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Review backs police handling of violent Cottonwood Heights protest; critics say it 'cherry-picks facts'

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Investigators combed through more than 40 hours of video and 500 pages of police reports, listened to distraught 911 calls and questioned one officer and witness after the next.

They arrived at one main conclusion: law enforcers in a sleepy Utah suburb were simply doing their job last summer when they arrived at protest against police brutality and commanded demonstrators to clear out of the road, leading to confrontations that ended in violent, sometimes bloody clashes.

"Use of force never looks good, even in the most clearly justified circumstances," Utah special agent Matthew Thompson told Cottonwood Heights city leaders in a presentation via videoconference Tuesday. "This case is no exception."

A new report from Thompson and his colleagues in the Utah Attorney General's Office overwhelmingly backs how officers handled the Aug. 2 demonstration. They found police did not use excessive force, a conclusion that drew swift criticism from demonstrators who said it didn't reflect what they experienced that day.

Demonstrators had set out marching in memory of 19-year-old Zane James — who died after police shot him twice in the back near his family's home — during a summer of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The city requested the probe amid heightened scrutiny and calls for police reform following the chaos that erupted in the Mill Hollow neighborhood.

Activist Darlene McDonald, who marched in the protest, described the findings as "absolutely infuriating."

"It wasn't like they were leading us and just watching us and seeing what we were doing. They kettled us," McDonald said of police, describing how patrol cars blocked the street ahead of and behind the group, causing those marching to run out of space and fan into the street.

"It was provoked, it was a setup and that report did not reflect what actually happened. You had to go into the street because you were stopped, you couldn't move," McDonald said.

Thompson's account was starkly different. He said police were reasonable and acted appropriately, attempting to negotiate with those who resisted their commands and announcing they would arrest anyone in the street long before they used batons, stun guns and pepper spray.

During the demonstration, the group of about 100 protesters were approaching the yard where James was shot when homeowners in the upscale neighborhood telephoned police with concerns. The city called in several agencies for backup and officers cordoned off the road with patrol cars, directing the group onto the sidewalks instead.

The review concluded that allegations of police needlessly slammed people to the ground were unfounded and claims that officers beat those they had already restrained are untrue.

The James family called the report "one-sided and incomplete," saying it "cherry-picked facts favorable to the officers, and ignored a mountain of evidence that shows officers' actions were violent and violated the Constitution.

"Even more frustrating was the Attorney General's lack of genuine compassion for the purpose of the protest and the content of the speech: the tragic death of Zane James at the hand of a Cottonwood Heights officer," the family said in a statement.

James' brother, Gabriel Pecoraro, and father, Aaron James, were among several people arrested in a series of struggles with officers that left both police and protesters with bloodied faces and broken bones. The father and son now face criminal charges stemming from the confrontations.

Their family sued the city last week, alleging officers shut down the protest and singled the men out because of their criticism of the police department. The Jameses previously sued Cottonwood Heights over their son's death, alleging excessive force in a case that remains pending.

"Ultimately, we have the facts and the law on our side and we look forward to presenting our full case to an impartial federal court and jury," they said Tuesday.

Thompson said it was reasonable for officers to try to find a way to clear the way for traffic and still allow the protest to continue on sidewalks.

He focused largely on aggressions by what he said were a handful of protesters who seemed "determined to argue with officers rather than compromise." He touched briefly on some officers' violations of police department policy like failing to document an instance of physical force and giving a false name to a citizen.

Thompson also listed steps police could have taken to better plan for the event, including getting in touch with organizers ahead of time and coordinating more closely with other law enforcement agencies before the moment help is needed.

Mayor Mike Peterson said the city's focus needs to be "moving forward in a way that promotes healing and respect for all individuals in our community."

But the Tuesday meeting adjourned without debate or public comment, and any council discussion that touches on the litigation will be closed to the public because the city's being sued over the protest, Peterson said.

In an overview of the protest, Thompson showed video clips of some demonstrators yelling expletives at police. He reviewed a range of behaviors from the group, including that two protesters were carrying guns, an anti-police rap song played over speakers, and one demonstrator there was arrested at a previous protest, albeit for nonviolent offenses.

Heather White, an attorney representing the city, said its leaders are happy the review affirms what they've believed all along. She said the policy violations were minor and not tied to First Amendment rights, excessive force or unlawful arrest.

"All of those conclusions were favorable for the officers," White said.

White said she didn't know if any of the officers who violated policy — unnamed in the presentation — were disciplined. She noted the city hasn't had time to adopt the report's recommendations yet.

The last year has proved to be a learning experience for law enforcers that's helping them improve so they can protect protesters' rights but take action if it's needed, White said.

Policing is a difficult job that requires split-second decisions, she added, stressing that it's important not to rush to judgment based on limited evidence.

No officer has been criminally charged in connection with the demonstration.

Councilwoman Tali Bruce, among those facing a criminal charge stemming from the protest, has said an officer at the protest struck her in the neck, an allegation Thompson called "patently false."

Additionally, the review found that Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo acted appropriately at the protest and offered support to officers. He and Bruce have traded allegations of defamation and bullying in an ongoing legal battle.

Thompson said the police response that day was needed, referring to city ordinances and state law limiting pedestrian use of roads. For McDonald, it brought to mind Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" that states "an unjust law is no law at all."

She said one of the men arrested for assaulting an officer was doing so to put a stop to a law enforcer's chokehold on Aaron James.

"Someone had asked me afterward: 'Why were we there? Why do we care about a white boy, Zane James? And I said to them, 'Because black lives matter. And because when black lives matter, all lives matter,'" McDonald said. "You have to care about everybody."

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