Prosecutors charge three protesters with assaulting police during a Cottonwood Heights rally

A protester is led away by Cottonwood Heights police officers during a march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. The protest was a "March for Justice" focused largely around Zane James, who was fatally shot by police in Cottonwood Heights in 2018. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Officers held Aaron James down near the concrete curb. Next to his head, body camera footage shows, there’s a reflective rainbow pinwheel and the protest signs he carried. Then, the rhythmic, repetitive click of an activated stun gun is heard.

Cottonwood Heights police would book James into jail on suspicion of felony-level rioting and obstruction of justice, in addition to misdemeanor counts of assault on a police officer and interfering with an arrest. He was one of nine arrested Aug. 2, among the more than 100 protesters who were out to remember Zane James, Aaron’s son. Zane James was killed in 2018 by Cottonwood Heights police.

The group brought pinwheels and squirt guns. They planned to dance in the street. Then officers told them they couldn’t block the street, they had to get on the sidewalk. Protesters refused and it led to violent clashes.

On Tuesday, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office announced it was only charging three of the nine arrested protesters. Aaron James was among those who were not charged.

“I think that’s probably the most egregious thing,” said Tiffany James, Aaron’s wife and Zane’s mother.

Aaron James was roughed up and shocked with a stun gun, she said. He went to the hospital and was diagnosed with nerve damage.

“Yet, he didn’t get charged,” she said. “And the officer who beat him with a club — and many others — didn’t get charged either.”

The district attorney’s office did file criminal charges against Zane’s brother, Gabriel Pecoraro. He is facing two counts of assaulting an officer and one charge of interfering with an arrest, all class A and B misdemeanor crimes. Two others face similar charges.

Where Tiffany James’ sees an overreach of police power, Cottonwood Heights police see hypocrisy from prosecutors.

“It is a shame that the district attorney chooses to charge people that paint and break windows with first-degree felonies, but people who assault officers are not charged,” police spokesperson Lt. Dan Bartlett said.

District Attorney Sim Gill has recently been accused of filling excessive charges against protesters who damaged his building during a July protest of another police shooting. An outside prosecutor took on the case and lowered the severity of those charges.

Bartlett said that police have already spoken to Cottonwood Heights City Prosecutor James Hansen about screening misdemeanor charges against the protesters and expects Hansen will.

He has already filed charges against City Council member Tali Bruce, who was at the protest. She pleaded not guilty to a class B misdemeanor county of interference with an arresting officer. Hansen has withdrawn from that case to avoid any conflicts of interest. Those not charged Tuesday could still be prosecuted in Cottonwood Heights Justice Court for either class B or C misdemeanor offenses. A class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail, class B is up to six months, while a class C can result in up to 90 days in jail.

The district attorney’s office also screened cases against police officers for alleged misconduct, including Bruce’s allegation that a cop punched her, but didn’t find evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

The charges

Charging documents allege that Pecoraro, Zane James’ brother, refused to move to the sidewalk, and when an officer tried to arrest him, he “violently pulled his arm away.” As the officer tried to get Pecoraro’s hands behind his back, charging documents allege, Pecoraro “rotated his body” and threw the officer to the ground.

The two tussled, prosecutors say, and Pecoraro allegedly “applied pressure with his arm in what [the officer] perceived to be a modified chokehold.”

Pecoraro was able to get away, according to charging documents, but is also accused of putting another officer in a chokehold and bitting an officer before he was eventually arrested.

Video footage shared with The Salt Lake Tribune shows an officer using pepper spray on Pecoraro as he tried to dart around them in the street. Then police tackled him. An officer eventually brought Pecoraro down in a chokehold. At that moment, Aaron James tried to intervene as an officer hit him with a club.

The footage further shows Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo pull Aaron James’ by his neck in an attempt to get him away from the officers arresting Pecoraro. Aaron James is then pushed to the ground, and both men are tased.

The two others charged on Tuesday were accused of throwing punches at officers as they tried to arrest protesters.

Police behavior

Prosecutors looking into police behavior focused on one officer — Chris McHugh — whose actions they found “concerning.”

Video shows McHugh dressed in a green SWAT jumpsuit, striking protesters with a wooden baton and shooting pepper spray in their direction.

Bodycam released Tuesday also shows a protest organizer telling another officer the group would disperse, but McHugh grabs his arm and puts him in handcuffs before he relays that message to the crowd.

“Whoa!” the man says as McHugh cuffs him. “I was just talking to the officer.”

Soon after, the crowd erupts into screams and fights break out.

Gill’s office ultimately concluded “[t]here was not sufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges once reviewed in the context of the surrounding interactions.”

Bartlett said that McHugh’s actions that day weren’t illegal and didn’t violate policy.

Still, prosecutors urged those with evidence that would be “helpful” to email districtatty@slco.org with the subject line COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS.