Body cam helps justify fatal Utah police shooting

AP News
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Posted: Sep 30, 2014 5:14 PM
Body cam helps justify fatal Utah police shooting

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah prosecutors didn't have to rely solely on interviews, ballistic reports and the autopsy to determine if a recent fatal police shooting was justified — they had a recording of the events taken by the body camera worn by the officer.

They leaned heavily on the first 30 seconds of the raw video in deciding that Salt Lake City police Officer Bron Cruz was within his rights to fatally shoot Dillon Taylor last month after the 20-year-old repeatedly ignored commands to show his hands and made a motion the officer believed looked like he was pulling a gun from his waistband, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said at a Tuesday news conference.

The body cam video shows Taylor slowly walking backward while facing the officer, his hands in his waistband outside a South Salt Lake convenience store on Aug. 11.

Officer Cruz yells, "Get your hands out now," pointing his gun at Taylor. "Get your hands out."

"No fool," Taylor responds, before lifting up his shirt with his left hand — his right hand in the waistband.

"Get 'em out," Cruz yells even louder.

Then, he fires two shots. Taylor crumbles to the ground, hit in the chest and stomach. He died at the scene.

Police later learned that Taylor didn't have a gun, and neither did his brother and cousin who were with him. Those two immediately put their hands up when police officers arrived that day and weren't injured.

But Gill said he evaluated the shooting based on the information Cruz had at his disposal during the events that made him believe Taylor had a gun and was a threat.

The incident was triggered by a 911 call from somebody who reported seeing "gangbangers" with a gun "looking for trouble." When the person was asked by a dispatcher if they men threatened him, the person said no. That call led Cruz and two other officers to arrive to the convenience store where the shooting occurred.

Gill said he informed the family of his decision Tuesday morning, and they were upset with his ruling, he said. The family is disappointed and is considering a civil lawsuit, attorney Kelly Fowler said.

Fowler said she has questions about who phoned in the 911 call and what police did to assess the validity of that report. She also has questions about why the officers didn't use a Taser or non-lethal force.

"If the officer would have just given it a fraction of a second longer, maybe we wouldn't' be looking at this," Fowler said.

Gina Thayne, Taylor's aunt who cared for the young man during the last six years after the deaths of his parents, wasn't immediately available to comment, Fowler said.

Officer Cruz told investigators that Taylor's actions and gestures made him fear for his life.

"The last thought I had go through my mind when I pulled the trigger, and I'll never forget this, was, 'I was too late. I was too late,' " Cruz said according to a report issued by prosecutors. "And because of that, I was gonna get killed. Worse, my officer was gonna get killed."

A fellow officer who also had his gun drawn on Taylor told investigators he would have shot Taylor had Cruz not done so because he deemed Taylor an imminent threat.

Taylor's blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit at the time of his death, Gill said.

This case marks the first time Gill's office has been able to use body-cam video in an officer-involved shooting case. Body cams are being increasingly used by police officers around the country.

"It's a very important piece of evidence," Gill said. "It assists everybody to get to the truth in a transparent and objective way."

The use of body cameras by police is on the rise across the country, and being called for by some groups monitoring law enforcement. The U.S. Border Patrol is set to begin testing the use of body cameras on some agents this month. The family of Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a police officer last month in Ferguson, Missouri, and other civil rights organizations want congressional hearings and Congress to pass laws requiring police officers to wear body cameras.

Salt Lake City Police started using the cameras two years ago and today have about 120 cameras for a department with more than 400 officers, Deputy Chief Terry Fritz said. They hope to equip all patrol officers with the body cameras in the future, he said.

"The camera was extremely helpful to enlighten the community on what the officers actually saw at the scene and the decision-making process the officer went through," Fritz said.