Q&A: Exploring the fatal shooting of Dillon Taylor

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill ruled this week that the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Dillon Taylor on Aug. 11 by a Salt Lake City police officer was justified. Here are several questions the decision has raised.

Q: Why was the shooting ruled justified even though Taylor had no gun?

A: Utah's use-of-force law says police are "justified in using deadly force when ... the officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person."

That law puts the focus on the officer's beliefs at the time of the shooting, rather than the objective facts that come to light after the fact, Gill said this week. Gill said Officer Bron Cruz reasonably believed Taylor had a gun because a 911 caller reported that a group of three men near 2100 South State had flashed a gun, and the caller's description of their clothing and appearance closely matched that of Taylor, his brother and his cousin, who were crossing State Street when Cruz arrived.

When officers approached, Taylor walked away and put his hands in his pants, not following Cruz's commands to show his hands. As he turned to face Cruz, Taylor continued manipulating his hands under his pants and can be heard on the video saying something to Cruz, which investigators believe was "Nah, fool." He then pulled up his shirt with one hand and moved his other hand in what police call a "drawing" motion, as if to raise a gun, Gill said.

But Kelly Fowler, attorney for Taylor's family, said police perception of a threat is tainted by a "mind-set" that views the public with suspicion and hostility.

"Instead of 'protect and serve,' " Fowler said, "now it's more 'manage and control.'"

That attitude led to a hasty decision, she said.

"Had the other officer waited another fraction of a moment, he would have realized what he thought was going to be there — before he ever even saw this kid — was not there. They didn't have a gun at all."

Q: How did Officer Cruz's body camera help the investigation? What were its advantages and limitations?

A: The footage confirmed officers' statements about what happened and allowed investigators to view, frame by frame, the sequence of actions leading up to the shooting, Gill said. It also likely will be a learning tool for many trainees, said Terry Fritz, deputy chief over investigations for Salt Lake City police.

However, the footage isn't comprehensive. The camera was not on when the three were "creating a ruckus," as Gill wrote, toward a stopped motorist — who was actually their friend, Fowler said. The footage shows only Cruz's perspective of the shooting because another officer could not activate his camera.

Most significantly, Cruz's gun was raised when Taylor lifted his shirt, and it blocks the view of Taylor's right hand, which Cruz said made the "drawing" motion that prompted him to fire on Taylor.

Q: Things started with a 911 caller reporting that someone in Taylor's group was "flashing" a gun. Who made that 911 call? What did the caller say happened, exactly?

A: The caller did not identify herself and declined to give a phone number when dispatchers requested it, but investigators later located her, said Gary Keller, spokesman for South Salt Lake police, who investigated the shooting because it occurred just south of the boundary with Salt Lake City.

The caller said "some gangbangers" were walking on 200 East near 2100 South, and one of them had a gun. She said the man "flashed" the gun as he walked by. According to a transcript of the call, the dispatcher tried to clarify.

Dispatcher: Did he threaten you or anything like that, or did he just flash it?

Caller: Yeah, I just seen a gun as he walked by.

Dispatcher: OK, but again, did he make threats at you, did he threaten to shoot you or ...

Caller: No, he did not threaten me in any way. I just saw it as he was walking by.

The caller later said: "They're obviously looking, looking for trouble, just the way they look."

The dispatcher asked where the gun was carried.

"Uhh, waistband?" the caller said, then after conferring with another person: "He, he pulled it out of his pocket." The caller said no one was in danger, but said, "I just thought I had to report this. It looked suspicious."

After the shooting, investigators asked the caller for more detail about what she saw. She said the suspects were acting suspiciously, with one reaching into his pants like he was trying to pull out a gun. "That's where she got the idea they were armed," Keller said.

Q: Is it illegal to walk in public with a gun on display if it's being used or carried lawfully? If not, why did police respond to the call in the first place?

A: "It's not [illegal]," Fritz said. "However, we as a police force have a duty to investigate. ... If the results were this person was stopped and detained and said, 'Yes, I'm a concealed-permit holder and, yes, I have a gun,' that would have [ended] the whole contact."

