Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Friday announced he will not press criminal charges against the police officers who shot a popular Glendale rapper to death last year.
Authorities opened fire on Cody Belgard on Nov. 9 after seeing him raise what they thought was a gun. But they’d been wrong: Belgard, 30, had been unarmed, and the object he’d been gripping was probably the large, black cellphone that fell to the ground next to him, Gill said.
Still, after reviewing the evidence, Gill concluded the Salt Lake City police officers who encountered Belgard could claim legal justification for using deadly force.
“The question is not whether or not Mr. Belgard actually had a gun; the question is whether the officers perceived Mr. Belgard was a threat ... and whether the officers’ perception was reasonable and based on objective, demonstrable facts,” Gill wrote in a 22-page letter explaining his charging decision. “The officers’ perceptions [even though they were ultimately shown to be incorrect] were nevertheless based on objective, empirical facts and are not unreasonable given everything we know about the events.”
The letter, written to the Salt Lake City police chief and West Valley City police department (which handled the investigation), explains that prosecutors pieced together facts about the shooting from body camera footage, recorded police radio chatter, officer interviews and other eyewitness statements.
Several factors contributed to the officers’ belief that Belgard was armed and dangerous, Gill wrote. Police described Belgard’s movements as “furtive” and said he reached into his waistband as if he were preparing to pull out a gun. In three interviews, officers recalled Belgard pointing an object they believed was a firearm. And at one point in the encounter, Belgard rammed a car into a police SUV.
“That is why, under our state law, we believe that we cannot charge these officers and, in fact, they would be entitled to the affirmative defense of justification in this shooting,” Gill said during a Friday news conference where he presented his findings.
Meanwhile, outside Gill’s office, protesters gathered to call for the involved police officers — Detective William Chow and Officers Stephen Masters, Brian Sorensen, Ryan Sanders and Wilson Silva — to face repercussions for the shooting.
“No justice, no peace,” demonstrators chanted under the cold rain, while others lay on the wet grass as if dead, wrapped in sheets of blue plastic.
Marvin Oliveros, Belgard’s brother, said the trajectory of the two bullets that hit his younger brother’s back indicated that Belgard was bending over at the time. That suggests Belgard was trying to follow the officers’ order to lie on the ground, he said.
And Oliveros finds it disturbing that the sight of a cellphone would prompt five officers to open fire.
“We all carry cellphones,” Oliveros said. “If ... highly trained officers ... if they’re scared of a cellphone or can’t decipher a cellphone, there’s a problem.”
Oliveros said his family had pinned their hopes on the idea that Gill’s office would find his brother’s shooting unjustified.
“They murdered my son,” Belgard’s father, Mike Belgard, has said. “You don’t even have any idea what it feels like to see a person as good as Cody get shot down like a dog. Something’s gotta be done with these police. They can’t just go around shooting people.”
Gill said he sat down with Belgard’s family early Friday to convey his decision not to press charges. At the family’s request, he said, he’ll ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review the case and has agreed to open his files to the agency.
During Friday's news conference, Gill replayed the police body camera footage for reporters while explaining how he reached his findings.
The first recordings are from a Sugar House parking lot, where officers had located a Kia Spectra that was involved in prior police chases, according to Gill’s letter. Police had attached a GPS tracking device to the car and followed it that night to the shopping center, but the suspected driver from the previous pursuits wasn’t in the Kia. Instead, bodycam footage shows officers encountered Belgard and a woman who was sitting behind the wheel.
The woman followed police orders to get out of the car and lie the ground, but Belgard did not — he shifted into the driver’s seat and backed the car out of the parking space, hitting a police cruiser before speeding away, according to the video.
When asked by a detective, the woman said Belgard didn’t have a gun and was only pretending to be armed. But the detective later told investigators that he remained concerned Belgard could be carrying a weapon, Gill’s letter stated.
Gill says Belgard drove through Salt Lake City at speeds of up to 90 mph, and officers decided to break off the chase, knowing they could use the GPS tracker to pinpoint the car’s location.
Officers intercepted Belgard on Sir Philip Drive, the site of the shooting. There, they ordered Belgard to drop to the ground. The grainy video footage appears to show Belgard turning away from police, and Gill said the officers saw him reaching into his clothing and surmised that he was grabbing for a gun.
Officer Sanders said in an interview that Belgard pulled out an object and angled it in a way that was “similar to what you would see when a gang member holds a gun,” Gill’s letter stated. Some officers did not mention an object but only described seeing Belgard motion; Chow said Belgard extended his arm, and Sorenson said Belgard “aggressively gestured,” the letter said.
According to the bodycam footage, Silva yelled, “He has a gun!” At about the same time, Masters shouted, “He’s pointing, he’s pointing!”
Five police officers fired a total of nine shots at Belgard, who died later at a hospital.
Oliveros notes that only one officer yelled about a gun.
“That opened up the other officers firing and justified all of them. When not all of them saw a gun,” he said. “How is that just?”
The woman who was initially in the Kia later told investigators that Belgard warned her he would pretend to be armed if police stopped him. When she asked him why, he replied that “he didn’t want to go back to jail,” Gill’s letter stated.
Oliveros was skeptical about this account.
“Cody’s not stupid enough to think that him playing as if he had a gun would keep him from going to jail,” he said.
The day before the shooting, Mike Belgard said, he and his son chatted about police shootings.
“I said, ‘Cody, what I’ve seen, these police officers shooting people — it scares me.’ He says, ‘Dad, they won’t shoot me.’ He says, ‘I have minimum crimes.’ I said, ‘Cody, you know you got retail theft and stuff. You gotta be careful.’ He walks out of the house, and the next day he gets shot.”
Police in Utah fatally shot a record 19 people in 2018. In response, the Utah Attorney General’s Office has launched a study into the training and policies of local law enforcement agencies.