What the public learns about police shootings in Utah depends on where they happen
(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) 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.
It’s a presentation that Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has done dozens of times.
He stands in front of a projection screen and painstakingly goes through the evidence of a police shooting.
He shows photos of weapons that a suspect may have used. A trajectory of how a bullet traveled. A frame-by-frame analysis of bodycam footage that shows what happened.
He explains how he used that evidence to make a conclusion on whether that officer was legally justified in pulling the trigger — and whether he will file criminal charges.
This public review of evidence wasn’t the norm when Gill was elected district attorney in 2010. He said he decided to post his call on use-of-force cases online and to hold news conferences to let people know how he reached his legal conclusion.
“They have a right to know,” he said in a recent interview. “We have an ethical obligation to share with them everything we could. It doesn’t mean they are going to agree with it. The objective is to give them access in a way that they previously had not.”
No other county attorney in Utah does this.
Instead, each office has come up with its own policy on how to release info on cases in which police use deadly force. Some may post a simple letter online, while many wait for a records request to release anything. It creates a patchwork system in which the amount of information the public will know about a police shooting largely depends on where that shooting took place.
The vast majority of police shootings happen in Salt Lake County, with more than 100 in the past decade.
Gill posts online a lengthy legal analysis explaining the decision he has made and often walks reporters through body camera footage at news conferences.
In Weber County, where there have been 28 shootings — the second highest tally over the past 10 years — County Attorney Christopher Allred writes a letter explaining his analysis, but it’s not released unless a reporter or someone else files a records request.
It works about the same in Davis County, where County Attorney Troy Rawlings writes a short letter saying whether his office will pursue criminal charges against an officer. He leaves it up to the police departments to decide whether to publicize the decision, though if someone files a records request, his office will hand over the letter.
Rawlings said his decision to be low key, especially when compared to Gill, is not to avoid transparency but to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention.
“I don’t want the D.A. office to look like we’re grandstanding,” Rawlings said, “like this is a political decision.”
Utah County generally shares even less information. In his most recent shooting review, County Attorney David Leavitt didn’t name the Orem officer who fired at a truck in May, injuring a woman
. His conclusion was simple: That “it is clear that the officer complied with the laws that govern the use of force.”
He eventually released the last name of the officer, he said, after a reporter asked. He said he was hesitant to give the officer’s name publicly because he worried the officer could be harassed.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “The public has a right to know what the public’s police forces are doing. At the same time, I feel a need to protect the safety of the officer.”
As protesters have gathered on the streets in Utah and across the nation over the past several months to protest police brutality, many have called for reform, including more transparency about how police shootings and other misconduct are investigated.
Should there be changes to make the county attorneys’ offices in Utah more transparent — or at least more uniform — in use-of-force decisions?
Allred, the Weber County attorney, said he believes his policies work well because media usually publicize his determinations. But he said that his office is considering posting body camera footage and his decisions on the county’s website “in the near future.”
Rawlings, in Davis County, points out that his office doesn’t really have an online presence. He’s formed a committee to explore whether his staffers should start using social media or the website to better share the work they’re doing, which would also include his offices’ decisions around use of force.
“I’m probably oversensitive,” he said. “I’m overly cautious on not making it look like I’m politicizing the office, and that includes these types of cases. Do I think it’s a good idea? I do. I think we’ll likely start doing that in the future.”
But Leavitt said changes need to go further than unifying policies around releasing use-of-force decisions. He believes that all investigations and shooting reviews should be transferred to the attorney general, so someone at the state level investigates the police after a shooting instead of the county attorney.
“People need to have peace of mind that the investigation is being done in a fair and transparent way,” he said. “There’s such an inherent difficulty with that happening with local law enforcement investigating the case and the county attorney investigating the case.”