If officers see nothing suspicious, Fritz said, the investigation might end there.

"You get a call of a man with a gun walking down the street [and find], yeah, you do have guy walking down street with a pistol on his waistband in a holster. We may not even stop and talk to him, based on that simple observation," Fritz said. "They're responsibly carrying that weapon and they're within their rights. But we do have a duty to investigate."

Q: The attorney for Taylor's family says the shooting was the result of profiling — that assumptions were made about Taylor and his companions because of how they look. Do police consider possible prejudice as they evaluate civilian reports?

A: "I cannot speculate on the people that call, whether there's discrimination involved, or profiling," Fritz said. "I don't know that. What they're calling on is what they see. We have a duty to investigate. Then we make the determination on whether or not it's worth investigating any further."

Fowler said the bigger question is whether officers, or dispatchers who relay the reports, latch onto or mentally elevate details that align with a pre-existing image of a menacing public, like "gangbangers," "suspicious," or "looking for trouble."

"Was the information given to them in a rational, reasonable way?" Fowler asked. "Was the cultre in which [the officer] has been trained supportive of a rational, reasonable action?"

Q: Why did Officer Cruz immediately handcuff Taylor after he was shot?

A: Officers are trained to cuff wounded subjects lest they revive and threaten officers, Fritz said.

Q: What first aid did officers give to Taylor? Did it follow protocol?

A: Cruz can be seen on the video applying a bandage to Taylor's abdominal wound. The bandage contains a clotting agent to lessen blood loss, Fritz said. Cruz later says he is "trying to control" Taylor's bleeding. When an officer offers more bandages, Cruz says, "I don't know where the other shot went." The footage does not show him searching for the second wound, which was on Taylor's chest.

Officers do not get much training or practice in first aid because medics arrive at most scenes before police do, Fritz said. The department's training unit may review the footage to find where first-aid policies and instruction could be improved.

Q: How often do police shoot people who have no weapon? Have there been other shootings in Utah where police were found to be justified in shooting an unarmed person?

A: Police in Utah have fired on 90 people since 2010, striking 73 and killing 43, according to compiled media reports and police records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. In six of 90 cases, including that of Taylor, the subjects were unarmed. The other five included three subjects who fought with and injured officers; Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was executed by firing squad in 2010; and a woman was shot and wounded this year in Taylorsville as she ran alongside her boyfriend, who was firing a gun at officers.

In three other cases, officers thought another object was a weapon. A Salt Lake City officer in 2013 shot and wounded a man who allegedly was lunging and holding a flashlight, thought to be a knife. Ogden police fired on a man in 2012, saying he pointed a soda can at them like a gun. In 2011, Salt Lake City police fatally shot a man suspected in a bank robbery and carjacking when he grabbed at something at his waist during a foot chase; the object, thought to be a gun because the carjacking victim reported the suspect was armed, actually was a wad of cash.

Prosecutors found eight of those nine shootings to be justified; one ruling has not been released.

Q: Under what circumstances have police shootings been found to be unjustified?

A: Five shootings in Utah since 2010 have been deemed unjustified, four by Gill and one by Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings. In all five, officers fired on subjects in vehicles, saying the motorist threatened to strike them. Prosecutors found those subjects posed no immediate threat when officers shot.

Q: Who is Officer Bron Cruz?

A: Cruz has been a patrol officer with the department for four years, Fritz said. Taylor is the only person Cruz has shot while on duty. Fritz did not immediately know of any history of sustained complaints against Cruz. He has been on paid leave since Taylor's shooting but may return now that Gill has deemed it was justified.

Q: Is any further investigation of Taylor's shooting underway?

A: Internal affairs officers for Salt Lake City police are reviewing the shooting for any policy violations. The training unit also will examine evidence for any indications that changes are needed in department policies or training, Fritz said. For example, it may recommend further training on body cameras since Cruz did not activate his until about 20 seconds after he got out of his cruiser, and another officer could not turn on his camera at all, Fritz said.

The Salt Lake City Police Civilian Review Board will work parallel to internal affairs, said board investigator Rick Rasmussen. He estimated the review will take about two more weeks.

Return to Story