Cottonwood Heights officials schemed to break up 2020 police protest, lawsuit alleges

Former council member Natalie “Tali” Bruce filed the civil rights lawsuit Monday.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Protesters are tackled by Cottonwood Heights police officers during a march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. The protest was a "March for Justice" focused largely around Zane James, who was fatally shot by police in Cottonwood Heights in 2018.

Cottonwood Heights city officials planned to break up a 2020 protest critical of its police department and arrest participants “to retaliate against them for daring to speak” about a fatal 2018 police shooting and “the need for reform,” a civil rights lawsuit filed in Utah this week alleges.

Police had said they intervened with the Aug. 2, 2020, rally because protesters were blocking streets and not letting residents leave or enter their homes. The lawsuit, filed Monday by former Cottonwood Heights city council member Natalie “Tali” Bruce, alleges that reasoning was “pretextual and designed to suppress speech.”

“The protest started in the late and quiet Sunday afternoon. There was no traffic,” attorney Sam Meziani wrote in the lawsuit. “On top of this, officers lined up multiple vehicles behind the march to prevent any cars from approaching the marchers. As a result, there was zero traffic around the protestors.”

The lawsuit alleges that Police Chief Robby Russo planned to interrupt the protest and make arrests, while city manager Tim Tingey and others approved of the plan.

Eight people were arrested that evening, with nine people ultimately charged, including Bruce and the brother and father of Zane James, the 19-year-old whose 2018 police killing participants came to protest.

Five officers were injured that day, according to a report from the Utah Attorney General’s Office. The office investigated the protest and police response and found no officer wrongdoing.

Tingey, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said Wednesday that the city denies the allegations in the lawsuit. He declined to comment further.

Videos from that day show a chaotic scene after officers arrived and began arresting people in the roadway.

While footage shows that protesters did move to the sidewalk after police’s initial orders to leave the street, they returned to the roadway minutes later.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Protesters march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. The protest was a "March for Justice" focused largely around Zane James, fatally shot by police in Cottonwood Heights in 2018.

Officer Trey Brimhall can be heard in body camera footage telling a protester, “This is the last opportunity. Everybody in the street is getting arrested right now.”

“OK, we can disperse,” the protester said, raising his hand to point at the group rallying behind him. An officer dressed in a green jumpsuit, later identified as Chris McHugh, appears in frame and, without verbal warning, handcuffs the man speaking with Brimhall.

From there, footage shows the protest descended into mayhem with people screaming, running and fighting with officers, some of whom carried multiple zip ties in their hands to restrain people.

One officer lifted a young woman in the air and slammed her onto a lawn. The woman says “I can’t see” three times as officers detained her. Nearby, officers grabbed a man who splashed water on them. The man swung at officers as they seized him and forced him to the ground. McHugh can be seen striking the man with a baton after he’s taken to the ground.

In the lawsuit, Bruce alleges that officer Kelly Taylor shoved her and struck her throat. In her livestream footage, Bruce can be heard saying an officer hit her “hard” and pushed her to the ground so forcefully that “an accessory to my hair came out.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cottonwood Heights city councilwoman Tali Bruce talks about what happened during a protest Sunday during a news conference on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.

The lawsuit argues that police violated protesters’ civil rights by removing them from the street, which Meziani contends is an established “public forum” based on the Utah Constitution. It mentions this group of protesters had marched in Salt Lake City previously and officers didn’t interfere.

Meziani also represented Zane James’ parents in their recent wrongful death lawsuit against the city and police. The family received a $4 million settlement last month. The lawsuit alleged former Cottonwood Heights officer Casey Davies shouldn’t have run over and shot their son, a suspect in an armed robbery earlier that morning, in May 2018.

Meziani didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The shooting marked the first time Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has re-opened an investigation into a police officer after initially clearing him or her of wrongdoing.

His review found that Davies wasn’t justified in running over James prior to shooting him, but Gill declined to file criminal charges.

The civil rights lawsuit filed the week is the latest in a series of legal actions between Bruce and the city. Police Chief Russo sued Bruce in May 2020, alleging she was part of a scheme to get him fired. Bruce countersued, saying Russo “began a campaign of harassment and intimidation” in spring 2018.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported at the time that Russo and Bruce have been feuding since she took office after she asked about a cost-analysis to determine if contracting with Unified Police Department would save money.

Russo was issued settlement in his suit, while court records indicate Bruce’s counterclaims are still being litigated.

Bruce also testified in the James wrongful death lawsuit that she’d seen video of Davies shooting James, despite the police department saying Davies wasn’t wearing a body camera during the confrontation. The city has denied that video of the shooting exists and has indicated that Bruce was conflating that shooting with another from 2017.

As of Thursday evening, no formal response to the civil rights complaint had been filed.