Citizen panel exonerates cops in Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal killing

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal appears on a series of murals depicting people killed by police, near 800 South and 300 West in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

A citizens panel has exonerated the two Salt Lake City police officers who killed Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, concluding that under the circumstances it was reasonable, as construed under Utah law, for both men to each fire 17 rounds at the fleeing robbery suspect.

The ruling, coming seven weeks after the May 23 shooting, sharply diverges from the case put forward by the 22-year-old victim’s family, whose lawyers have argued that it was excessive for the officers to open fire and keep shooting until their weapons were empty, even as Carbajal was down.

But Salt Lake City’s Police Civilian Review Board, or CRB, concluded Officers Kevin Fortuna and Neil Iversen showed a degree of restraint as they pursed Palacios-Carbajal on foot while responding to a report of an armed robbery involving a firearm.

“Officers are trained to meet or exceed the force level facing them. This is not only taught to ensure they effect an arrest but also to keep the officers as safe as possible,” the panel wrote in its 26-page findings. “In this case, both officers positively identified the object in Mr. Carbajal’s hand as a gun, and they had seen him stumble repeatedly and take time to retrieve it prior to continuing his escape.”

Troubled with the large number of shots fired, the board’s report “strongly urges” the department to review its firearm training policies and to emphasize a widely held guideline to fire just twice, then reassess the threat.

“Obviously, this training standard is not always feasible in every given situation ...” the five-member panel wrote. “But it is always a good policy to train to the highest level possible.”

In the weeks since Palacios-Carbajal’s death, a national debate has erupted over racial injustice and police violence, sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Following Floyd’s death, protesters took to the streets in cities across the nation for many days, then street protests resumed in Salt Lake City as Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill weighed whether to charge the two officers in Palacios-Carbajal’s death. Gill ultimately cleared them of criminal wrongdoing and, on Monday, released a 22-point memo proposing specific changes to Utah law regarding police use of deadly force.

The officers remain on modified duty and the fate of their careers now rests with Police Chief Mike Brown, who is considering reports prepared by the Unified Police Department-led “Officer Involved Critical Incident” protocol team, internal affairs, Gill’s office and now the CRB report, according to police Detective Greg Wilking.

“There is not a specified time limit on the decision he has to make, but he will take the time that is required to weigh all the factors given to him by the organizations,” Wilking said. “These decisions are not taken lightly and deserve the time and attention he affords them.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall stressed the CRB’s findings are based on what current law deems appropriate and justified, and hinted that reforms are in order.

“I recognize that this outcome, as well as the determination by District Attorney Sim Gill last week, is upsetting to many who want to see change in not only the state’s use of force standards, but also with the way our city approaches policing,” she said. “The outcomes of this case do not close the door on the movement of building equity and uprooting systems of oppression that exist throughout local, state, and national government.”

The CRB report gives a wrenching narrative of the dark, rainy night when Fortuna and Iversen were dispatched to a report of robbery at a motel. As they arrived, they received a call of a second robbery involving two armed suspects, one of whom was standing outside a room.

Iversen saw a man, later identified as Palacios-Carbajal, standing outside a motel room, looking through a bag, so he ordered the person to drop the bag. The man dropped the bad and fled. The officer gave chase on foot and Fortuna joined, both giving commands to stop, “all of which were ignored or unheard.”

A sergeant yelled to the officers to “Taze him,” but at a distance of 21 feet, their stun guns would not likely be effective in subduing the man, according to the report. After positively identifying the object the suspect kept dropping and picking up was a gun, the officers opened fire in two distinct volleys.

A fully loaded semi-automatic was found with Palacios-Carbajal, and the robbery victim’s wallet, containing a driver license and $45, were found in his pocket, according to the CRB report.

Whether the young man’s death was avoidable appears to be a question that has no easy answer, but officials are pledging to overhaul the rules governing the use of force to lessen the chances police take the lives of fellow citizens.

“This is the work ahead of us,” Mendenhall said. “Change will come to our city and I commit, again, to making Salt Lake City more equitable, more safe, for all.”

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