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Police shooting that wounded Utah teen ruled justified

(Muslima Waladi)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Two Salt Lake police officers were legally justified when they shot a 17-year-old boy who was allegedly attacking a man on Rio Grande Street near the homeless shelter in February, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office announced Monday.

Abdi Mohamed, who turned 18 in April, was charged last week in juvenile court with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, and drug possession with intent to distribute, a second-degree felony. On Monday, prosecutors filed a petition to have Mohamed certified to stand trial as an adult.

The high-profile shooting immediately created controversy in Salt Lake City. More than 100 officers, many in riot gear, converged on the downtown area following the shooting when 25 to 35 people who believed Mohamed had done nothing wrong became hostile with police.

The controversy continued when Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to release the body camera video that was recorded by the officers that night, citing the ongoing investigation, despite numerous calls for its release from the boy's family, the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

Officers Kory Checketts and Jordan Winegar shot Mohamed four times on Feb. 27 after they saw him holding a 3-foot pole and he disobeyed their commands to drop it, Gill said. The officers believed the boy was about to use the metal broom handle to hit a man whom they already believed he had struck. Originally, the officers thought Mohamed may have been holding a sword.

The incident began when a man allegedly asked Mohamed and another man if he could purchase marijuana from them for $1.10, Gill said. Mohamed told the man he only had meth, but then demanded he give him his $1.10 anyway, according to Gill's report.

The man declined, and offered a metal broom handle he had just found instead, apparently hoping to exchange it for the drugs. Mohamed took the broom handle and "began hitting" the man with it. Mohamed and the man he was with — who also grabbed a metal pole — then chased the victim down the street, Gill said. That's when Checketts and Winegar saw what was happening.

The officers gave both men several commands to drop their weapons and used the strobe function on their flashlights to get their attention, according to Gill.

"Officer Checketts said the objects dragging on the ground made metallic sounds. Officer Checketts said he thought, 'Oh my gosh, they have swords,'" according to the district attorney report.

The man with Mohamed eventually complied and dropped his object, then ran off. Gill said Monday that there are no criminal charges pending against him.

Mohamed, however, continued to hold onto his broom handle. He continued to move toward the victim — who was stumbling backward with his hands in the air — despite officers' commands to stop, and then moved his arm "as though he were about to raise up the metallic object," causing the officers to fear he was about to hit the man again, Gill said.

In this case, the officers themselves did not feel they were in imminent danger. But the use of force was justified because the officers believed Mohamed "unlawfully placed (the man) at risk of death or serious bodily injury," according to the report.

The victim, when interviewed later by prosecutors, said "he believed the young man would have killed (him) 'very easily.'" He further stated that "he believed the officers saved his life and that the officers put themselves in jeopardy to protect him."

Gill said he not only consulted with prosecutors from his office, but also FBI agents and a use-of-force expert who all reached the same conclusion.

Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown issued a statement Monday thanking those involved in the shooting investigation.

"We would like to thank the community for their patience, understanding and trust in this process. We will continue to have open dialogue with our community members to further build upon our relationships. We understand that as these conversations occur that this is a journey, and not a destination. It is only through continuing to have these tough conversations and being open and transparent that we will be able to strengthen the trust within the communities we serve," he said.

Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski also released a prepared statement calling the shooting a "serious incident" that has been "justifiably scrutinized" by many.

"I reiterate my concern for the young man involved in the shooting, and his family, particularly his mother. I also want to express my appreciation and deep support for the members of the Salt Lake City Police Department who protect our city every day, including the night in question, and who are committed, like me, to building a city for everyone," she said.

Video of the incident recorded by the officers' body cameras became a central point of controversy during the investigation.

Several groups, including the ACLU, have been demanding the release of the video for months. Gill said Monday that the video helped corroborate other information gathered in his investigation, but he said he still won't be releasing it publicly now because it is considered evidence in the pending court case against the boy.

"Body camera footage has been the subject of great debate. And there is no consensus on how to treat this information. Where there is no established process with this new technology, we must look to existing practices for guidance," he said.

"Although it is the position of the Salt Lake D.A.'s Office that all evidence in an (officer involved critical incident) can and should be released to the public to ensure transparency and accountability for law enforcement, a key issue here is when and at what stage in the proceedings the release of that information is legally permissible and appropriate."

Gill called the investigation into the shooting one of the most unique in his career. For one, it involved a juvenile. And because that teenager is now the subject of a criminal investigation, Gill declined to mention the boy's name, even though it has been widely reported and he has given public statements since the shooting.

Despite the widespread publicity the case had received, notably for Gill's decision not to publicly release the video, Gill said he has to keep the integrity of his investigation and the process intact.

"As the Salt Lake County D.A., my job is to take the facts, apply them to the constructs of the law and reach a conclusion. If it's about taking sides, to half of the population I'll be a genius; to the other half of the population I'll be a cad. It's not about trying to make a popular decision. It's about committing yourself to the process that is objective, that is fair, that is accountable and call it like you see it," he said.

Gill noted it also took longer than average to reach a decision about this incident because his office was also investigating five other officer-involved shootings at the time.

According to Utah Juvenile Court records, Mohamed has had "15 delinquency offenses which were included in 12 episodes referred to juvenile court." Those offenses ranged from infractions to threatening to commit assault, a misdemeanor, multiple counts of felony theft, and aggravated assault using a weapon, a third-degree felony, when he was 12.

Contributing: Jed Boal


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