UPDATE: Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill ruled on July 22 that Sgt. Tyler Longman acted within the law when he shot Michael Chad Breinholt and won’t face charges.
The last words Michael Chad Breinholt heard were, “You’re about to die, my friend.”
Then a West Valley City police sergeant pulled the trigger.
Breinholt’s mother, Susan Neese, has seen the final moments of her 31-year-old son’s life. The body camera footage from Aug. 23, 2019, shows he was intoxicated at the police department.
With his hands cuffed behind his back, he briefly wrestled with two officers. One screamed that Breinholt was grabbing his holstered gun. Sgt. Tyler Longman rushed into the room, made his declaration and fired.
“He took the time to think about that, to say those words,” Neese said in a recent interview. “And then aim and shoot. And kill Chad.”
Watching the video was heartbreaking for Breinholt’s family members. That shock deepened when their attorney said this wasn’t the first time Longman had shot and killed someone while on duty.
It was his third.
“Chad would still be here had something happened to that officer,” his brother, Chase Breinholt, said. “If he could have been put on some other duty or let go or if there was something put in place after taking the first person’s life. Definitely after [taking] a second person’s life. Why is he still carrying a gun?”
Nearly two years after Breinholt died, his family is left with many questions, including: Will Longman face charges for the shooting?
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill will make the decision — as he does with all police shootings in his jurisdiction. It’s unclear when that will happen or why the legal review has taken so long. There is only one older police shooting case that’s still pending.
Longman is one of 38 Utah officers who have been in more than one shooting in the past 17 years, according to a Salt Lake Tribune database, expanded with help from the PBS series FRONTLINE. He is among six West Valley City officers, both current and former, who have fired more than once.
[READ MORE: Read an in-depth report on Utah’s officers who have fired in more than one police shooting at sltrib.com.]
West Valley City’s incident review committee determined Longman didn’t violate policy, and he’s back on duty after being on administrative leave, which is standard protocol after a police shooting. His actions are also defended by Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police.
West Valley City police declined to answer questions about the shooting because it is still pending with the district attorney’s office. Longman’s attorney also declined to comment. Prosecutors ruled that his actions were legally justified in his first two shootings.
Previously, the public had seen only a sliver of what happened to Breinholt: a nine-minute edited video created by the police department’s public relations team.
The Salt Lake Tribune sought the unedited video during a six-month record dispute. West Valley City didn’t want to release it while Gill’s investigation was pending, but Utah’s State Records Committee sided with The Tribune and required the police to provide the more expansive view of this highly unusual shooting of a handcuffed man inside a police station.
At the request of The Tribune, Randy Shrewsberry, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, watched the full footage of what happened that August evening.
His conclusion: “I saw nothing at all for which I believe that this was a necessary shooting.”
A struggle with addiction
A memorial website includes a video of Breinholt at 17 telling a television reporter what it was like to be a young person addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“It’s a fast spiral,” he says. “It’s a slippery slope. And before you know it, you’re stealing from your own family, breaking into houses, breaking into cars — anything you could do to get an hour-and-a-half high.”
Neese, his mother, told The Tribune that Breinholt struggled after his father died. He was 15. At first, he turned to music to cope. At some point, he started using drugs. He had some run-ins with police for theft and drug possession.
“Addiction was a part of Chad’s life,” Neese said. “Same as with him trying to recover from it, consistently and constantly.”
When Neese thinks about her son, she remembers how funny he was. She remembers him crying in the movie theater while watching “The Notebook” as a kid, a memory that reminds her of how sensitive he could be. He loved music, Neese said, and exploring his Christian faith. She said both helped him as he struggled with addiction and anxiety.
“He had been doing really good,” she said. “The strongest he had been in a few years before he died. He was strongest in his faith, and in his music and in community involvement with the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake City. And that summer, he started to relapse.”
Neese said she talked with her son on the day he died. They talked about celebrating their birthdays together, and he told her about the treatment centers he was trying to get into and the appointments he had made to help him get sober.
He wanted help, she said.
Breinholt showed up intoxicated at his girlfriend’s workplace. Her co-worker called the police.
The newly released body camera footage shows Breinholt’s girlfriend and co-worker told Officers Matt Lane and Taylor Atkin they were mostly concerned for his health because he said he’d taken a lot of pills, and his breath smelled like alcohol.
“It seems like he just wants to commit suicide,” his girlfriend told police, later adding: “He just said that he took all those pills so he’ll die.”
The officers didn’t see Breinholt behind the wheel, but surveillance footage showed he had driven a car. Breinholt blew a blood alcohol level of 0.162 — more than three times Utah’s legal limit of 0.05.
Lane arrested him. The officer searched his pockets and found no weapons. Breinholt was placed in a patrol car, according to the footage.
Officers spent nearly two hours with Breinholt in the DUI processing room at police headquarters, some of it included mundane moments when they filled out papers or waited for help with an electronic warrant.
