Sheriff offers condolences to family of mentally ill man killed by police, but defends shooting

(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.

Two days after the parents of a mentally ill man sued Unified Police, alleging an officer wrongfully killed their son after the mother called for help, the department released a statement apologizing for their loss — but said that they stand by the officers' response.

In the two-page response, Sheriff Rosie Rivera outlined some facts of the Oct. 22, 2018, shooting: a woman was being held at knifepoint by a person threatening to kill anyone who entered her house, the man was mentally ill, apparently on methamphetamine, and described as “out of control.”

Rivera said that officers seek “peaceful resolutions” in all calls, but if an individual could seriously hurt or kill someone, an officer is trained to shoot.

“Characterizing this justified shooting as an execution is unequivocally inaccurate,” Rivera said in the statement. “Being justified does not make the situation any less tragic for everyone involved.”

The department also released two 911 calls that precipitated the shooting, including the initial call from Jason Whittle’s mother, Annie Esposito.

Robert Whittle and Annie Esposito sued the department Wednesday in federal court, saying their son wasn’t a threat and that Officer Darrell Broadhead used unreasonable force in killing him.

Esposito called police that day after her son, who’d been homeless, came to her house in Riverton after being mugged.

In the released 911 call, Esposito tells the dispatcher that her son wasn’t allowed at her house but had arrived banging on the door. She let him inside to not disturb neighbors, but said he was acting “out of control.”

Throughout the call, one can hear Jason Whittle yelling, often copying his mother’s speech or repeating her address.

Esposito was talking to the dispatcher over speaker phone, and when the dispatcher asked Esposito questions, sometimes Jason Whittle responded.

In one instance, the dispatcher asked if Jason Whittle would be violent with officers.

He yelled, “I will be violent with officers!” But Esposito said he wouldn’t be.

Another time, Jason Whittle declared, “I will kill them with knives if they come through the backdoor.”

The call ends before the shooting but when both Esposito and her son have come outside where police are waiting. The audio is garbled with Jason Whittle screaming.

“It’s a butter knife,” Esposito can be heard yelling to police. “He’s mentally ill."

Then, the call cuts off.

In the lawsuit, attorneys for Jason Whittle’s parents acknowledge he had a knife — a butter knife — but point to Esposito’s numerous statements to police that she didn’t believe he would hurt her, even as he briefly held the knife to her throat, as reasons officers should have used less-than-lethal force before shooting him.

It adds that Broadhead never warned Jason Whittle or his mother that he would shoot before firing, and the lawsuit contends that in shooting Jason Whittle, the officer put Esposito in danger because Jason Whittle had grabbed his mother and the bullet that struck his head whizzed by inches from hers.

Alyson McAllister, the attorney for Whittle’s parents, said that about 30 seconds passed between when the police arrived at Esposito’s home and when Broadhead fired that fatal shot.

“This tragedy happened because the police are trained to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Whittle’s father, Robert Whittle, at a Wednesday news conference. “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.”

The lawsuit also contends Jason Whittle had dropped the knife, as officers on scene commanded, before Broadhead shot him. A statement to prosecutors from an officer on the scene, identified only as Officer Yates, says Jason Whittle didn’t drop the knife.

No body camera footage of the shooting exists, and Broadhead declined to be interviewed by prosecutors who were investigating if the shooting was legally justified.

Prosecutors ultimately ruled it was.

On Wednesday, after Jason Whittle’s parents discussed the shooting with journalists at the news conference, UPD declined to comment on the case, saying they would respond in court.

But after two days of outrage and impassioned debate online in response to the lawsuit, the department spoke out.

Rivera said that with “my profession coming under more and more scrutiny” she wanted the public to hear the 911 calls and see the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office letter on ruling the shooting justified

In that letter, District Attorney Sim Gill explained that the fact Jason Whittle was only holding a butter knife and that his mother had told police Whittle wasn’t a threat and not to shoot, that none of that impacted prosecutor’s analysis and conclusions.

“Given the totality of circumstances presented to the officers (about which Officer Yates testified)," Gill wrote, “we cannot impose a duty on Officer Broadhead to follow Ms. Esposito’s requests not to shoot or consider her statements about a knife given the specific details of this event.”

In her statement, Rivera said, she supports Gill’s conclusion and her officer.

“Loss of a family member, a child in particular, under any circumstances is tragic,” Rivera said. “I recognize that the family of Jason Whittle continues to grieve his death, and while my words cannot take away their pain, I do express my deepest condolences.”

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