Use of Force: KSL Investigates Civil Claims, Payouts & Policy
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – It’s been six months since Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was shot and killed by Salt Lake City police officers and protestors took to the streets, bringing home a demand for justice and change that was echoing nationwide.
The 22-year-old, a suspect in an armed robbery, was fleeing from police. Three times he dropped and picked up what officers eventually confirmed was a gun, prompting them to open fire on May 23.
“Certainly, there’s going to be people out there, we understand, who are going to … say: ‘No, he was running away, he needed to be shot,’” Nathan Morris, attorney for Palacios’ family said. “We disagree with that, and that there are limits when you’re using your gun for force to affect lethal force. You have to do that within reason. And shooting 34 times wasn’t within reason.”
Salt Lake City District Attorney Sim Gill determined that the actions of the two officers involved in the Palacios’ shooting were legally justified. But the decision sparked a public outcry and a letter from Gill to state leaders outlining 22 proposed changes to state law regarding the use of force.
In an investigation spanning five months, countless court records and a survey of 117 law enforcement agencies statewide, the KSL Investigators found police across the state were called out at least 10.3 million times over the past five years and used force during less than 1% of those calls. But the investigation also uncovered inconsistent record-keeping and gaps in the data.
Our investigation also found that 60-plus lawsuits have been filed in that time alleging excessive or unnecessary use of force by police and resulting in settlements topping $3.5 million.
Palacios’ family filed a lawsuit in September against Salt Lake City, its police department, the Salt Lake City police chief and two officers involved in the shooting. Morris said the family’s primary hope is that the lawsuit will prompt change.
“They’re not just asking for money,” Morris said. “They’re asking for the city to acknowledge issues, that there was an issue and to affect changes.
“This is the only avenue that the family has at this point, to try and affect changes in the policies for Salt Lake City, to hold the officers accountable and, I would say, to get or have an acknowledgment by the city, that there are issues that something has gone wrong here.”
In claims filed against law enforcement in the past five years, the KSL Investigators found allegations of bruises to the arm, bruises to the head and handcuffs applied too tightly. Others claimed they were shoved, tased and thrown to the ground.
The most severe cases involved shootings, the type of incident former West Jordan police officer, Ian Adams, who is now executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, experienced firsthand.
“I know what it means to be called on to use force as an officer,” Adams said. “I was involved in a shooting in 2014. That was the first captured on body camera here locally, one of the first in the nation.”
Adams was also involved in a use-of-force incident involving a K-9, which was also caught on body camera. In both instances, Adams’s actions were deemed justified.
And in both, lawsuits followed.
In the lawsuit stemming from the shooting, Timothy Peterson – the suspect who Adams fired upon – received nothing. The man who was bit by Adams’ K-9 in 2013, Martin Lee Hoogveldt, settled his case for $125,000.
In a statement at the time, West Jordan police said the settlement was “not an admission of liability or any wrongdoing,” adding: “Our attorneys have determined it is more cost-effective to put this behind us rather than draw it out in court.”
The payout was among the costliest of those paid in the past five years, but only a fraction of the $3,612,061 total that was paid out during that time frame.
The largest sum — $1,461,988.83 — was paid to Dustin Evans who was shot by a Unified police officer in 2015 in a case of mistaken identity. Gill determined that the officer’s actions were not justified, but also didn’t warrant criminal charges.
The family of Darrien Hunt, the man who was shot and killed after it was alleged that he threatened Saratoga Springs police officers with a samurai sword, was awarded $900,000 in 2017. The officers’ actions were deemed justified in the shooting.
The Salt Lake City Police Department paid sums of $250,000 to both Michelle Anderson, who was struck in the face by a Salt Lake City police officer in 2014 after spitting on the officer, and Alex Wubbells, a University of Utah nurse who was physically removed from the hospital and arrested for not allowing police to draw blood from a patient in 2017. Wubbels was also awarded $250,000 from the University of Utah.
The settlement with Wubbels also brought a policy update, outlining protocol for interactions between police and hospital staff.
In Anderson’s case, the officer retired, while the officer involved in the Wubbels incident was fired. Criminal charges were not brought against police officers in either case.
Morris believes the lack of criminal charges, a determination that an incident was justified, doesn’t mean the story is over or that justice has been done.
“Just because somebody ruled in one way doesn’t mean that changes shouldn’t be made,” he said.
And changes may be coming. Currently, there are 18 bills regarding police reform planned for the upcoming legislative session.
In August, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Chief Mike Brown with the Salt Lake City Police Department “announced a series of significant reforms” to the police department’s use of force, search and seizure and body cameras policies. The mayor issued an executive order mandating that several policy changes be implemented, including six that directly involved use of force.
“The police know and understand that when they get in these situations, they’re going to be facing stressful situations,” Morris said. “And, to the counterpoint, these individuals like Bernardo and others are in stressful situations as well … Everybody’s stress level is high. The difference being here that the police have been trained for those highly stressful situations, whereas common citizens have not. And so that’s why we expect of our police officers to always act in a reasonable manner.”
For him, it’s not about “whether (Palacios) put them in a bad position or whether something shouldn’t have happened out of the gate,” but whether the officers acted appropriately.
Answering that question, prompting change, fixing what may be broken are among the things the lawsuit can address. The other, Morris said, is filling a void for a family in mourning.
“This is a life that has been lost in the family,” he said. “We certainly believe that Bernardo had every right to live and every right to be apprehended in a way that was reasonable.
“And now he’s gone,” Morris continued. “And so, the family, part of the settlement, goes to making up for and plugging the hole of that loss.”
Adams, who eventually left policing to become a researcher of police-related issues, said his experiences using force were what spurred that shift.
“That experience led me to begin asking questions about what kind of information do we have on use of force as they relate to body cameras? What kind of information or acts or expectations do we have? And I found that we just didn’t have much,” he said. “That drove me to want to learn more and drove me to begin my path … as an academic researcher.”
The five months of research conducted by KSL Investigators into excessive force claims and use of force also revealed that there is no standard definition of force in the state and that there are gaps and variations in how use-of-force incidents are tracked.
Adams is among those who believe the data is critical, but that funding will be crucial to enacting any changes.
“I have a great faith in Utah’s governmental and policymaking ability to take on difficult problems and turn their attention to collecting the data to manage those problems. I think we’ve done it before. We can do it again,” he said, pointing to efforts to address youth suicide in the state. “This is something that needs to be resourced from the state. The legislature needs to be taking a look at this as an important area of public concern. The public, the media, police themselves, we all want the data, we want to know what’s going on with it. But until we get that kind of state-level funding, we’re not going to get it.”