Salt Lake police shot 13-year-old boy with autism hours before new de-escalation policy took effect

(Photo courtesy of GoFundMe) Pictured is Linden Cameren, who was shot by Salt Lake City police on Friday, September 4, 2020.

Salt Lake City police shot a 13-year-old boy with autism who was running away during a “mental episode” last week — an encounter that came just hours before a new policy took effect requiring officers to try de-escalation first when responding to most cases.

The response from Salt Lake City police has since drawn national attention — and criticism — at a time when officers have been the subject of ongoing protests for their use of deadly force. The policy that the department drafted with the city to address those concerns was set to start Saturday, roughly two hours after the shooting took place Friday night.

The shooting has renewed fears, too, about how officers treat individuals with mental illness. And three Salt Lake City legislators said Wednesday that police should have attempted to use any other nonlethal force with the 13-year-old.

On Wednesday, Detective Michael Ruff confirmed the additional de-escalation policies did, in fact, take effect shortly after the boy was hit and seriously injured. “But I can’t say whether it would have changed anything or not,” he said, “if they’d already been in place.”

All officers at the department, he added, have had training on how to de-escalate a situation and use nonlethal responses for years. The new amendments, though, require that to be used first in most calls before police use any force or make an arrest.

The policy specifically states: “De-escalation tactics are no longer suggested or preferred — they are mandatory prior to using force to effect an arrest unless it would be unreasonable to do so.”

It adds, too, that officers need to try “effective communication” to get compliance from a suspect. And police should also not contribute to a situation “that could lead to use of force by taking unnecessary, overly aggressive action.”

The shooting occurred when officers were called to a home near 500 South and Navajo Street to help with what they’ve also called a “violent psych issue.” A mother reported that her young son allegedly “had made threats to some folks with a weapon,” the department has said. The boy took off on foot about 10 p.m., and police followed.

During the pursuit, one officer fired his gun and shot the boy several times.

It’s unclear what happened before that, but police have since said there’s “no indication” that a weapon was recovered from the boy at the scene. He has been identified by his family as Linden Cameron. According to a GoFundMe post, he was hit in his shoulder, both ankles, intestines and bladder. And he remains at the hospital in serious condition.

His mother, Golda Barton, responded only briefly Wednesday to say: “We’re just trying to be here for him.”

Ruff said because of the ongoing investigation he couldn’t say whether the Salt Lake officers had tried to de-escalate the situation with the boy before shooting. “But we’re all open to more training,” he suggested.

The policies were announced by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall in an executive order in early August as a way to respond to the continuing calls for police reform across the country. In Utah’s capital, protesters have largely focused on the shooting that resulted in the death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal on May 23. Officers shot at him dozens of times while he ran away, repeatedly dropping and retrieving what police said was a gun.

Prosecutors have found the deadly force justified, though residents have decried the situation as an example of excessive force and racism at the hands of police.

To address the concerns, Mendenhall asked that the new policies be implemented by the Salt Lake City department by Sept. 5. Ruff said a copy of the rules was emailed to officers on Saturday.

But lawmakers and some mental health groups questioned this week why the de-escalation practices weren’t in place prior to that — or why there wasn’t a better way of responding to a boy with autism when officers knew he was vulnerable before arriving on scene.

In a joint statement from Sen. Luz Escamilla and Reps. Angela Romero and Sandra Hollins, all Democrats and women of color, they say they’re “greatly concerned” that an officer fired first — before using a Taser, for instance.

“Sadly, the use of force in tense situations where a non-lethal, de-escalation approach would be more effective does significant damage to the relationship between law enforcement and the people they serve,” the lawmakers wrote.

They call for a swift investigation and a look at what policies are also in place for responding to those with mental health concerns.

“When people call the police, we expect professional and compassionate judgment, especially when a child with cognitive disabilities is involved,” they added. “We feel awful for Linden and his family.”

Two other organizations — Neurodiverse Utah, which promotes autism acceptance, and a nonprofit group called Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Utah — also both condemned the shooting.

“Police were called because help was needed, but they met the situation with force — even after they had been informed by the boy’s mother of the situation,” Neurodiverse’s team said in a statement. They added that the response was an example of widespread violence by officers against people with mental illness.

Barton, the boy’s mother, also said in an interview with KUTV that she called police to try to help her get her son to a hospital for help with his mental health. Now, she said, he’s there for surgery to remove bullets.

When the officers first arrived, she also recalled telling them that Cameron might flee out of fear. He did and the police ran after him. And that’s when she heard a series of bangs.

“I said, ‘Look, he’s unarmed, he doesn’t have anything,'" she told the TV station. “He just gets mad and he starts yelling and screaming. He’s a kid. He’s trying to get attention. He doesn’t know how to regulate.”

Then she, too, questioned the use of force. “He’s a small child,” she added. “Why don’t you just tackle him?”

Police have promised to provide more information within 10 business days when the body camera footage is released — as required by a Salt Lake City ordinance.

But in a brief statement issued late Tuesday, the department referred to the shooting as a “tragic situation” and noted that as per protocol, the incident would be investigated by a team of officers from outside agencies. “We are thankful no lives were lost in this incident,” the statement said.