Aaron and Tiffany James lost their 19-year-old son, Zane James, in 2018 when Cottonwood Heights police officers shot him after he allegedly robbed two grocery stores. Now, they are suing the city, claiming officers attacked the teen’s father and brother at a peaceful protest over his death last year.
Nine people were arrested on Aug. 2 at a protest against police violence in Cottonwood Heights when police clashed with protesters. Among the arrestees were Aaron James and his son, Gabe Pecoraro.
“In August of 2020, the James family — Aaron James, Tiffany James, Raven James and Gabe Pecoraro — did what Americans have done since the Summer of 1773, they joined a protest,” reads the lawsuit filed by the family. “The protest was peaceful. Aaron and Gabe did not carry weapons and did not call for violence. There was no damage to property.”
Police ordered the protesters to move, saying they were blocking streets, but there was no traffic that was impacted by the protest, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges traffic concerns were an excuse to target the protest.
Video footage from the protest shows police and protesters yelling at each other after police tried to make protesters get out of the street. Police can be seen tackling and pepper spraying protesters during the confrontation.
During the commotion, an officer grabbed Pecoraro from behind by his head and neck, according to the lawsuit. Unaware that the person “who assaulted him” was an officer, Pecoraro did not “submit” to the officer, according to the lawsuit. He was then tased. The arrest left Pecoraro with a concussion, a broken nose, deep abrasions, damage to his esophagus and post-traumatic stress, according to the lawsuit.
Pecoraro says that after his arrest, Police Chief Robby Russo told him his family was “trash” and blamed him for his brother’s death.
When Aaron James approached the officers to get an explanation about what was happening to his son, police tased him and beat him with a baton, the lawsuit says.
“No citizen should be beaten for speaking peacefully,” reads the lawsuit. “But worse than the physical harm, is the psychological trauma that results from being victimized for a second time.”
Pecoraro was charged with a class A misdemeanor for allegedly attacking an officer and a class B misdemeanor for interfering with an arrest. Aaron James faces several class B misdemeanor charges, including attempted assault on a police officer, as well as a lesser misdemeanor for being a “pedestrian on roadway.”
Russo told The Salt Lake Tribune last year that “hundreds” of people were blocking the road during the protest. He called the protesters “rioters” and said some were there to “create havoc.”
Correction • May 7, 10:37 p.m.: This story has been updated to include the charges against Aaron James.