Police response to Cottonwood Heights protest was appropriate, attorney general’s office finds

Demonstrators have denounced officers’ actions as violent and unnecessary, while police have accused protesters of being “rioters.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Gabe Pecoraro is led away after being taken into custody by Cottonwood Heights police officers during a march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights. The protest was a "March for Justice" focused largely around Pecoraro's brother Zane James, who was fatally shot by police in Cottonwood Heights in 2018.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office found Tuesday that Cottonwood Heights officers who made multiple arrests — some filmed using physical and chemical force — during a 2020 protest against police violence were “measured and appropriate” in their response.

City Manager Tim Tingey had asked the A.G.’s office to investigate the Aug. 2 protest, which had been planned as a peaceful event meant to honor 19-year-old Zane James, who was killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018.

The protest was livestreamed on social media by city councilperson Tali Bruce. Video shows officers hitting and body-slamming protesters, as well as some protesters slinging water and throwing punches at police. Eight people were arrested that evening, with nine people ultimately charged. The report, which the A.G.’s office presented Tuesday at a Cottonwood Heights City Council work session, says five officers were injured.

James’ family has since filed a lawsuit against the police department, alleging officers used excessive force when they arrested James’ father, Aaron, and James’ brother Gabe Pecoraro that day.

The A.G.’s office also looked into the legality of protesters’ actions, whether or not police should have responded to the protest at all, and whether police used too much force. It also explored the roles of Police Chief Rob Russo and Bruce in the protest, said Special Agent Matt Thompson, who presented the investigation for the A.G.’s office.

The investigation concluded that some protesters did break the law when they didn’t listen when officers asked them to get off the road and walk on the sidewalk, and when some of them hit or shoved police. It added that officers “had a need and duty to respond” that day.

Despite the allegations of excessive force, the A.G.’s report says police did nothing wrong and tried to calm the situation before they arrested people.

“The police responses and actions were measured and appropriate; showed deference to the group’s constitutionally protected activities. Police used appropriate discretion regarding the group’s violation of certain laws and ordinances ...,” the report said.

Attorney General Sean Reyes, who lives in Cottonwood Heights, recused himself from the investigation.

Zane James’ family released a statement after the presentation, calling it “one-sided and incomplete.”

“Although it purported to be comprehensive, the report cherry-picked facts favorable to the officers, and ignored a mountain of evidence that shows officers’ actions were violent and violated the Constitution,” the statement read. “Even more frustrating was the Attorney General’s lack of genuine compassion for the purpose of the protest and the content of the speech: the tragic death of Zane James at the hand of a Cottonwood Heights officer.”

Heather White, an attorney representing the city and its police department, said the city was pleased with the report’s findings and grateful to the A.G.’s office for its work.

“I think it’s important to remember that the officers were merely trying to prevent unlawful activity, not prevent people from protesting, and they ended up using force only with the individuals who were threatening and abusive and violent.”

The protest

The protest at the center of this review came together on a hot day in August in remembrance of Zane James, a 19-year-old fatally shot by Cottonwood Heights Officer Casey Davies on May 29, 2018. Before he was killed, police had suspected James of robbing two grocery stores at gunpoint earlier that morning.

Demonstrators, many with the roving dance-protest group Dance Dance for Revolution, brought pinwheels and water guns for the march.

Body camera footage shows that the protest descended into violence after officers told demonstrators to get off a residential street and move onto the sidewalk. Protesters refused, and fights broke out when police began to arrest people.

In one instance, an officer is shown lifting a young woman into the air and slamming her onto the lawn in front of a home. The woman says “I can’t see” three times as officers are detaining her.

Nearby, a couple of officers grab a man who had splashed water on them. He swings at them as the officers grab him and get him on the ground. Officer Chris McHugh can be seen striking the man with a baton after he’s taken to the ground.

The D.A. ultimately charged three people, including Pecoraro, with crimes connected to the protest. Aaron James was charged later in Cottonwood Heights Justice Court.

Bruce, who says an officer pushed her, was charged with a class B misdemeanor count of interference with a police officer.

Police spokesperson Lt. Dan Bartlett said at the time that the department was not satisfied with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s decision to charge so few people. He called it hypocritical.

“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,” Bartlett said.

He was referring to charges Gill’s office filed against protesters in connection with a July 9 protest in Salt Lake City, where some demonstrators smashed out the windows of the district attorney’s office building and spilled red paint on the street. In that case, Gill was accused of filing excessive charges. An outside prosecutor has since taken over the case and has lowered the severity of the charges.

In the A.G.’s report Tuesday, Thompson mentioned that investigators found enough evidence for more charges but said some procedural barriers prevented the D.A. from filming, including time constraints and officers turning in reports that lacked crucial information.

Russo told The Tribune soon after the protest that the protesters’ behavior necessitated the officers’ response. He described the people demonstrating as “rioters.”

“When you take to the streets, stop the flow of traffic, intimidate people, scare people in their homes,” Russo said, “you’re no longer a protester to me.”

Demonstrators have told The Tribune that the already low-traffic streets were nearly empty that day.

James’ family recently sued the city for their injuries, which they say included a concussion, broken nose and post-traumatic stress. They also filed a lawsuit against Davies and Cottonwood Heights police in 2019, alleging Zane James didn’t pose a threat to officers when he was killed.

Court records show the lawsuit is still pending.

Differing perspectives

While the A.G.’s office report found nothing wrong with officers’ use of force, it did note some procedural areas for improvement, including that the department should better train for similar situations. Thompson also noted that officers could have made more arrests that day — “and perhaps, in some circumstances, should have,” but didn’t.

When asked if the department would consider using less force in the future after looking at this review, White said no.

“That [level of force] is policy. That is how officers are trained, and that is what is expected of them,” she said.

Soon after the presentation, activists and attendees on social media started to speak out against the way the A.G.’s office portrayed that day.

Darlene McDonald, a Utah Democratic Party National Committee member, tweeted she was at the protest and said the presentation was “absolutely, 100% total B.S.” Protester Madalena McNeil tweeted that while the A.G. said they noted no signs of excessive force, she was “pepper-sprayed in the mouth while trying to give someone water.”

The James family’s statement also criticizes the report for what they call a lack of legal analysis.

“Although it had the appearance of including a legal analysis,” the statement reads, “it failed to cite a single United States Supreme Court case to support the notion that any citizen walking in the street exercising First Amendment rights may be summarily arrested.”

To watch the full presentation, visit the city’s YouTube page.