Alexander: Police Officers Are Not above the Law


Protesters for the Black Lives Matter movement confront national guard on 500 S. 200 East in Salt Lake City on July 26, 2020. (Photo by Ivana Martinez | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By CJ Alexander, Special Projects Managing Editor


West Valley Police arrested Michael Chad Breinholt on Aug. 23, 2019, after he arrived at his girlfriend’s workplace intoxicated and drugged. Both his girlfriend and her coworker reported him as suicidal and in need of help. Instead, West Valley Police arrested him for driving under the influence when they arrived at the scene.

Despite his urgent plea to be taken to a mental hospital, police handcuffed Breinholt and focused on putting him in jail. A scuffle occurred, and Officer Taylor Atkin announced that Breinholt reached for his holstered gun. Sgt. Tyler Longman then fired at Breinholt’s head at point-blank range, killing him instantly. This was Longman’s third time killing someone in the line of duty.

On July 22, 2021, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill finally announced that Longman was justified in killing Breinholt, stating “The law is clear.” Yet even Gill expressed his desire to change the law. However, Breinholt’s family remains in shock over Longman’s continued employment, asking “Why is he still carrying a gun?”

This case raises the question as to why we don’t terminate officers who fire their gun and kill someone multiple times during their career. Any officer who kills in the line of duty needs to hand in their badge to make everyone safer.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune and Frontline, 38 officers in Utah have fired their guns in more than one encounter in the past 17 years. Of those 38, three officers fired three times, and two officers fired four times. And based on a study by James P. McElvain, a current police chief with a doctorate in sociology, any officer who previously fired their gun is more than 51% as likely to fire their weapon again.

Sgt. Longman shot and killed two others before Breinholt. In those previous instances, his department and the prosecutor found the shootings justified. However, the body camera footage from Breinholt’s death shows the situation was anything but justified.

Breinholt, restrained by handcuffs, could have been tased or pepper-sprayed. Yet Longman unnecessarily aimed at Breinholt’s head with his gun and threatened “You are about to die, my friend.” Longman did not fire for the safety of others — he played the executioner.

Even with the abstract thought of “justifiable” and “unjustifiable” shootings, firing your weapon as a police officer should carry a heavier connotation. Just as doctors and school workers can be terminated following malpractice or misconduct, police need to be held to the same standards — especially if an officer has killed once or multiple times.

Yet many officers who fire their guns will be placed on administrative leave, and then return to work after two weeks. They do not need to complete any additional training or follow-up evaluations. Police are reluctant to label this as a problem, as most officers never even fire their gun, and it’s not talked about within the media or policing communities.

In addition, police departments themselves fail to keep records of officers involved in multiple shootings. And whenever an officer goes under investigation for a shooting, it is treated as their first. Ignoring these issues will allow law enforcement to continually justify the usage of their guns in any situation when in reality, officers should rarely fire their guns.

As of May 2021, Utah law mandates that the investigation of these incidents be tracked and made available to the public, as they weren’t previously. Police departments must also continue to collect data on their officers involved in multiple shootings.

However, this alone will not solve our problems. Police can always use more training in regards to firearms and how to de-escalate situations. Departments could also continue to evaluate their officers after these instances. But once an officer kills someone, they should not remain on the force, or at the very least, they should not carry a gun. We seek to employ peacekeepers and officers who serve and protect the law — not be above it. But our safety is violated when officers like Longman remain employed and use a gun.

It’s disheartening to see police brutality of any kind, and to see individuals branded as our “protectors” enforce the law by their own means. Our laws reserve capital punishment for the worst of the worst, yet some officers exercise the power to kill without repercussions. It’s time to end this now.

Police departments and agencies fail to do their jobs when they don’t hold themselves accountable. Officers who over-rely on their guns to protect themselves and others are not suitable to work in law enforcement. Other situations have occurred where officers competently use guns or other force to protect others. But for officers like Longman, there is no excuse. We should not uphold the mentality of “justifying” these harmful decisions because there is no justification for killing someone else.


[email protected]