At some points, the officers paid little attention to Breinholt as he cried and asked for help. At others, they threatened to charge him with more crimes: A charge for giving a false name. A felony for this being his third DUI. Another felony for destroying police property, after Breinholt began chewing on a Breathalyzer cord.
Breinholt, at one moment, flopped onto the concrete floor crying, his hands still cuffed behind his back.
Lane asked a woman who had been doing a ride-along: “So you still want to be a cop, huh?” She nodded yes.
“That’s the spirit,” Lane said.
“That’s the West Valley spirit,” Atkin, the other officer, said, as Breinholt moaned.
The officers left Breinholt on the floor for more than 11 minutes as they waited for a medical crew with the fire department to check on him. They told the crew Breinholt took medication but didn’t mention his girlfriend’s concerns that he was possibly suicidal.
After he was cleared, an officer hoisted Breinholt back into the chair.
“You’re fine,” he said. “Stay right there.”
Longman wasn’t part of the initial arrest, the video shows, but came to the police station because Lane and Atkin were newer officers who needed help filling out an electronic warrant.
The video shows that Breinholt asked officers to take him to the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, known as “UNI,” but the officers refused.
“I’m not going to sit here all night and play games with you,” Longman told Breinholt. “You’ve already wasted our fire department’s time by having them come out for some bullsh--, OK? I’m not taking you to UNI, I’m taking you to jail.”
Not long after that, Breinholt stood and told Atkin, “I have a gun in my pants.”
The officer laughed.
“Good try,” Atkin said, before telling another officer: “We checked him. Does that count as a threat of violence if he reached into his pants and said, ‘I have a gun in my pants?’”
Soon after, Breinholt tried to take off his shoe. Atkin then asked him, “Is there a gun in your shoe, too?”
Moments later, Breinholt stood up again. Atkin grabbed his shirt and guided him back to the chair as Breinholt murmured, “There’s a gun in my shoe.”
Atkin didn’t appear alarmed. He told Breinholt to sit down, and “I’ll get the gun out.”
The officer left him there for a moment and came back as Breinholt mumbled, “There’s a gun in my seat.”
“Stay down,” Atkin responded, his hand on Breinholt’s chest.
Atkin decided to take Breinholt’s shoe, which Breinholt refused to give. Atkin and another officer, Raymond Wilhelm, then lifted Breinholt out of the chair to take the shoe — as Longman stood outside the small room.
“Oh f---, he’s got my gun!” Atkin yelled. “He’s got my gun!”
The video appears to show Breinholt, still handcuffed, with his hand on the officer’s gun as Wilhelm and Atkin started to wrestle with him. The gun was not removed from its holster.
Longman rushed into the room, pulling his firearm as he grabbed Breinholt’s head. He yelled, “You’re about to die, my friend,” and fired the fatal shot.
It all happened in six seconds.
One officer, three shootings
When West Valley City hired Longman in 2006, he told a detective he always wanted to be an officer. He wanted to do something good for the community, and he respected the job, Longman said, according to his background investigation obtained by The Tribune.
One of his relatives told the detective that Longman was the “golden boy” in their family, and was well-liked by his friends. He did have a temper, those who knew him said, but they felt he could keep it under control and would be a good officer.
Longman has no serious record of disciplinary actions and over time has been promoted to sergeant. What he does have is a record of firing his gun.
Longman’s first shooting took place a year into his police career.
On Aug. 22, 2007, West Valley City Officer Kevin Salmon spotted Christopher Cotton sleeping in a Mitsubishi Eclipse parked at a 7-Eleven. The store employees said it was OK for Cotton, 22, to be there, and Salmon left. When Salmon returned two hours later, Cotton was still asleep. This time the employees told the police officer they wanted the man to leave because he was in a handicapped-accessible parking stall.
Salmon called for backup, and Longman arrived.
Salmon later told investigators he knocked on the car window to wake up Cotton, and the man was “acting nervous.” The officer said he then spotted Cotton holding a gun, which he allegedly pointed at Salmon.
That’s when Salmon started shooting while standing on the driver’s side. Longman, hearing a “pop,” also began firing from the passenger side, he told investigators.
Cotton died in the car.
This shooting took place before bodycams were prevalent, so there’s no video of what happened. One officer later described in his report that Longman was shaken up.
“It should also be noted that I briefly spoke to Officer Longman right after the shooting,” the officer wrote, “and asked him if he was alright and he said, ‘No, I’m not alright, I just took a man’s life.’”
Prosecutors found the officers legally justified in shooting Cotton.
A year later, Longman was in his second shooting. This time, he was called to a home after a girl reported her father was choking her mother. When police arrived, they saw 40-year-old Richard Jackson had dragged his wife into the street and was holding a knife to her neck.
The officers tried to reason with Jackson, according to police reports, but he began counting down from 10.
As the woman arched away from the knife, Longman fired two rounds. One struck Jackson, killing him.
Again, Longman was found justified.
Eleven years passed before he killed Breinholt in the basement of West Valley City’s police department.
