SALT LAKE CITY — The family of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal filed a lawsuit on Friday alleging that he didn’t pose a threat to Salt Lake police before they shot and killed him in May.
“Despite the family’s attempts to negotiate, it is apparent that the (Salt Lake City Police Department) and the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office is not interested in real reform,” Eisenberg, Cutt, Kendell and Olson, the law firm representing the family, said in a statement.
“It is further apparent that the recent proposed changes and statements made by public officials have simply been hollow words designed to placate a discouraged and frustrated public. With no other options at our disposal, we are exercising our constitutional rights to seek justice for Bernardo and to bring about reforms that prevent future abuses,” the attorneys said.
The family is seeking unspecified damages and attorney fees from the two officers who shot Palacios, the police department, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown and Salt Lake City.
City officials said in a statement that the city attorney’s office has received the complaint and is reviewing it.
In July, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill determined that officers Neil Iversen and Kevin Fortuna were legally justified when they shot and killed an armed Palacios, 22, on May 23. Because of that finding, no criminal charges were filed against the two officers in the high-profile case.
The shooting occurred about 2:10 a.m. when police responded to a report of someone making “threats with a weapon.” Gill said the victim reported that someone had pointed a gun to his head.
Officers arrived in the area of 271 W. 900 South. In body camera video released by police on June 5, officers spotted a man in the parking lot who immediately ran from them.
None of the officers identified themselves as police when approaching Palacios, the lawsuit alleges.
As he was being chased, Palacios tripped on a curb, slipped on wet pavement and twice dropped his gun, Gill said in July. But each time, he stopped to retrieve the weapon. At one point, one of the pursuing officers would hear the sound of the metal gun hitting the pavement, Gill said. But it wasn’t until the third time Palacios fell that both officers confirmed that the object he was holding was a gun.
“Tase him, tase him, tase him!” an officer is heard in body cam footage yelling three times. Instead, just moments later after Palacios gets up a third time, a barrage of gunshots is heard.
Iversen and Fortuna reasonably believed that they were in imminent risk of being shot or killed by Palacios, who more than once made concerted efforts to pick up a gun he dropped rather than run away, Gill noted in his report.
But Palacios’ family disagrees.
“At no time prior to the shooting did Mr. Palacios make any threatening gestures toward the police officers nor did he point a weapon at the officers,” the lawsuit states.
“In attempting to arrest and detain Mr. Palacios, who was fleeing and who did not present an immediate danger or threat to the officers or others, (officers) used force that was not reasonable under the circumstances, in violation of Mr. Palacios’ established constitutional rights,” the lawsuit alleges.
“At 2 a.m. on virtually empty streets, the (officers) knew or should have known that there was little to no risk of injury or harm to the general public.”
Although their sergeant had ordered the officers to “tase him” as they were standing 10 feet away from Palacios, according to the lawsuit, the officers began shooting him instead and continued shooting “as he laid on the ground.”
“Post-mortem reports show 25 gunshot wounds to Mr. Palacios, with a majority of those bullets demonstrating an ‘upward trajectory,’ suggesting that the bullets struck Mr. Palacios while he was on the ground,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges the officers violated Palacios’ constitutional rights by continuing to shoot him after he was subdued and “incapacitated.”
Gill concluded that Palacios’ “desire and the need to hold onto the gun was greater than the desire to flee” from police. “If he had left it, the officers said the imminence of that threat would have been abated for them and they would not have used that force. When they confirmed that gun is there, that is when the decision is made to fire.”
After Palacios had been shot and dropped to the ground, video shows Palacios roll from his stomach to his back and point his gun directly at officers, according to the district attorney. Officers then fired an additional six to eight shots each.
A total of 34 shots were fired by police, though Gill said Palacios had 13 to 15 wounds. An autopsy could not determine whether all of those were from individual shots or if some injuries were through-and-through.
The lawsuit says the police department, Brown and Salt Lake City “have a duty to train and instruct officers and employees regarding acceptable policing practices and procedures, including being aware of and apprising officers of updates, changes, or other requirements relating to the use of deadly force on a fleeing suspect.”
It says those named in the suit “failed to instruct and train its officers that suspects have a clearly established right to be free from lethal force once the suspect has been subdued or incapacitated.”
Attorneys pointed to comments of support by Brown toward his officers, alleging they “constitute an approval and ratification of the unlawful activities of the officers.”
“Chief Brown’s comments supporting the officers’ actions were subsequently contradicted” during a press conference in June when Mayor Erin Mendenhall stated, “What I saw in the video is genuinely disturbing and upsetting,” attorneys allege.
“Defendant Brown’s support for the shooting was also contradicted by City Councilwoman Amy Fowler who admitted that Mr. Palacios was ‘unlawfully killed and I am outraged,’” according to the suit.