The following story was written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Deseret News.
SALT LAKE CITY — Put yourself in the place of a police officer. You’re responding to a report of a person with a weapon, tensions are high, and as you move in to help you see your colleague fire a weapon, dropping the unidentified stranger to the ground.
Your mind races through what you just saw, and you prepare yourself to give a statement to the supervising officer who arrives at the scene. However, there’s no guarantee that your account will ultimately make it into the public safety statement your supervising officer prepares — that’s up to your colleague who just pulled the trigger.
In Salt Lake City, this is a privilege afforded to officers involved in the shooting of civilians.
In these “officer-involved critical incidents,” either police used deadly force to protect themselves or an innocent civilian — or a trigger was pulled by mistake or reckless judgment. With so much riding on what is often a snap decision, the Salt Lake City Police Department has long negotiated the option for its officers to withhold key information from the official record.
The department’s police manual recommends that when officers respond to a critical incident, the supervising officer take a “public safety statement.” This statement is supposed to be taken from officers who witnessed the shooting or other use of force, and if none are available, then the statement is to be taken from the officer who actually did the shooting.
The statement questions include asking about the number of rounds fired, the direction fired, location of outstanding suspects and location of evidence at the scene. Involved officers are not to be asked any other questions.
But the department manual also states: “It is not a requirement to record the public safety statement, and at the request of the involved officer, it will not be recorded.”
This perk allows an officer involved in a shooting to veto the recording of the most timely information about a shooting — even if that information is provided by a separate officer who witnessed the shooting but had no part in it. This information then is unavailable for investigators from other jurisdictions assigned to review what happened, and to the district attorney’s office as it determines whether the shooting was legally justified or not.
Police stress that investigators from other jurisdictions inevitably ask the same public safety questions to the officers, but the department’s policy still allows for the very first accounts to be withheld at the request of the involved officer.
For city officials grappling with reforming police policies in the midst of a national crisis over police violence, it raises a concerning question about transparency. For police, like Salt Lake detective Steve Winters, who is also the department’s union representative, the policy is vital to the safety of the public and protecting officers’ constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
“Just because we have a badge on our chest doesn’t mean we give away our constitutional privileges,” Winters says.
Others, like University of Utah law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman, worry this provision could hinder use-of-force investigations and that these types of union agreements are not benefiting the public at large.
“Police unions have nationally been recognized as one of the largest impediments to police reform nationwide,” Baughman says. “In order to reform police, we must examine the relationship between police unions and police departments to determine if unions are serving the public interest.”
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project filed records requests with the Salt Lake City Police Department seeking the public safety statements collected from four key officer-involved shootings dating back to 2014.
The records indicate the public safety statement is not actually a distinct document, but is in fact something only verbally recorded by a supervisory officer who then decides what to include in the official report, with information potentially withheld at the request of the involved officers.
The reports vary widely, with some supervisory officers providing detailed information about questions asked while others record only a sentence’s worth of information.
In August 2014, Dillon Taylor was shot outside a 7-Eleven store. The fact that he was unarmed drew national attention to the shooting, but the shooting was ruled legally justified in large part due to body camera footage of the officer who fired that seemed to show Taylor turning suddenly and reaching for his waistband as if to draw a weapon. Salt Lake police officer Bron Cruz fired two shots at Taylor, hitting him in the chest and stomach.
The report of the incident from the supervisory officer explains what public safety statement questions were asked.
“I verified with officer Cruz the public safety statement. I asked how many rounds were fired. Officer Cruz responded that two were fired. I asked what direction the rounds went and officer Cruz responded that both rounds struck the suspect. I asked if there was anyone outstanding and officer Cruz said that there wasn’t. At this point, I determined that there was no further danger to the public. I did not ask any further questions.”
Similar information was recorded in reports from the 2017 shooting of Patrick Harmon, shot by police after body camera footage appeared to show Harmon fleeing but then turning and brandishing a knife at officers.
Multiple public safety statements were involved in the 2018 shooting of Cody Belgard, shot by a total of five officers who thought he was brandishing a gun but was later found to be a cellphone.
This report notes that the supervisory officer took public safety statements from two of the officers, noting that “both of them told me the general direction of their shots and that there were no outstanding suspects.” The officer then took public safety statements from two more of the officers who had fired on Belgard and found “both had similar statements as the first two.”
