Damien Evans had narrowly avoided being hit by three cars as he sprinted from swarming officers through a nearly empty Salt Lake City parking lot one sunny afternoon last August. The officers were trying to arrest him for a parole violation, but Evans didn’t want to go back to jail.
He had a gun in his hand and looked back at the officers as he tried to escape, police helicopter video shows, but he never pointed the weapon at anyone. At one point, he put it back in his pocket.
Yet, one officer — Sgt. Jason Vincent — fired at him and missed. Moments later, as about 10 officers cornered him near a fence at the back of the lot, Evans started to pull the gun out again. A police dog bit his leg. Another officer, Clinton Moore, opened fire, killing Evans.
The fatal shot was legally justified, Salt Lake County prosecutors announced Friday. But the one Vincent fired wasn’t — and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said it’s possible he could file charges against the sergeant if he got more evidence that explained why he decided to fire at all.
It’s the first time prosecutors say he could have done something wrong.
Vincent’s first shooting was in 2013, when he shot and injured 24-year-old Oston Shiloh Fairbourn after Fairbourn pulled a knife during an arrest. That shooting was deemed justified.
Then, two years later, Vincent shot and killed 34-year-old Jeffrey R. Nielson under similar circumstances. That shooting, too, was justified.
He shot Ricardo Jose Lopez, 26, in 2016 after Lopez pointed a gun at him. Lopez lived, and Vincent was again found to be justified.
But this fourth time, when Vincent shot at but missed Evans, Gill said the sergeant’s actions were not legally justified.
Gill said during a Friday news conference that prosecutors didn’t know why Vincent fired during the Aug. 27, 2020 encounter. Vincent refused to speak with investigators, only confirming through an attorney that he fired his gun once.
That police helicopter video shows Evans running away from Vincent, but doesn’t show Evans making any outwardly threatening movements.
“We know one thing. [Vincent] fired his weapon,” Gill said. “Why he fired his weapon, the context in which he fired his weapon, what were the conditions in which he fired his weapon — I do not have any evidence that gives me a basis by which to conclude the shooting is justified.”
Utah law says officers can legally shoot someone if they “reasonably believe” they must do so to prevent death or serious bodily injury to an officer or someone else.
That’s why the officer who fired at Evans moments later was justified in doing so, Gill said. Officer Clinton Moore also didn’t speak to investigators, but Gill said he likely saw the same thing that other nearby officers and witnesses did: That as Evans was bit by a police dog, the man reached for the handle of his gun that was sticking halfway out of his front pants pocket.
Moore and Vincent were helping the U.S. Marshals Violent Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team in tracking down Evans, who was wanted for absconding parole supervision and not completing a substance abuse evaluation.
The shooting wasn’t captured on body camera because the Department of Justice doesn’t allow federally funded task force members to wear them.
Some officers and people nearby told investigators they believed Evans fired at officers as he ran from them. But Gill said their investigation shows that Evans’ weapon was never fired — and the shot that was heard was from Vincent. Investigators found that Vincent’s gun was down one round.
Evans’ sister, Dominique, told The Tribune she thinks Vincent’s shot unnerved the other officers and made them more fearful of her brother.
“He made everyone believe it was my brother [who shot],” Dominique Evans said.
Dominique Evans said her family was disappointed with Gill’s decision to rule the fatal shot justified, because the decision relied mostly on the word of officers. She took issue with the DOJ policy that barred officers from wearing body cameras, because if an officer had one on, it may have shown what happened more definitively. And maybe Gill’s office would have made a different determination.
Gill also noted in his ruling that Vincent lost his gun shortly after the shooting. Vincent and another detective had stopped at a Maverik gas station on the way to a debriefing and picked up sodas.
“While at the convenience store, Sgt. Vincent’s weapon, which was used in the incident, apparently fell from his duty holster and was left on the sidewalk in front of the convenience store when the officers departed,” the ruling reads. “Apparently, the officers discovered Sgt. Vincent’s firearm was missing; they returned to the convenience store, retrieved the weapon and returned to the Sheriff’s Office building.”
West Valley City officials say they are conducting an “internal review” of the shooting, and did not answer questions about Gill’s ruling or Vincent leaving his gun at the gas station.
Officials did confirm it was Vincent’s fourth shooting. He is an active duty officer.
Gill said that he didn’t consider that when making his ruling, in the same way that he did not consider Evans’ criminal history. He said he instead focused on the facts specific to the day when Evans died.
“What about when somebody shoots four [times]? My answer is, I don’t get to hire, fire or discipline officers,” he said. “That is an important question that only the police agency or the chief can answer. That’s a question they have to ask and answer to their community.”
This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.