Race was ‘substantial motivating factor’ in Salt Lake City officer’s decision to shoot cyclist, lawsuit alleges

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather to demand justice after the death of Patrick Harmon, who was shot by police on Aug. 13, 2017, when he tried to flee after being stopped on his bicycle. Around 150 people gathered for the rally at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, demanding Salt Lake County district attorney Sim Gill be fired for his ruling that the shooting was justified.

The children of Patrick Harmon — a black man fatally shot by police in 2017 — are suing Salt Lake City, claiming Harmon’s death reflects an inadequately trained police force that is prone to racial profiling.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in 3rd District Court, names both Salt Lake City and the officer who fired, Clinton Fox, as defendants. Its description of the shooting relies heavily on video footage from police body cameras, alleging Fox used excessive force and caused Harmon’s wrongful death.

It also alleges the department’s policies, practices and trainings show deliberate indifference to constitutional rights, and asserts that both Fox and the city treated Harmon with unnecessary rigor and violated equal protection provisions in the Constitution.

Salt Lake City representatives didn’t immediately respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment, and Fox, through a Salt Lake City police spokesman, declined to comment. Salt Lake County prosecutors have decided the shooting was justified.

Harmon was killed Aug. 13, 2017, after police stopped him for not having a red tail light on his bike and crossing all six lanes of traffic and a median on State Street. When arresting Harmon, police found active warrants for his arrest, including one for violating the terms of his release after an aggravated assault conviction.

As police handcuffed Harmon, he got away from them and ran. Fox told investigators that he saw Harmon had a knife and shot him. While Fox used his handgun, another officer drew his stun gun.

Salt Lake County prosecutors said the use of deadly force was justified because the officer felt threatened by Harmon and the knife, pointing out that Harmon said, “I’ll cut you.” District Attorney Sim Gill asked the FBI to review the shooting following protests and calls for Gill’s firing after he announced the shooting was legally justified.

The FBI didn’t immediately return the Tribune’s request for comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit questions whether the knife found at the scene belonged to Harmon — and whether he ever brandished it.

“The problem with this description of events is that all three officers wore body cameras. From three different angles, there is no knife visible in Mr. Harmon’s hands. There are no words to the effect of ‘I’ll stab you,’” according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Harmon’s estate make their case using still images from released body camera footage, which they say shows Harmon’s hands are empty prior to being shot.

A screen grab from the lawsuit filed Monday, July 1, 2019, on behalf of Patrick Harmon's children. Harmon was killed by Salt Lake City police in 2017, a shooting the lawsuit claims was racially motivated.

In reviewing the footage released to The Tribune, the newspaper could not hear Harmon saying he would cut officers, but Harmon’s voice is barely audible throughout the recording.

The estate’s attorneys, Andrew G. Deiss and Corey D. Riley, argue that knife found near Harmon’s body may not have been his. They say the knife appears to be in “pristine” condition, without smudges or other indications it had been dropped. It’s also a “rescue knife” with a folding blade, typically requiring two hands to unfold it — and they say body camera footage never shows him using two hands to open the knife.

Police, the law suit alleges, “quickly disposed” of the knife before testing it for fingerprints or other evidence to determine if it was Harmon’s.

(Courtesy of Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office) The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office determined that Salt Lake City Police Department Officer Clinton Fox’s use of deadly force in the August 13, 2017 stop of Patrick Harmon was justified under Utah State law.

The case, the lawsuit alleges, follows an “all-too-familiar narrative: an unarmed black man shot to death by law enforcement without justification." It later adds: “The homicide of Mr. Harmon is reflective of a city plagued by a racial policing crisis.”

It points to statistics from the SLCPD website that show from January 2017 to December 2018, black people were the subject of officers’ use of force just over 13 percent of the time, although they make up only about 2 percent of the population.

Data from that time period is no longer available on SLCPD’s website, but numbers from June 2017 to May 2019 show black people were the subject of 8.8% of officers’ uses of force. White people make up 74% of the population and account for nearly 60% of the cases of SLCPD officers’ use of force.

“Mr. Harmon’s race was a substantial motivating factor in ... Fox’s decision to use excessive force against him,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asks for compensatory and consequential damages for emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, in addition to punitive damages on all five claims.

Attorneys for Harmon’s children didn’t return The Tribune’s request for comment, but said in the lawsuit that while Harmon “did not lead a perfect life” he “deserved the opportunity to grow with grace.”

The lawsuit said that just before his death, he had “found renewed spirituality” and reunited with his son and daughter, Patrick and Tasha, who wanted to rebuild their relationship with him.

(Courtesy photo of Patrick Harmon)