As Montana law enforcement agencies investigate the fourth officer-involved shooting – and third fatality – in less than a month, the state joins a national debate over the use of lethal force.
“We put on the uniform, the vest and the equipment for the sole purpose of protecting the citizens of Missoula County,” David Conway, a lieutenant for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, said. “Sometimes that puts us in harm’s way. We accept that challenge, but sometimes we have to use those tools to protect ourselves and to protect other people.”
“A lot of the people that we encounter are not nice folks,” Missoula Police spokesman Travis Welsh added. “All of them are familiar with police and know we are the beginning of the process to hold them accountable if they are committing crimes.”
There is no statewide record-keeping on the number of officer-involved shootings each year, but that's about to change.
In late December, President Barack Obama signed into law a federal mandate that requires states to compile information regarding law-enforcement-involved deaths.
The act requires states to file quarterly reports with the U.S. attorney general on the death of any person while imprisoned, detained, under arrest or while in the process of being arrested.
Tyson McLean, the Montana Board of Crime Control's statistician, said the law mandates that states comply within 120 days.
“It will allow citizens of the public to hold law enforcement accountable,” McLean explained. “If there are abnormalities in the data … people can ask why. Why is this the case?”
According to the FBI, there are about 400 “justifiable” officer-involved shootings each year in the United States, but that number is widely regarded as unreliable.
The Washington Post reported in September that the number pulls data from only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide. Furthermore, the number only reports what the FBI constitutes as “justified shootings,” skirting the issue of non-justifiable shootings.
In Missoula alone, the Missoulian has reported on five officer-involved shootings – one fatal – since 2013.
Shane Castle, a reporter for Helena-based Montana Vigilante, released a list Friday documenting 36 officer-involved deaths reported by Montana media since 2010.
A Facebook group, called Killed By Police, documents news accounts of every officer-involved fatality since May 2013. The page reported more than 1,100 officer-involved deaths in the country in 2014 and more than 1,800 deaths since the page started in May 2013.
Police shootings and allegations of brutality have been in the national spotlight since the 2014 deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
“Things like that capture the citizens’ attention and passions,” statistician McLean said. “It seems like the federal administration acts on social issues like that.”
The Missoula Police Department handbook authorizes the use of deadly force “to protect the officer or others from what is reasonably believed to be a threat of imminent death or serious bodily harm.”
On Friday, Welsh said he has drawn his weapon more times than he can count during his law-enforcement career.
He believes that violence against police is escalating and officers are more wary of walking into potentially dangerous situations.
In fact, Montana's most recent law enforcement-involved shootings highlight the danger officers face when responding to cases of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, threats of suicide and high-speed chases.
- On Dec. 19, Deer Lodge police officers responded to a suicidal man, Nicholas Tyson Frazier, who pointed his gun at officers. They fired and wounded Frazier, who died of his injuries at the hospital.
- On Dec. 31, 20-year-old Kaileb Williams allegedly held his fiancée hostage and led cops on a high-speed chase until his car came to a stop on a highway ramp in Missoula. Police said he was strangling his girlfriend when Cpl. Paul Kelly shot through the window. Williams died at the scene.
- On Jan. 1, Missoula Sheriff's Capt. Tony Rio told investigators he was afraid for his life when he shot and hit Eugene Statelen after responding to a domestic violence call near Evaro. Statelen spent the next five days recovering in a Missoula hospital.
- On Thursday evening, Yellowstone County sheriff's deputies shot and fatally wounded the driver of an SUV they were attempting to stop. That investigation has just begun.
Sheriff's deputy Conway, who was involved in a shooting in the early 2000s, echoed Welsh's concerns on Friday. He said it’s the unknown situations that are the most frightening.
“It’s the unknown traffic stop,” he said. “You are by yourself and you only have what you are wearing. Those are by far the scariest.”