When a fifth officer was identified as being involved in the shooting, the report made no mention of him being asked the public safety statement questions. Instead the report closed by noting that all of the involved officers were gathered in a single conference room where they remained together until the team investigating the shooting had concluded its work.
While public safety statement information is sometimes paragraphs long in these reports, the same information in the report for the shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was just 21 words long:
“I also conducted the public safety statement and I learned that the building in the No. 1 corner was damaged with bullets.”
Public safety vs. public transparency
Nathan Morris, an attorney representing the Palacios family, says it is not surprising the department is carefully selecting the information that gets out regarding the shooting.
“The report that was provided to the district attorney and the (outside) police departments investigating the shooting, they all have similar information and that’s because they are all being fed specific, targeted information,” Morris says.
That narrative, he says, does not fit with the claims of his clients that their son was no threat, and that when he absorbed the majority of the potentially dozens of shots fired at him it was while he was laying on the ground trying to raise his hands above his head in surrender, and not while brandishing a weapon as police claimed.
“It’s our position that clearly this is not some guy who is itching for a fight, he’s trying to get away from them,” he says.
The family’s claims differ from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office report. Though one of the officers in that report said it was “dark” and that Palacios was “some distance away” when he fell to the ground after being shot in the back, the findings pointed to Palacios having and apparently preparing to use a gun.
“He fell facing away from us, but as he rolled over toward us it appeared to me that he still had the gun in his right hand and brought the gun across his body pointing the gun toward us.”
But the district attorney’s report also notes that the same officer exercised restraint since he did not fire until he had confirmed Palacios had a gun, and that was only after the third time Palacios had dropped and retrieved it. The officer believed he kept dropping the gun because he might have been trying to ready the gun or unjam it to be able to fire it. In a follow-up interview, the officer also recalled Palacios wearing a loose jacket, the kind that prevents Taser prongs from connecting and being effective.
Morris, however, worries Salt Lake police officers inserted themselves too much into the investigation of their own officer’s shooting, like by assisting in the medical examiner’s investigation of Palacios’ body. It’s just as troubling, he says, that officers have such power over the information recorded — or not — in the public safety statement.
“It seems like a conflict, and it’s a problem if they are staying involved and able to control in any way what information is being held and what is disseminated,” Morris says.
For Winters, however, the public safety statement was never intended to be documentation meant to trip up officers but was always about protecting the public by providing a rapid assessment of a crime scene to make sure it’s safe and secure.
But he says that if officers suddenly need to worry about that information being thrown back at them by investigators or attorneys, then it is going to make them reluctant to share details without an attorney present. That would be the kind of delay that would endanger the public by slowing down officers’ ability to assess a situation they walk into.
He bristles at the idea of officers with itchy trigger fingers and bad intent.
“I know no officer who says, ‘I’m just waiting for the opportunity to kill,’” Winters says. “If you said that to me, trust me, I would have you in internal affairs tomorrow.”
As for the fact that involved officers can veto the public safety statements provided by other officers who witnessed the scene, Winters stresses that these incidents still get plenty of scrutiny, including review of body camera footage.
He also notes that the accounts of officers who are involved in or witness a use of force are prone to distortion because of the trauma of being in a dangerous confrontation.
“When you were just in a critical incident you forget things,” Winters says.
Salt Lake City is currently in a long-term discussion about reform. Councilman Chris Wharton says the rest of the council is making moves toward banning military weapons in the department and calling for an audit and a more critical budget process for the department. He’s also concerned about the public safety statement policy but wants to hear more.
“It’s not being transparent with the community,” Wharton says. “I have my concerns with it, but I’m not a police officer and I don’t know about the day-to-day policy, so I’d be interested to hear what the public safety rationale is for that.”
It’s also a point echoed by attorney Nicole Salazar-Hall, a member of the newly formed Racial Equity in Policing Commission that is studying department policies from top to bottom. She notes the commission has two retired police officers to help give context to the examination. She said she has transparency concerns about the policy as well.
“I think that it’s critically important that whenever there is an officer-involved critical incident that all information be recorded,” Salazar-Hall says. “In my experience, more information is better than less information.”
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