Prosecutors have determined a Salt Lake City police officer was not justified in firing his firearm during a struggle with a suspect last year but have decided against charging him with a crime.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Monday announced his office’s conclusions after examining Officer Brandon Rammell’s actions. A letter laying out the prosecutorial findings states that while the officer’s conduct wasn’t justified, Gill’s office declined to press charges “because we do not believe there’s evidence that Officer Rammell acted with a criminal intent.”
“We believe that Officer Rammell’s body reacted before his mind,” Gill said during a news briefing.
The letter states that Rammell was driving his patrol car in Millcreek on Nov. 3, 2018, when he checked the license plate of a nearby car and discovered it was registered to Robert Craig Ortega, who had an active warrant for a parole violation.
Rammell tried to take Ortega into custody, and during the ensuing fight, the officer drew his weapon and fired a single shot, according to the letter. The evidence indicates the bullet did not hit Ortega, who fled but was later arrested.
Body camera footage — which Gill reviewed Monday with reporters — showed the officer following Ortega into a gas station convenience store at 1111 E. 3300 South and confronting him there. Protesting that he was “not doing anything,” Ortega walked out of the store and tried to break away from the officer, who’d grabbed his T-shirt, the recording shows.
As Ortega turned and began running toward his car, parked next to a station pump, Rammell attempted to use his Taser, but it wasn’t effective, according to the recording and the letter. Ortega jumped into the passenger side of his car as Rammell, standing on the driver side, drew his weapon, the body cam footage showed.
“You want to get f------ shot?” Rammell yelled.
At another point in the video, Rammell threatened to “beat your f------ face."
Rammell later told investigators he noticed Ortega reaching around inside the car, as if he was searching for a weapon. Ortega was eventually able to climb into the driver’s seat and start the engine, even though Rammell had reached through the open car door and was trying to restrain him, according to the footage.
Ortega’s underlying conviction was for first-degree felony aggravated sexual abuse of a child, and Rammell said based on the severity of the crime, he believed Ortega would “do anything and everything to get away, even if that meant driving me into traffic, even if it meant finding a weapon in his car.”
The video shows that Ortega succeeded in putting the car into gear and speeding away from Rammell. That’s when Rammell — who had pulled out of the doorway and was standing clear of the car — fired his gun, Gill said. The officer told investigators he fired because he was afraid of being dragged into traffic, but Gill said that perception wasn’t borne out by the evidence, leading prosecutors to find the use of deadly force unjustified.
Still, the prosecutor said, Rammell was startled and made his split-second decision to fire out of a genuine, if incorrect, belief he was in danger.
“I give value to what I believe his perception is,” Gill told reporters. “But it cannot be supported by the observable facts.”
As indications that Rammell didn’t have a criminal intent, Gill mentioned the officer tried to use less-lethal tactics to take Ortega into custody, by “tasing” him and trying to physically restrain him. After drawing his gun initially, the officer re-holstered it before reaching into the car to struggle with Ortega, Gill added.
“Officer Rammell’s use of deadly force did not occur in a vacuum; our analysis took into account the dynamic situation and actions of Mr. Ortega in analyzing Officer Rammell’s use of his weapon,” the prosecutorial letter stated.
Rammell is still employed by the Salt Lake City Police Department, although he has been on administrative leave since firing his weapon, a department spokesman said.