Police Chief Colleen Jacobs said in a statement about officers who have fired their weapons in multiple encounters that each shooting is extensively analyzed by the department and scrutinized on its own merits.
“An officer-involved shooting is traumatic for all affected,” she said, “And, as such, any officer-involved shooting in our department is of great concern to us.”
Was a gun the only option?
When Shrewsberry, founder of the California-based Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, watched the videos showing Breinholt’s shooting, he questioned why Breinholt was arrested at all and not taken to a hospital instead.
“That, to me, really overshadows everything else,” he said. “Because, if someone [said] that he wanted to kill himself, who was intoxicated, who also took more than the prescribed amount of narcotics, in my view, the very first immediate thing should have been that he be transported to someplace for care.”
Instead, Shrewsberry said, the officers started a DUI case and took Breinholt to the police station. The police expert said he was struck by the “absolute indifference” he believed the officers showed the man and the “total lack of empathy” toward someone clearly in crisis.
Shrewsberry’s nonprofit focuses on research on police training and advocating for improvements to that training.
In his opinion, lethal force wasn’t warranted.
“This should not have been an issue,” he said, “where an enormous amount of force, certainly weapon force, would have been required to get a person under control.”
Shrewsberry said the officers could have moved Breinholt to a holding cell when he started to disobey, or could have stunned him with a taser or pepper-sprayed him when he reached for the gun. They could have used “brute force” to overpower the intoxicated man and get him away from the officer’s gun.
Longman’s attorney, Bret Rawson, declined to comment for this story because the case is pending. Rawson also represents Utah Fraternal Order of Police members.
Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah FOP, has seen portions of the video depicting the shooting, and he sees it differently. He said the video shows two officers struggling to get control of the gun and who weren’t able to overpower Breinholt — which necessitated a higher use of force.
“They truly believe their lives were at risk,” he said. “And they are fighting the suspect to get his hand off the gun, and they still can’t do it.”
Adams said that, in training, officers are told there’s only one reason why someone would want to take their gun: For “lethal ends.”
“You must defend it,” he said, “as if your life was at stake.”
He added that Longman saying, “You’re about to die, my friend” was the “appropriate legal warning” to tell Breinholt to stop what he was doing or be shot.
“An officer is trying to warn someone,” he said, “their actions are going to have terrible consequences.”
Colin King, the attorney for Breinholt’s family members, said they intend to sue West Valley City and Longman, but have been waiting for the district attorney to decide whether to file charges against the sergeant. King called the shooting an “unrighteous, unjustified and excessive use of force.”
“Chad Breinholt was completely restrained and controlled the moment he was shot in the side of the forehead point-blank by Officer Longman,” the attorney said. “That use of force was utterly and completely unjustified. He was a young man who was handcuffed behind his back, who had [several officers] in the room controlling him. If this isn’t excessive force, I don’t know what is.”
Gill, the district attorney, said in a recent interview that he doesn’t know when his office might rule in Breinholt’s case.
“At this time, what I can say is that our office is actively invested and engaged in the matter,” he said. “But I can’t say anything beyond that.”
He said generally that when his prosecutors do consider these cases, they don’t take into account how many shootings the officer has previously been in. Similarly, they don’t consider whether someone who was shot at had a previous criminal history.
King said he doesn’t think a police officer should be taken off the force after one shooting, but he believes more should have been done with Longman before he shot Breinholt.
“Once you have a pattern established, which I think this is, after two shootings, at least there should have been some retraining,” he said. “There should have been some serious investigation. There should have been some discipline. And he should not have been allowed to continue to carry a gun and interact with the public.”
Longman’s supervisors have disagreed. Public records show Longman has not faced discipline for any of the three fatal shootings. His disciplinary history is limited to a few warnings after he didn’t complete a firearm training as required and one instance in which he hit a concrete curb during a traffic stop.
The department’s incident review committee cleared him in Breinholt’s shooting, finding the use of fatal force was within department policy and the law. The committee did make suggestions about how to process DUI investigations — such as having a more secure room in the police department to keep a suspect while an officer is writing a warrant — but made little mention of Longman’s action.
The most critical conclusion involved “officer complacency.”
“The committee recommends more training for officers on fight or flight signs and/or indicators like looking at an officer’s gun, the thousand yard stare, clenching his fists, tying his shoes, pulling up his baggy pants,” a report reads.
Longman was put on administrative leave after the shooting but returned to work less than two months later. Since then, he has unholstered his gun four times and used physical force against two suspects, according to use-of-force reports released to The Tribune.
Breinholt’s family members, meanwhile, have been unable to find closure as they wait for Gill to decide whether Longman should face charges.
Neese wants accountability for her son’s death. She wishes Longman would have been disciplined or some meaningful action would have been taken before that August evening when he shot her son.
“Chad needed help,” she said. “You look at some of the body camera footage prior to the shooting, and they weren’t helpful to him. They contributed to his depression. And the fact that this was Officer Longman’s third killing — how is that possible, that an officer can remain on the force and carry a weapon?”
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.