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Utah family sues, saying police targeted them for speaking out in protest that erupted into violence

Tiffany and Aaron James hug near a mural of the their son, Zane James, on a building at 300 West and 900 South in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. James was shot and killed by a Cottonwood Heights police officer in May 2018.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Zane James' family felt almost entirely alone after his death in 2018.

Few others had the same experience of losing a child to a police shooting, and their push for reform in their own city, Cottonwood Heights, seemed to be going nowhere, his mother Tiffany James recalled.

That shifted last year after the murder of George Floyd spurred national outcry and widespread demonstrations. With new momentum, the James family organized a march calling for justice and honoring their son's life over the weekend of what would have been his 22nd birthday.

The group of about 100 set out walking and dancing in their neighborhood on Aug. 2, but didn't get far. Patrol cars arrived and blocked the street in a scene that rapidly turned violent, with officers using batons, Tasers and chokeholds on Zane James' father, Aaron James, and brother Gabriel Pecoraro.

Now the James family alleges the city shut down their demonstration and used excessive force after singling out the two men in retaliation for their yearslong criticism of the police department.

They are suing Cottonwood Heights, its police chief, city manager and several officers in Salt Lake City's federal court. The suit filed Wednesday alleges violations of their right to free speech and the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause, and they are seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

The violence that day added to the emotional toll after the death of their son who was shot twice by a Cottonwood Heights police officer, said Aaron James.

"It's insult to injury. They successfully stripped everything I was trying to do out of my hands," he said Wednesday, emphasizing the family sought to bring about positive change after his son's death. "We've never been anti-police ... but when something like that happens to your family, you start looking at life through a different lens."

He and Tiffany James sued the city in 2019 over their son's death in a different federal case that remains pending.

They recall Zane James as a goofball who loved to dance and planned to play hockey professionally, but had to give up the sport he loved after a severe concussion, a spiral into depression and addiction to pills. After he picked up a drug possession charge, officers harassed him for more than two years before his death, they allege.

He'd gotten treatment, but had relapsed shortly before his death, the parents said.

In August, officers directed the demonstrators out of the street and onto sidewalks, citing traffic concerns, but the family says there was no traffic on the sleepy Sunday afternoon. They believe it was an excuse to stop the march.

The family contends Police Chief Robby Russo developed a plan to arrest those in the street and City Manager Tim Tingey approved it.

"On Aug. 2, their hope for change was brutally crushed by small-minded policymakers and officers who decided that peaceful dissent should be smashed to erase the words of a grieving family," their attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

Russo and Lt. Dan Bartlett told officers to arrest any protester in the roadway, the lawsuit says, but they took no action against pro-police counter-protesters in the street, including a man who threatened to burn down the James' home.

Russo did not return a message seeking comment. Heather White, an attorney representing the city, declined to comment except to note that the Utah Attorney General's Office is preparing a review of how police handled that protest.

"The city sent this for an independent review to ensure that there was unbiased investigation about what happened," White said, "so that there is transparency and trust with the public, which is of the utmost importance to the city."

The family says Pecoraro was in the street near a sidewalk when officer Jamie Croft grabbed him from behind by the head and neck, forcing Pecoraro's head onto the pavement after the two fell.

The officer ultimately let him go as Aaron James and others yelled in protest. But a frustrated Croft then "hatched a plan to assault Gabe again," the suit alleges, grabbing him from behind again while another officer, Chris McCugh, distracted Pecoraro and then struck him with a wooden baton.

Other officers tackled him to the pavement, causing a concussion, then placed him in a chokehold and punched him in the head as Russo supervised and gave direction, the family claims. Yet another officer used a stun gun between Pecoraro's legs and on his side while others were restraining him.

He sustained a broken nose and damage to his esophagus as well as scrapes and burns from the Taser.

When his father knelt down next to comfort him, Russo applied a chokehold to Aaron James, according to the lawsuit, and he was shoved to the ground while he was handcuffed.

Both men now face criminal charges tied to their interactions with officers at the protest.

The family alleges Russo placed a handcuffed Pecoraro in Russo's unmarked SUV and drove him around for about 30 minutes, blaming him for his brother's death and telling Pecoraro his family was "trash."

"Their physical wounds will heal," said their attorney, Sam Meziani. "But the trauma of trying to speak out ... to express their concerns on a really, really important issue, and then it's just snuffed out, that's what makes it so damaging."

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