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for people who care about the West

Why Westerners die at the hands of cops

Jack Yantis, an Idaho rancher, raised the profile of rural police brutality.

 

Rancher Jack Yantis was eating dinner on a Sunday in early November when the Adams County sheriff’s office called to tell him to come deal with his bull. The bull, Keiford, had wandered onto Highway 95 near the town of Council, Idaho, and been hit by a car. Badly injured and maddened by pain, the animal was charging at bystanders and the first responders who were attempting to help the injured passengers. Yantis rushed to the scene, toting a rifle.

Once there, Yantis prepared to do what the sheriff’s deputies had failed to do, to dispatch the wounded bull. What happened next is murky. Some observers say words were exchanged, and perhaps gunfire. But before Yantis could shoot the bull, the deputies shot him multiple times, killing the 62-year-old rancher. The FBI is now investigating the incident.

A screenshot of police lapel-cam video from 2014 that recorded Albuquerque Police Department officers closing in on and shooting homeless camper James Boyd in the Sandia foothills. Two officers were later charged with murder.
Albuquerque Police Department

At a time when the deaths of young black men at the hands of police in places like Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, and Chicago have caught national attention, the case seems like an anomaly, with its rural Western setting and middle-aged white victim. But it highlights a surprising fact: Western states lead the nation in officer-involved killings, and rural areas aren’t immune.

According to data spanning 2004 to 2010 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada have the highest rates in the nation for fatal injury due to “legal intervention” — the rate of deaths per 100,000 people is more than twice the national average. Utah, California, Colorado and Idaho also rank in the top 10.

Official data on killings and excessive use of force by law enforcement are notoriously spotty, imprecise and often out of date. Much of the most comprehensive tracking now happens on crowdsourcing sites such as Fatal Encounters, run by the editor of the Reno News & Review, the U.S. Police Shooting database and KilledbyPolice.net. But all tell a similar story.

As of Dec. 7, the Guardian’s series “The Counted” shows Western states filling six of the top 10 places for officer-involved deaths per capita in 2015, with Wyoming fourth in the country. New Mexico, a state of just 2 million people, has seen 18 people killed by the police so far this year. And, according to the Guardian, police in Kern County in California have killed more people relative to the county’s population than anywhere else in the country. In 2015, mirroring other recent years, blacks were killed by cops in the U.S. at a rate of 6.3 per million people, while Native Americans died at a rate of 3.4. That’s compared to a 3.05 rate for Hispanics and 2.66 for whites. Over 100 of the 169 Hispanic or Latino deaths this year were in Western states.

Many happened in urban areas, such as Albuquerque, where a court-appointed monitor is overseeing attempts to reform the notoriously brutal police department. Seattle’s police department has also been investigated by the Department of Justice for its violent tactics. Most Western cities, including Portland, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, have grappled with how to minimize the use of force and prevent killings.

Yet rural areas have been equally bloody. Indeed, only two of Washington’s 21 fatalities this year were at the hands of Seattle police, and many took place far from any major towns. And sparsely populated areas like Eagar, Arizona, Dillon, Montana, and Parowan, Utah, have seen killings in recent months. In some cases, like that of Idaho’s Jack Yantis, the circumstances remain muddy. In others, the cops may have had little choice, as in remote Lukachukai, Arizona, where a young Navajo man was shot dead this March after killing one police officer and wounding two others.

The lack of comprehensive long-term data makes it difficult to know how the rate of rural fatalities compares to urban zones, but their frequency is notable. Some experts believe rural law enforcement officers in the West are more likely to be facing armed citizens, given the high rates of gun ownership. Or perhaps they’re more likely to have to make arrests without adequate backup.

Ralph Weisheit, a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University who has studied rural policing, says those factors may contribute to a more aggressive response. But he also says training and preparation can play a large role. Rural police “are increasingly getting the same training as urban officers,” which now involves the military-grade equipment and training that some have blamed for excessive use of force in cities, Weisheit says. The motto used to be “To Serve and Protect,” he says. Now, it’s “Get home safe every night.” That places the emphasis on defensive tactics that may lead officers to escalate situations rather than attempt to defuse them. Put another way, it’s the image of police officer as soldier, rather than peace officer. Today’s recruiting videos depict armored officers breaking down doors, and training sessions sometimes bear titles like “Killology.”

Holding police who use excessive force accountable in rural areas offers challenges as well; there’s less likelihood that there will be bystanders on hand with cameras to document incidents. And obtaining official video is at least as difficult as it is in urban centers. The Idaho State Police has refused to release any video of Yantis’ death despite a request from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, citing Idaho state law and the pending investigation.

But the rancher’s death may help increase scrutiny of rural law enforcement. Leo Morales, the executive director of ACLU Idaho, says his group has received more complaints of police using excessive force in Idaho since Yantis’ death, particularly from rural areas in the northern part of the state. “That fundamental trust the community had with the police and their government is broken, and that needs to be repaired,” he says. That’s true in communities of every size, wherever they happen to be.