Prosecutors find SLCPD shooting of unarmed, autistic child ‘unreasonable,’ but won’t file charges

The decision is based on, in part, conflicted reviews by use-of-force experts.

(Salt Lake City Police Department) A screenshot from body camera footage shows the interaction between police and Linden Cameron, a 13-year-old boy with autism, on Sept. 4, 2020. Cameron was shot multiple times after police were called to help with what officials have called a “violent psych issue.”

Prosecutors will not criminally charge the Salt Lake City police officer who shot and injured Linden Cameron, then 13, in 2020 after the boy’s mother called police seeking help for her son’s mental health crisis, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Friday, nearly three years after the shooting.

While Gill declined to file charges, he called officer Matthew Farillas’ decision to shoot the unarmed, autistic child “unreasonable given the facts of this incident,” according to a letter he sent to Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown on Friday outlining prosecutors’ findings. Farillas fired 11 shots at Linden, who was hit six times and seriously injured.

“We cannot say that the shooting of an unarmed 13-year old child suffering a mental health crisis — who never presented even a facsimile of a weapon or an object which could have been mistaken for a weapon, and who did not act in a manner in which a fair inference would suggest a weapon — was reasonable,” Gill wrote in the letter released Friday.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill holds a news conference in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, announcing no charges in the September 2020 police shooting of 13-year-old Linden Cameron.

In addition to prosecutors’ internal legal analysis, Gill’s office sought two use-of-force experts to review the case. He decided against filing charges, in-part, because their analyses conflicted each other.

One expert, retired Colorado police Sgt. Natasha Powers, found Farillas’ use of force unreasonable, while the other, Connecticut-based attorney and former police officer Eric P. Daigle, found it reasonable.

“In short, we find the use of force neither necessary nor reasonable, and therefore unjustified,” Gill wrote in his findings letter. “However, given the inherent conflict of experts which would introduce doubt, we believe we are not likely to meet our burden of proof.”

Linden’s family issued a statement through their attorney Friday afternoon, saying they “grieve” Gill’s decision “not to prosecute the clearly unjustified shooting by Officer Matthew Farillas.”

“We are concerned,” the statement continued, “that the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute Officer Matthew Farillas will merely galvanize an already ingrained belief that certain citizens are not deserving of due process, fairness and common decency.”

In a statement Friday, Salt Lake City police spokesperson Brent Weisberg said the department is reviewing the district attorney’s findings.

“While the civil and criminal cases associated to this investigation have resolved, the department’s internal review remains ongoing,” Weisberg said in an emailed statement, calling the shooting a “tragic incident.”

The police shooting

Linden’s mother called 911 on Sept. 4, 2020, and requested a “crisis intervention team” officer to help her son, according to the findings letter. Such officers receive specialized training on how to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The boy had been struggling because he wasn’t taking his medication and had experienced recent trauma, the letter states, including that his grandfather was killed by police in Nevada earlier that year.

About two weeks before Linden himself was shot, police had responded to a report that he had taken his mother’s truck and was driving recklessly with his brother in the truck bed. Linden had an airsoft gun with him and threatened to get into a shootout with police, the letter states.

On the day of the police shooting, the initial dispatch report shared over police radio advised of a “possibly violent psych problem” for a “14-year-old who has mental health issues,” “an aggressive history with police,” and “needs help calming him down.”

Linden, who was 13 at the time, would be 14 the next month.

As police walked up to scene, audio captured by body cameras showed that officers questioned why they were responding. One asked why they were doing an “approach” into Linden’s home for a “psych problem.”

“We could call sergeant,” the officer said, “and tell him the situation. Because I’m not about to get in a shooting because he’s upset.”

“Yeah,” replied Farillas, “especially when he hates cops, it’s going to end in a shooting.”

Farillas and two other officers — identified only by their last names, Goodsell and Hendrix — were first to arrive at the scene, near 500 S. Navajo St., where they found Linden’s mom, Golda Barton, in her vehicle that was parked down the street. She told officers that Linden was triggered by police, “reacts to the outfits and everything like that,” according to the letter.

“He sees the badge and he automatically thinks, like, you’re going to kill him,” she said, “or he has to defend himself in some way.”

Linden had previously been in treatment in Nevada but Barton said she took him out, adding that he was “freaking out” that day because she was at work and didn’t answer her phone when he called. She told police that he may have a BB or pellet gun, but didn’t think it was a real gun, and said that his brother and two renters were inside the house.

The three officers met with each other and decided to approach the home. They also requested another officer to come, and later a fifth officer was sent to the scene.

While Goodsell and Hendrix went to the front door, Farillas stationed himself behind a car in the driveway. The pair knocked and shortly after, Farillas saw someone run out a backdoor through the backyard.

