Police killing of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal won’t lead to charges, a decision that infuriates his family

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bernardo's sister Karina holds hands with her mother Lucy, as she gets emotional as she speaks about her son Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, while she holds hands with her son Freddie, holding his 7-year-old daughter Analiyah, during a news conference in reaction to Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill's report to not charge the Salt Lake City Police officers that killed Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Two police officers fired 34 rounds at Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal in May, killing him. The officers said they knew the man had a gun and worried he could turn around quickly and shoot them. Their first bullets hit him in the back.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill says the officers acted within the law and won’t face criminal charges, a decision that infuriated Palacios-Carbajal’s family. And in reaction, they say they are not going to give up. They’re going to keep pushing for change. They want the Salt Lake City Police Department to alter its policies and training, and for state legislators to follow through on their promises to bring further reform to Utah.

They plan to bring a lawsuit against the police department, and will continue to be involved in the protest movement that has used this case as a rallying cry as demonstrators have marched against police violence for weeks now.

They want the two officers who shot Palacios-Carbajal, Neil Iversen and Kevin Fortuna, to face consequences. And they want to make sure that mothers like Lucy Carbajal won’t have to experience the pain that she feels now.

With Palacios-Carbajal gone, his mother not only lost her son, but her live-in nurse, the one who gave her gentle but persistent reminders to take her medicine, who filled their home with art and laughter.

Without him, the house is too quiet.

“It’s not a correct decision that [District Attorney Sim Gill] made, and we will continue fighting,” Lucy Carbajal said in Spanish, as she wept during a news conference Thursday. “And even though my son isn’t here, he gives us the right to continue fighting so mothers like me do not lose their sons, like they killed my son. That was cowardice.”

Protesters smashed windows at the district attorney’s office Thursday evening and splattered it with red paint. Some violently clashed with officers in riot gear. The angry protest group of about 300 then continued marching down State Street. Like the Palacios-Carbajal family, they wanted Gill to charge Iversen and Fortuna.

Instead, Gill defended the officer’s actions, saying it was reasonable to believe that the two used deadly force because they feared for themselves and others in the area, including people who were leaving a nearby strip club in the early morning hours of May 23.

The district attorney concluded that Iversen and Fortuna were justified in firing their weapons, and that they made decisions that were backed up by other evidence, including multiple videos of Palacios-Carbajal’s death.

Gill’s decision

Bodycam footage shows the officers encounter the 22-year-old man at the Utah Village Motel, 271 W. 900 South, just after 2 a.m. The officers had been in the area responding to a report of an armed robbery.

One officer yells, “Show me your hands!” as Palacios-Carbajal runs 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. Gill said Thursday the officers saw Palacios-Carbajal had something in his hands and confirmed it was a gun after he fell a third time.

The officers told district attorney investigators they feared he’d turn around and shoot them. They opened fire, each initially shooting six to eight rounds, Gill said. Palacios-Carbajal fell to the ground, rolled over and attempted to raise the gun. Officers fired again. In all, Iversen and Fortuna fired 34 rounds — both emptying their 17-round magazines. It is not clear how many of those bullets hit Palacios-Carbajal, though he had “13 to 15 wounds,” Gill said. He said it is possible that a bullet would create an entry and exit wound.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill describes the details of the shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal during a news conference on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Gill reiterated that bodycam and security footage show Palacios-Carbajal fall, drop a gun and pick it up. After he was shot, video shows a gun resting on Palacios-Carbajal’s waist.

“What we can’t ignore is the number of times Mr. Palacios-Carbajal dropped the weapon,” Gill said. “The desire to retrieve the gun was greater than the desire to run away.”

The legal standard

Though Gill ruled that the two officers’ actions were justified, the district attorney said he thinks the laws involving police use of force should be changed and promised his office would release proposals in the near future.

He commended protesters for demonstrating during the past few weeks and urged them to work within the system to change those laws.

Palacios-Carbajal’s family attorneys didn’t buy Gill’s argument that he couldn’t charge the officers because of Utah’s law.

“Frankly, the press conference this morning sounded more like a defense, criminal argument than it did a district attorney looking to protect the citizens of Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas,” attorney Brian Webber said. The attorneys wanted this case to be decided by a jury.

