Parents sue Unified police for fatally shooting their mentally ill son after mother called for help

Riverton • Annie Esposito goes to bed every night reliving the sound of a bullet whizzing past her ear, hearing again the crack of the shot that a police officer fired that killed her son.

Her son, Jason Whittle, died two years ago after she called the police at his request. Whittle had been mugged earlier in the day, and that confrontation proved to the 26-year-old, who struggled with mental health and substance use, that he needed help and that he couldn’t live on the streets anymore.

Like many might, Whittle went to his mother’s home for refuge as she called police to connect him with a social worker. The family had done it many times before, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court. One time, police sent over a social worker to help.

But Oct. 22, 2018, was different, Esposito recalled Wednesday. Usually, they were able to wait on her porch for help. But that morning, dispatchers told them that the police wanted them to come around the back of the home into the front yard.

“As we came out, I stood out first, and this light blinded me,” she recalled. “And I had to lift up my hands and that’s how I stood. And they just pulled their guns out, straight at me. Straight at my son, Jason.”

Whittle was confused and scared, his parents said, and already agitated with dispatchers asking so many questions before the help he wanted could come. When confronted by police with guns drawn, he reacted by dropping the small dog he was carrying, and grabbing his mother.

Esposito recalled that her son had a butter knife, and had raised it to her neck for a few seconds until the police ordered him to put it down.

“He’s yelling, he doesn’t get it,” the mother recalled. “I don’t get it. I’m yelling too. I’m telling them, ‘He’s mentally ill. He won’t hurt anyone.’ At some point, that officer has me straight in line and he shoots. He just shoots. No warning to me, no warning to my son.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Annie Esposito recounts how her son Jason was shot and killed by police in 2018, at a news conference in Riverton on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

Whittle was struck in the head and died instantly.

His parent’s attorney, Alyson McAllister, said that only about 30 seconds passed between when the police arrived at Esposito’s home and when Unified Police Officer Darrell Broadhead fired that fatal shot.

Whittle’s parents on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Unified police, alleging Broadhead used unreasonable force in the shooting and that the department and its leaders didn’t properly train its officers in how to de-escalate confrontations with noncompliant or mentally ill people.

“This tragedy happened because the police are trained to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Whittle’s father, Robert Whittle. “They are not trained to diffuse the situation. The police must receive better training. They can’t be vindicated when this kind of tragedy occurs.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rob Whittle comforts Annie Esposito before a news conference in Riverton on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. The two detailed the loss of their son Jason who was killed by police last year in 2018 and announced the filing of a lawsuit saying the Unified police officer should have used less than deadly force.

The father said that while Whittle did do some things wrong, the situation could have easily been defused. The fact that his son had carried his beloved dog with him, the father said, was an indicator that he had no intention of harming anyone.

Unified police officials declined to comment Wednesday, saying they will address the allegations in court.

Salt Lake County prosecutors found in September 2019 that Broadhead didn’t break any laws in the shooting. Broadhead didn’t agree to be interviewed by investigators, but the prosecutor’s office said evidence showed that he likely believed he needed to shoot Whittle to prevent the death or serious injury of Whittle’s mother, meaning the shooting was justified under Utah law.

No body camera footage exists of the shooting, and the story told by officers at the scene and lawsuit illustrate two fundamentally different scenarios.

In one, police have no choice but to shoot a man who was an obvious and imminent threat to his mother and who wasn’t listening to their commands to drop a butter knife, who even told officers, “I’m going to kill her!” In the other, an aggressive response by police scared a mentally ill and harmless man already in crisis and caused him to momentarily act out before he ultimately complied but was shot and killed anyway.

Yet, those on both sides agree that Esposito had made it clear that Whittle wasn’t a threat to her and that she didn’t want him to be shot — even as he held her with a knife to her throat.

The lawsuit contends that part of the reason police responded with guns drawn was because the 911 dispatcher who took Esposito’s call didn’t relay the information that Esposito didn’t think Whittle was a threat. Instead, the dispatcher told police they were responding to a “bipolar/schizophrenic male with a knife in his hand.”

Regardless, the lawsuit alleges, officers had options outside of killing Whittle. It says he posed no immediate danger to anyone and that in shooting Whittle, Broadhead put Esposito in grave danger, since the bullet was shot within inches of her own head.

The lawsuit alleges Broadhead never warned Whittle that if he didn’t listen to police commands he would be shot. It also says that Broadhead could have relied on other officers for assistance but didn’t.

The lawsuit, in addition to seeking monetary damages for Whittle’s alleged wrongful death, also asks that UPD officers be equipped with and required to use body cameras, that officers carry both less-than-lethal weapons and lethal weapons while on patrol and that they be trained in how to use those less-than-lethal weapons, as well as how to respond to mental health-related calls.

Elsewhere in Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City police have been addressing how to properly respond to those experiencing a mental health crisis after officers there shot a 13-year-old boy with autism in September.

Like Esposito, Linden Cameron’s mother called police for help to get him under control.

Cameron didn’t respond to officers' shouted commands and ran from officers through his neighborhood. Police officers fired nearly a dozen shots at the boy, who was hospitalized with numerous injuries. Family members said it was unlikely he would walk normally again.

Two years after Whittle was killed, his parents are still left to grapple with how things could have ended differently. When her son needed help, Esposito didn’t know what else to do but call the police.

But if it’s the police who come when parents call for help, Esposito says they need to be better trained.

She said she never wants another mother to experience those moments that replay in her mind, the sound of a bullet firing and her on the ground, holding her son’s bleeding head in her lap.

“Why did this happen?” she said in tears. “We are not preparing our police or any first responder to deal with mental illness.”