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OPINION: Council’s inflammatory police shooting response isn’t leadership

A makeshift memorial for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal on June 5, 2020, near 900 South and 300 West in Salt Lake City. Photo: Graham Dudley, KSL.com

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom. 

SALT LAKE CITY — When a police shooting takes place, when an officer pulls the trigger in the line of duty, many things are at stake. Above all, a human life is about to be lost. A family will lose a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a cousin.

I am extremely sympathetic to families of those who are killed in a police shooting, because my 33-year-old cousin was killed by a police officer in Arizona in July 2015.

I won’t go into details here; it was covered by the Phoenix press at the time.

I will say the shooting of Adam was determined to be legally justified, and I accepted the findings, regardless of how painful his death was, and still is.

My police shooting experience is both personal and professional

I know from going through that personal tragedy, and reporting on several officer-involved shootings in my long career as a journalist, there is always more to these stories than the number of bullets officers fired in the moment.

In today’s environment, when protestors demand instant justice and call for police to be jailed before due process is served, at a time when families are grieving and all police officers can be portrayed as trigger-happy because of the actions of a few, I expect our Salt Lake City council members to rise above the inflammatory rhetoric, not proliferate it.

Our municipal leaders must remain unbiased and calm so they can help the community heal, take a collective breath, bring peaceful protestors to the table across from police officers and initiate thoughtful discussions about realistic suggestions for change.

I expected better from city leaders

The past few days I’ve been sorely disappointed and astounded at unverified comments and the lack of context from the Salt Lake City Council about a police shooting that left a man dead on May 23, 2020.

They’ve published headline-grabbing jargon, failed to provide the community with important facts that offer context, and Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who is a trial attorney and a former public defender, even posted to her personal Facebook page that Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was “unlawfully killed.” 

Indeed, the Utah law that spells out conditions for an officer to use deadly force seems to suggest the opposite.

All this, even before the case has been investigated through proper procedures by the Salt Lake County District Attorney.

Fowler did appear to walk back her Facebook statement slightly in an interview with the Deseret News in which she acknowledged the process must play out. But she still called the shooting “unlawful.” 

“Using 20-plus rounds on a young man running away seems excessive and unlawful,” Fowler said two days after her Facebook post. “But that’s also for the process to determine.”

What the council said vs. what the law says

In a harshly-worded, three-page statement about the shooting, the council collectively condemned the officers’ actions, while leaving out important facts about the suspect’s criminal background that I believe explain why he kept running from police.

They also didn’t mention the state law that authorizes Utah law enforcers to use deadly force, even if a suspect is running away.

“We feel outraged at the death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal,” the statement begins.

“We are angry about having someone shot and killed in our city,” the council continued.

“We will not stand by and allow the current systems to fail us again and again.”

I believe our community deserve facts, balance, and context during times like these, so if elected officials won’t provide those, I will.

Let’s rise above the rhetoric so you can determine what, if anything, is broken, and what, if anything, needs to change.

The facts at issue in the police shooting

In the early morning hours of May 23, Salt Lake City police got a call about a robbery in progress, followed by a call that someone was making threats with a gun.

I know if that was me calling for help at 2 a.m., I’d want police to come racing to my aid. And in this case, Salt Lake City officers did just that.

When they hurried from their patrol cars, a man with a gun began running away. These facts are practically irrefutable from several angles of police-worn body cameras. Video released to the public by the officers’ own police department show a man running and officers on foot shouting commands.

“Stop.” “Drop it,” meaning the gun. “Show me your hands.”

The letter of the law

My colleague at the Deseret News, Pat Reavy, who in my view is the best crime reporter on the beat, reported that officers yelled orders 17 times. Those commands are textbook under Utah law: “If feasible, a verbal warning should be given by the officer prior to any use of deadly force.” The city council’s statement about the shooting omits that fact.

The council also fails to mention that Utah law states that deadly force is justified if “the officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person.”

Reavy also reported that at least 20 shots could be heard in videos of the incident. He also reported a gun was found by the suspect, and that he’d been shot in the back.

I don’t know how many bullets hit the man. The law doesn’t limit officers to a bullet count.

It doesn’t say that an officer has to gain ground and run in front of a fleeing suspect to avoid shooting him in the back. It just plainly states deadly force can be used if an officer believes someone can hurt or kill the officer or someone else.

I’d hate to think what our streets would be like if, in these moments, Salt Lake City officers gave up the chase and let people with guns run through our neighborhoods.

Inflammatory rhetoric not supported by the facts

As I write this, I am hopeful, but still not convinced the Salt Lake City Council will tone down their rhetoric. 

I had to interrupt City Council Chairman Chris Wharton when he called into the Dave & Dujanovic Show (airing weekdays 9 to 11 a.m.) days after the council released their original statement. As he offered his analysis of the police body cam video, he told our KSL NewsRadio listeners that the man had taken 28 bullets to his back.

I hadn’t heard this! Shot 28 times in his back?

“You saw someone running from police who stumbles and falls to the ground two times. They’re trying to get up, still stumbling to try to get away and then that person being shot in the back 28 times,” he asserted.

In my mind, I speculated, as council chairman he must be privy to a coroner’s report that hasn’t been made public.

So I interjected.

“Do we know he was shot in the back 28 times?” I asked.

“We know that 28 shots were fired and we know that his back was turned to officers,” he replied.

I rephrased my question, because that response didn’t satisfy me. This is the CHAIRMAN of the Salt Lake City Council making the allegation. 

“But do you know that he was shot in the back 28 times, because that’s a very, very inflammatory statement – is that true?” I asked again.

He never sourced this allegation. You can hear our exchange below.

Other facts that are missing

And here’s something else the council didn’t include in their statement — the suspect’s criminal history. But it doesn’t matter if the officers on scene knew this, because Palacios-Carbajal knew.

The moment he was running from Salt Lake City police officers in May, he was in violation of his agreement with that judge who’d given him the gift of time outside the confines of a prison cell. 

Palacios-Carbajal could have been sent to prison for up to 15 years for that 2018 robbery, but he wasn’t. And looking back, I can’t help but wonder if the judge went too easy on him.

That year he’d messaged a man on Facebook, according to court filings. He met him to buy his gun, pulled out and racked another gun, held it at the victim’s head, and then took the man’s gun.

But instead of hard time in prison, the judge sentenced Palacios-Carbajal to a month in jail and let him out on probation.

The rules of probation

Palacios-Carbajal had a few rules to follow during his four year term on probation, including one that would become the most important of them all at 2 a.m. on May 23rd. The judge had required Palacios-Carbajal to submit to a search by any police officer.

That morning, he did the opposite. He ran from police.

In my view, he probably knew if he was caught, he’d get his probation revoked and be sent straight to the Utah state prison.

In addition, if he surrendered he could have face federal charges for being a felon in possession of a gun. If charged and convicted, that crime could have brought a decade of federal time.

He had a lot to lose, and he did.

His death may prove to be a catalyst for change, whether it’s police procedures, the Utah law that justifies a police shooting, court sentencing guidelines, or probation monitoring.

But a police shooting must not be a catalyst for politicians to repeat angry rhetoric to news media like protesters, omitting or ignorant of the basic facts of a tragic case. 

This behavior detracts from meaningful discussions. Utah residents expect and deserve better from the leaders of our capital city.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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