Investigation finds Cottonwood Heights police acted appropriately in violent protest

May 12, 2021, 9:44 AM
FILE: Gabriel Pecoraro, the brother of Zane James, fights with police after police and marchers collided in the streets of Cottonwood Heights on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. An independent review from the Utah Attorney General's office found police responded appropriately. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, KSL)
(Photo: Scott G Winterton, KSL)

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah — An official review found Cottonwood Heights police acted in measured and appropriate ways in their response to a protest in their city last year.

It happened Aug. 2, 2020. The protest resulted in injuries to five officers and the arrests of eight people. Prosecutors eventually filed charges against nine people.

The Cottonwood Heights city manager asked the Utah Attorney General’s office with investigating. They reported on it at the city council meeting Tuesday night.

Cottonwood Heights protest started peacefully

Organizers planned it as a peaceful event. They marched in memory of an armed robbery suspect, Zane James, shot and killed by a Cottonwood Heights officer in 2018.

But Special Agent Matt Thompson with the state attorney general’s office says videos show protesters attacking officers in multiple ways.

“We saw on videos and photos certain event members who punched officers, shoved officers, grabbed and pulled at officers. One person who officers were grappling with on the ground pulled or twisted on the officer’s helmet, to the point where the pressure from the chin strap nearly caused the officer to lose consciousness,” he said.

He says others interfered with arrests.

“A male with long hair is seen walking to and punching another officer in the face as the officer is seen trying to keep individuals away from the first officer,” he said.

Thompson says they did not see any police officers act in any obviously excessive or punitive manner.

The AG’s report concluded that some protesters did break the law. And the investigation found officers “had a need and duty to respond” to the Cottonwood Heights protest, and tried to calm the situation before ultimately arresting people.

Protesters stand by their version of events

A woman who marched in the Cottonwood Heights protest last year expressed anger over the findings, according to KSL.com.  

“It wasn’t like they were leading us and just watching us and seeing what we were doing. They kettled us,” Darlene McDonald said. 

She described patrol cars blocking the street both in front of and behind protesters. In her account, that meant police forced protesters into the street, a much different account from that presented by Thompson. 

“It was provoked, it was a setup and that report did not reflect what actually happened. You had to go into the street because you were stopped, you couldn’t move,” McDonald said.

Response from James’ family

In a statement, the family of Zane James accused the investigation of “cherry-picked facts favorable to the officers.” They claimed the findings “ignored a mountain of evidence that shows officers’ actions . . . violated the Constitution.” 

James’ brother and father, Gabriel Pecoraro and Aaron James, are among those facing charges after the protest. The family sued the city last week, accusing officers of singling them out because they criticized the police department. 

In a separate case still pending before courts, the James family also filed an excessive force lawsuit against Cottonwood Heights over the death of Zane James. 

“Ultimately, we have the facts and the law on our side and we look forward to presenting our full case to an impartial federal court and jury,” they said in the statement.

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Investigation finds Cottonwood Heights police acted appropriately in violent protest