Tiffany James believes the settlement amount speaks for itself.
On Friday, the City of Cottonwood Heights announced that its insurance provider, the Utah Local Governments Trust, had opted to settle with the family of Zane James, paying the family of the 19-year-old man shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018 an amount in excess of $4 million.
“The settlement we reached with the State Trust is a victory for both our son Zane and our family,” Tiffany James, the mother of Zane James, wrote in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Settlement was a ‘business decision,’ city says
In a news release, the City of Cottonwood Heights called the move to settle a “business decision” on the part of its insurance provider. It does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the city or the former police officer involved in the killing, officials said.
“While the city knows no amount of money will be sufficient to assuage the loss of their son, the city hopes that this settlement brings closure for all parties,” the release states.
The release also referenced a 2018 determination by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill that then-officer Casey Davies was justified in shooting Zane James, noting that there were “no prosecutable findings.”
In February, Salt Lake County prosecutors reopened the 2018 investigation into James’ killing, six months after court documents revealed Davies had first caused Zane, who was fleeing on a motorbike, to crash before the shooting. It marked the first time Gill had formally reopened a police shooting case in his 12-year tenure as Salt Lake County’s top prosecutor.
In May, Gill concluded the officer was not legally justified in hitting the teen with his police car. But the district attorney said he would not file charges against the officer because he didn’t have enough evidence to show Davies “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” hit James.
In a statement about the settlement, Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Weichers on Friday said the city “did not support” the decision to settle, since it believed the lawsuits brought by the James family were going to be dismissed.
“Nevertheless, we respect the Trust’s decision to bring closure to this matter and to eliminate risks associated with a potential jury trial influenced by current anti-law enforcement attitudes in society today,” the mayor said. “We fully support our police and the very difficult job they have in keeping our community safe.”
Family hopes case will ‘open the door’ for police reform
On May 29, 2018, James was suspected of robbing two grocery stores in Sandy while armed with an airsoft gun. The 19-year-old then reportedly fled on a lightweight motorbike, before Davies hit him with his car and caused him to crash, according to Gill’s office.
Afterward, Davies said he thought he saw James reaching for a gun and shot at him four times, hitting him twice. Police later found a fake gun in the teenager’s pocket.
James died from his injuries days later, on May 31, 2018.
In 2021, after a federal judge granted James’ parents access to an internal police interview that Davies gave following the shooting, the parents filed an amended federal civil lawsuit.
They cited the interview in the complaint, alleging that police covered up, and potentially destroyed, video footage of the shooting. An attorney for Davies and Cottonwood Heights police denied the allegations.
“We hope this settlement opens the door for policy change and more positive policing,” Tiffany James said in a statement to The Tribune on Friday.
At a news conference Tuesday at Cottonwood Heights City Hall, when James was asked whether she trusted her city’s police department, she answered emphatically, “No, 100% no. I wish we could. They had the opportunity to do the right thing, they chose not to.”
With a dog curled up at her feet, James continued, “It doesn’t matter if you have an addiction, it doesn’t matter if you have a mental health challenge, it doesn’t matter if you’ve committed a crime. That penalty shouldn’t be death. We have a criminal justice system to manage those things.”
Settlement follows father’s recent verdict in 2020 protest case
The settlement came weeks after a jury on June 8 acquitted James’ father, Aaron James, of an attempted assault charge, which stemmed from an August 2020 police protest in Cottonwood Heights.
At the time, Aaron James was protesting as a way to remember his son, who was killed two years earlier. The march was intended as a peaceful event, but ended with a confrontation between police and protesters — and Aaron’s arrest, after police said he tried to assault an officer.
Though he was acquitted of the assault charge, the jury found Aaron James guilty of interfering with an arresting officer and walking on or along a roadway, both misdemeanor offenses. He was sentenced to three months probation and ordered to pay a $730 fine.
James raised his voice Tuesday as he spoke about the verdict. “If a law or policy is broken and a police officer does it, they don’t get punished or reprimanded. But if I step in the street with my family, I get sent to jail on felony charges. I have to fight my way through court. It’s expensive. It’s emotionally taxing.
“Somebody tell me where the fairness is at in that, please,” he continued. “Because it’s not happening here.”
In total, nine people were arrested at the 2020 protest, including Aaron James’ son Gabe Pecoraro. At the time, Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo said three officers were injured.
In May 2021, the Utah Attorney General’s office ruled that the response by Cottonwood Heights police during the protest was “measured and appropriate.”
The family argued otherwise in a 2021 lawsuit, which remains pending in federal court, records indicate.
— Tribune staff writers Paighten Harkins and Kolbie Peterson contributed to this report.