, and in fact it is a call that was a mental health call. It was a welfare test. It was supposed to be a fatal welfare check, and this police officer was acquitted of the use of deadly force. And we also found that he shot two more people in his career. Both of these shootings were also found justified.
Hari Srinivasan: What did Utah, the city police, or the state do given the amount of attention now being paid to behavior patterns?
Abby Ellis: You know, the only thing I can say that stands out from this last legislative session is that if you get a call that a suspect or a person is suicidal, then the officers are not allowed to use lethal force. So it was a big deal that, you know, some of the people in our film, you could argue that if it happens now, the legal decision could be very different. What really matters to the people is that while it seems like the use of lethal force by the police in this country is becoming more visible, there is actually a desert of data when it comes to the exact numbers, facts and figures about who is being shot. … who is filming and under what circumstances. And until we have better data collection, until the department starts collecting more data, and it is sanctioned at the state level, at the federal level, we will continue to try to find these solutions in the dark, without a complete picture of what is actually going on. And that is what came into focus when we tried to collect the data that we collected in Utah.
Hari Srinivasan: Abby Ellis from Frontline. Thank you very much.
Abby Ellis: Thanks.