It was a record year for police-involved shootings in the state of Idaho in 2023

Last year in 2023, Idaho saw 13 police-involved shootings. Eleven of the 13 were in the Treasure Valley and seven were fatal. This marks a record for the state of Idaho. Compare this to 2022, when Idaho saw seven fatal police-involved shootings throughout the entire year.

According to data compiled by the Washington Post, the state of Idaho had 14 individuals shot and killed by police in 2023.

Potential causes

This raises the question of why Idaho is seeing an increase in police-involved shootings and whether or not this is a consistent trend.

“The numbers are small so it is hard to say if this is a trend or is it just a blip,” said Dr. Michael Kreiter, a lecturer at Boise State University in the sociology department.

A common data point that can be observed is the number of violent crimes in the area compared to the number of incidents that involve a police officer firing their service weapon. 

According to Dr. Cody Jorgensen, an associate professor of criminology at Boise State, crime data could suggest that an increase in a city or a state’s violent crime could lead to an increase in police-involved shootings. In recent years, Idaho has seen a relatively flat crime rate, and in fact, the violent crime rate in the city of Boise has been trending down.

Despite the fact that Idaho’s crime rate has remained relatively stable, law enforcement officers may perceive an increased threat towards them due to trends in other states.

“I think it is reasonable that local police are paying attention to what’s going on nationally, even though what’s going on locally, in their own agency, their own different jurisdiction, that crime is either flat or going down. But they are perceiving that nationwide, other places, violent crime is increasing,” said Jorgensen

This suggests that it is possible for law enforcement officers to respond to national violent crime trends and react accordingly in their local jurisdictions.

“It’s just a fact of human nature that we are very responsive to anecdotes,” Jorgensen said.

There is a common thread among the cases within the last year that, according to the police reports, the officer “perceived a threat” which is what led them to use their service weapon.

There is something known as the “use of force continuum” or a “use of force policy” that law enforcement agencies are meant to follow. This is designed for the officer to use the “amount of force that reasonably appears necessary given the facts and circumstances perceived by the deputy at the time”, according to Ada County Sheriff policy.

According to the Ada County Sheriff’s Department policy, “All commissioned deputies shall carry at least one less than lethal control device at all times while on duty.” This could include pepper spray, a taser, or other “less than lethal” devices.

“The difference between reaching for a taser or pepper spray and reaching for the gun is that there must be a perceived threat that the suspect presents a significant likelihood of death or serious injury,” said Jorgensen.

According to the Ada County Sheriff’s Department policy, an officer “may use deadly force to stop a fleeing subject when the deputy has probable cause to believe that the person has committed, or intends to commit, a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious bodily injury or death.”

The policy also states that if an officer “reasonably believes” there to be an imminent threat of injury or death, they may use “deadly force”.

This is also designed so that the officer is protected physically and legally when they decide to use their service weapon, which can make it difficult for those involved in a fatal encounter by a police officer to pursue any further action.

This is a phenomenon that Dr. Jorgensen called “awful but lawful”. 

“A police officer’s judgment is based on what any other ‘reasonable’ officer would do in the same situation,” said Kreiter.

A police officer’s actions are judged on whether any other officer, when faced with the same situation and went through all the same training, would do.

Mental health

Throughout the last year, there were two cases of a police-involved shooting that involved mental health crises. One involved Adam Michael Trejo and another involved Christoffer Huffman.

In the case of Trejo, officers responded to a man who was wielding two knives in a McDonalds drive-thru. Trejo had just recently runaway from St. Luke’s after seeking help for a “mental health crisis”. 

The officers stated that Trejo “came at the officer” which is when the officer discharged their weapon, killing Trejo. 

In the incident of Huffman, police were called to a scene in Star, Idaho where Huffman, was threatening to harm himself and “making suicidal statements” according to a press statement from the Ada County Sheriff’s office

According to the police report, Huffman was “holding a gun” and after “numerous attempts” to get him to drop the gun, an officer shot Huffman. The ambulance arrived at the scene taking Huffman to the hospital around 7 p.m and Huffman was pronounced dead at 8 p.m. 

Some advocates for reducing police violence call for law enforcement agencies to have a dedicated unit designed around de-escalating a mental health crisis. 

Idaho does not currently have any specialized team that focuses on mental health crises, although officers do spend four hours of academy time focused on “mental illness awareness”. 

The Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which is the academy all police officers must go through in the state of Idaho, requires a total of 14 weeks, or 579 hours of training to get their certification. 

“When an officer approaches the situation and someone is exhibiting any of these symptoms, they know how to handle it differently and then the CIT (Critical Incident Training) class touches on different communication techniques when dealing with somebody who is in the midst of a mental health crisis,” said Aubrey McKay, the curriculum manager at POST.

Critics of the police say that there isn’t enough training in this field.

“They’re under-trained for that because it’s just really outside the scope of what they’re taught to do their function,” said Kreiter.

There are examples of programs in other states that have a dedicated team to call in for a mental health crisis.

For example, Denver, Colorado has a unit called Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) which was founded in 2020. According to their site, it is “an alternative response team that includes behavioral health clinicians and paramedics to engage individuals experiencing mental health distress and substance use disorders.”

Between the years 2015 and 2023, Denver had a total of three mental health related incidents that ended in a police-involved shooting, whereas Idaho had 12.

While units like these exist, they are few and far between in the United States.

While it is unclear if this past year is an indication of an upward trend for police-involved shootings in the state of Idaho,  researchers and professors are taking note.

“Who knows, maybe next year police will have a record low number of shootings,” said Jorgensen.

As Idaho’s overall crime rates continue to stay relatively flat, it is unknown whether police-involved shootings will be a rising trend.

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