For the past week, protesters have been at the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office every evening.
They plaster the glass windows of the modern building with protest signs, some read “Justice for Bernardo” and “Sim Gill Charge the Killer Cops!”
The signs are usually removed after each night of protests. But the protesters return the next day, to protest once more.
On Wednesday, the crowd was angry. Jim Winder, an investigator with the district attorney’s office, had told them a few days earlier that they wouldn’t take their signs down if they used tape instead of glue and stopped using a ladder to plaster signs higher on the building.
But when protesters arrived Wednesday evening, all their signs were gone. Winder told them that they took them down after the protesters put up even more signs the day before. It was a safety hazard, he said, because the staff could not see out the windows.
To the protesters, it was a signal that they were trying to be silenced. They responded by once again putting up new signs, quickly taping their messages across the building.
“I want to see ‘Justice for Bernardo’ on this whole goddamn building,” Sofia Alcala yelled through a megaphone.
This group — which numbered more than 400 on Wednesday, the eighth consecutive day of protests — have promised to come there night after night until Gill, the district attorney, releases the report on the police shooting death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal and decides whether the two officers who fired their weapons on May 23 were legally justified in doing so.
But how long could that take?
Protesters and local officials have urged a speedy review, including Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall who asked for a quick investigation so “everyone can get the answers they deserve in a timely manner.”
Gill has said his office will expedite the case. He plans to have his decision by the end of next week, and make it public the week after.
“I understand that there’s an urgency,” he said. “We’re trying to be sensitive to the community’s needs.”
If Gill does release his findings that quickly, it would be unusual. A Salt Lake Tribune data analysis of 10 years of use-of-force reviews shows that Gill’s office, on average, takes 103 days after a fatal shooting to release its findings — about 3½ months.
Gill’s proposed release for Palacios-Carbajal’s case would mean he would reach a decision in half the average time. It would also be the quickest determination he’s made in a fatal shooting since 2017, when he ruled in 27 days that an officer was legally justified in shooting and killing 39-year-old Michael Bruce Peterson after the man began assaulting another officer with that officer’s own baton.
In some recent cases, Gill has taken nearly a year to announce whether officers were justified in firing their weapons. He said that’s due to a backlog that started in 2018, a year when there were 20 police shootings in Salt Lake County alone.
Most of those shootings took between six to nine months for Gill to announce whether the officers were justified. There’s one case that’s still pending more than two years later, where police shot and killed Delorean Pikyavit during a standoff in April 2018.
But the data shows that, in the past, those reviews that were completed more quickly usually are cases where Gill decided officers were justified in using deadly force.
His office took three times as long on average to review a case if they ultimately decided to file criminal charges against an officer. That has only happened three times in the past decade — though a cop has never been convicted of a crime.
Twice Gill’s office has filed charges against an officer and then later dropped the case.
In a third case, Gill in 2012 charged former West Valley City Police Officer Shaun Cowley with second-degree felony manslaughter for shooting and killing 21-year-old Danielle Willard during an undercover drug operation as she backed out of a parking spot. Cowley had asserted that he feared for his life as she backed the car toward him.
A judge ruled that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to show that Cowley committed a crime and dismissed the case — a rare ruling at the preliminary hearing stage, when all testimony must be considered in the state’s favor.
Gill said police shooting cases are tough to prosecute. First, he needs to decide whether the officer could use an “affirmative defense” that he or she fired a weapon because they had a reasonable belief that they or someone else nearby were in danger of getting killed or seriously injured.
If not, prosecutors then analyze the case to determine whether it would be likely that they could net a conviction if the case was brought to a jury at trial. It’s a weighty decision they must make in all cases — but Gill said there’s “institutional barriers” that make it even more difficult to charge cops.
“There is the rarity of the event itself,” he said. “And our laws, our practices and our institutions err on the side of supporting law enforcement. And I understand exactly why. They are out there putting their lives on the line. From a cultural perspective, there are biases against prosecution or conviction. Anybody who says to you that doesn’t exist is kidding themselves.”
Bodycam footage showed the officers encountered Palacios-Carbajal at the Utah Village Motel, 271 W. 900 South, just after 2 a.m. after a man called 911 and reported he had been threatened by another man with a gun. One officer yells, “Show me your hands!” as Palacios-Carbajal starts to run away.
The officers pursued him for several blocks. The video shows Palacios-Carbajal stumble and fall several times before getting up and continuing to run. After he falls a third time, he picks up something from the ground — police say it was a gun — and continues to try to run away before two officers begin shooting.
Police said a gun was found near him after he was shot.
Protesters have gathered in front of Gill’s office every day since he received the Unified Police Department’s investigation of the shooting, demanding that he release the investigative report and punish the cops who fired at Palacios-Carbajal. On Wednesday, they walked to Salt Lake City’s police station and tore down the metal barriers intended to keep them out and plastered the Public Safety Building with more of the same signs they used at Gill’s office.
They were largely reacting to how the police had changed their tactics the day prior. On Tuesday, instead of blocking streets to facilitate marching, they threatened to arrest people who didn’t stay on sidewalks.
Salt Lake City police detective Michael Ruff said Wednesday that officers had been trying to block streets for people, but it was difficult because they didn’t know where protesters were going and couldn’t get route information from marchers.
“So then the decision becomes, do we try to just react to where they’re going? Or do we need to try to keep people on the sidewalk, especially when it’s a smaller group,” Ruff said, “because we don’t want somebody to get hit by a car.”
He said police can’t always be reactive.
The shift was also partly in response to a situation Monday where protesters turned on to a street with traffic and “a car got surrounded.” Police received reports that marchers were banging on the car and that someone climbed onto another car.
They also fielded calls that motorists were driving aggressively at protesters.
“So, there’s that balance between public safety and being able to facilitate,” Ruff said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall released a statement Wednesday evening about the SLCPD response to Tuesday’s protest, saying she’s communicated to police Chief Mike Brown that “peaceful protests must be permitted to continue without disruption or intimidation.”
The statement says Brown agrees.
“I will not abide an impediment to our residents’ First Amendment rights. But people’s right to peaceably assemble does not mean the security of our downtown businesses, roadways, and residents should be compromised,” the statement read. “Safety and security to exercise First Amendment rights also must mean safety and security for the rest of the city.”
On Wednesday, the police kept a distance from the protesters. They closed down roads, but didn’t interact with them.
After the marchers walked around the city center, they gathered once more Wednesday and vowed to be back. Every day until Gill makes that decision — no matter how long it takes.
“Where are you going to be tomorrow?” Alcala yelled.
“Here!” the crowd responded.