Palacios-Carbajal’s brother, Freddie, told reporters Thursday that he was initially hopeful that Gill would file charges. But after realizing how infrequently police in Utah have faced charges in the past, the brother said that hope waned.

“I feel angry,” Freddie said, his voice shaking. “Angry and sick to my stomach. I feel like they just get a pat on the back for what they did. And I don’t agree with any of it.”

In the past decade, only three Utah officers have been charged with a crime for shooting at someone. None of them was convicted.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of the past 185 such incidents, shows that 92% of the time prosecutors say police actions were legally justified.

Gill’s decision came much quicker than usual, spurred by pressure from the public and local officials. The shooting became a local cause just as protests against police killings went international in reaction to an officer in Minneapolis who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for nearly 9 minutes. Floyd died and the officer has been charged with murder in that case.

“I was very sensitive to the concerns we are having in the community,” Gill said about why the investigation was fast-tracked.

Gill said he generally supports the protests and encouraged protesters to remain involved in conversations about criminal justice reform.

Community response

Recently, those protesters had seized on a question: “What happened to his fingers?” They have chanted it most nights and plaster buildings with signs proclaiming it. It was a point of outrage, stemming from a family member’s recounting of seeing Palacios-Carbajal’s body with fingers missing.

Gill quashed those rumors during the Thursday announcement, showing photos of Palacios-Carbajal’s fingers taken during the autopsy. While some were mangled — Gill said apparently from gunshot wounds — all 10 fingers were clearly attached.

Protesters dispute Gill’s interpretation of what happened, saying Palacios-Carbajal never had control of the gun and didn’t pose a threat to others because it was early in the morning in a commercial area. Also, they added, Palacios-Carbajal was alone and multiple officers were around.

They wondered why police didn’t try a less-than-lethal force option before resorting to gunfire.

Gill said police told him they didn’t consider it because they’d already seen Palacios-Carbajal with a gun. Officers are trained to bring “equal to or greater force” than the suspect they are pursuing, Gill said.

Demonstrators have also questioned why officers fired at Palacios-Carbajal so many times.

Iverson told investigators he fired after Palacios-Carbajal dropped and picked up the gun for the third time, and that he continued firing even after Palacios-Carbajal was on the ground because he saw the 22-year-old point the gun at officers.

“We are trained to continue shooting until the threat is eliminated,” Iverson said.

Six state legislators, who identify as racial or ethnic minorities, released a statement Thursday saying they continue to have “grave concerns” about Palacios-Carbajal’s death, but recognize prosecutors are operating under a restrictive law, ones that make “it highly unlikely that police officer-involved shootings are ever criminally prosecuted, even if they unjustifiably use deadly force.”

The lawmakers — Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City; Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay; Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City; Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray; Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City; and Rep. Mark A. Wheatley, D-Murray — urged protesters to help them with reforms.

“We all want to feel safe with the police that service our communities, and we want the police to feel secure with the standards that govern their actions,” the statement read.

In anticipation of this decision, Salt Lake City officials urged employees to work from home Thursday and Friday. And Mayor Erin Mendenhall released a video posted on her Twitter account in which she walked through the process that the city goes through when deciding whether an officer should be disciplined or fired.

She said the evidence in the case will be delivered to the city’s civilian review board and an internal investigation within the police department will get underway now that Gill has made his decision. Mendenhall has asked for the groups to expedite those investigations.

Mendenhall noted that officers have due process, and can’t simply be fired. If the process isn’t followed, she said the employee could be reinstated, receive back pay or other payments.

After Gill’s announcement, Mendenhall released a statement saying the investigation found “significant evidence” that the shooting was legally justified.

“They acted quickly and methodically in a very difficult situation to stop what they perceived as a deadly threat, which is exactly what we ask of them and what we expect them to do to protect our city, every day,” the statement read.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said Thursday in a statement that when an officer shoots someone, he trusts the systems in place to hold officers accountable, like the outside review.

“But, more importantly, I trust our officers. I trust them to operate within the bounds of the laws and according to their use of force training. I trust that they can make the appropriate split-second, life or death decisions — weighing all factors and public safety — with the brevity required of them,” he said.

Danya Gil contributed to this article.