Farillas chased Linden, who jumped a back fence. Backup officers — identified only by the last names Bennett and Ziebarth — arrived at about that time and saw Linden running in an alley toward them. Bennett ordered Linden to “Stop!” and “Get on the ground!”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill holds a news conference in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, announcing no charges in the September 2020 police shooting of 13-year-old Linden Cameron, though prosecutors found the shooting "unreasonable."

Linden then turned around and ran back toward his house, past his backyard, where Farillas and another officer were in the process of breaking through the wooden back fence. Bennett and Ziebarth chased him, followed by Farillas, Goodsell and Hendrix.

Farillas passed Bennett and Ziebarth, becoming the lead officer in the pursuit, telling his colleagues that Linden “might have a gun.”

He soon caught up with Linden and yelled at him to “Get on the ground!”

Linden said, “No,” and tried to walk away, the body camera footage shows. Two other officers arrived, both yelling commands to either “pull your hands out” or “get on the ground.”

Then, Farillas said he saw Linden’s hand move toward his waistband, and he fired.

“I’m thinking he has a gun. He’s going to try to kill me or kill someone else, and that’s when I made the decision to fire,” Farillas later told prosecutors. “I didn’t feel like there was an opportunity to use a [Taser] just because of the gap. I was maybe 10 to 15 yards away from him. So when I saw him go for his waistband, I shot.”

Farillas said he never saw that Linden had a weapon.

About one minute and 46 seconds passed between the time officers first knocked on the front door at Linden’s house and when Farillas shot Linden, according to Gill’s letter. This police shooting marked the 20th of 30 in Utah that year, according to a database maintained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

A historic settlement

(via GoFundMe) Linden Cameron, who was shot by Salt Lake City police on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, receiving medical care after the police shooting, which left him seriously injured.

Months after Linden was shot, his parents filed an excessive force lawsuit against Salt Lake City police. The city settled the case in September by agreeing to pay out $3 million — the largest amount the city has ever agreed to pay in such a case.

Linden’s family at the time said Gill’s determination in the shooting was “long overdue” and called the settlement a “crucial step towards increasing awareness for those with mental health challenges,” according to a statement provided by their attorneys.

“SLC and SLCPD continue to deny liability for the shooting. ... However, their actions following the shooting demonstrate that they understood the wrong that had occurred despite legal arguments that could be advanced,” according to the statement.

The family on Friday called Gill’s decision “a significant backward step” in their “ongoing healing process,” and said that it represents a “miscarriage of justice and contributes to the steady erosion of trust by the public due to the many documented instances of police violence and brutality (both in Utah and throughout the Nation).”

They added in the statement that the ruling also “invites confusion” and “encourages” Salt Lake City police to deny allegations made against officers “regardless of the severity of the officer’s wrongdoing because of Mr. Gill’s unwillingness to prosecute.”

They asked media and others to investigate Gill’s “lack of prosecutions and to hold him accountable.”

Gill’s office has reviewed more police shootings than any other in the state. He has filed charges against officers involved in such shootings three times, drawing harsh criticism from those in law enforcement. He dropped charges in two cases, and a judge dismissed the third after a preliminary hearing.

During the Friday news conference, Gill said that Utah’s use-of-force law “makes it almost near impossible for us to prosecute, to meet our burden of proof.”

Additionally, lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 that Gill said adds “another hurdle” to prosecuting police shootings.

The law allows those accused of a crime to ask for a court hearing if they believe they acted in self-defense. For the case to continue, prosecutors must prove the accused was not acting in self-defense with “clear and convincing” evidence. (Those accused of attacking police officers are barred from requesting such a hearing.)

Gill on Friday said his office has proposed several reforms that would change the law to allow prosecutions in such cases.

Some suggestions, he said, include restricting officers from using the defense of justification when their own negligence led to a shooting, or when they made a “mistake of fact,” such as believing someone was armed when there was no evidence to suggest that.

A month after the 2020 shooting, Salt Lake City announced a partnership with KultureCity, an organization that trains first responders to handle interactions with people with sensory needs, such as Linden. All local first responders now receive this training.

In his statement Friday, Weisberg, with SLCPD, said the department has “invested in and has provided more resources for officers when they respond to people who are living with a mental health illness or are in crisis.”

“Additionally, the Salt Lake City Police Department continues to diversify its public safety response to include partnering with nationwide organizations that train officers on engaging with people living with sensory needs, mobile crisis outreach teams, utilizing the Salt Lake City Fire Department’s Community Health Access Team (CHAT), and the Salt Lake City Police Department’s social workers and the department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT),” Weisberg said.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of Utah police shootings between 2010 and 2020 showed more than 40% of cases involve someone in a mental health crisis — and experts said the true figure is likely higher.