Former Cottonwood Heights councilwoman sues city for handling of 2020 police protest

Police and protesters collide in the streets of Cottonwood Heights during a protest of the police killing of Zane James on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. Former Cottonwood Heights Councilwoman Tali Bruce has filed a lawsuit against the city, police chief and officers who she accuses of conspiring to shut down the protest.

Police and protesters collide in the streets of Cottonwood Heights during a protest of the police killing of Zane James on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. Former Cottonwood Heights Councilwoman Tali Bruce has filed a lawsuit against the city, police chief and officers who she accuses of conspiring to shut down the protest. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)


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COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Former Cottonwood Heights Councilwoman Tali Bruce has filed a lawsuit against the city, police chief and officers she accuses of conspiring to shut down a 2020 protest of the police killing of Zane James, during which she says she was pushed and struck by an officer.

The group of about 100 set out walking and dancing through the streets of 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 James' father, Aaron James, and brother Gabriel Pecoraro.

City leaders and Cottonwoods Heights Police Chief Robby Russo "were not going to let the James family, Ms. Bruce or other citizens protest the actions of their own officer in shooting Zane and they were not going to allow citizens the opportunity to assemble in the streets to protest police misconduct," according to the complaint filed by Bruce.

Russo and Lt. Dan Bartlett, who is also named in the lawsuit, "(disregarded) the fact the public street is a public forum, ignoring the protestors' rights" under the Utah Constitution, according to the complaint, and retaliated against the exercise of free speech when they ordered the protesters to exit the street.

Bruce seeks unspecified punitive damages to be decided at trial.

When contacted Friday, city spokeswoman Lindsay Wilcox said the city denies any wrongdoing but she declined to comment further.

Zane James, 19, died after being shot in the back after police say he had robbed two stores at gunpoint in 2018. It was later determined he had been carrying a realistic-looking pellet gun. Officer Casey Davies used his patrol car to knock James down as he was trying to speed away on his motorcycle, according to a report from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office on the police shooting. The shooting was determined to be legally justified, but but hitting James with the car was not.

Gabriel Pecoraro fights with police after police and marchers collided in the streets of Cottonwood Heights on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. The group was marching on 6710 South when police blocked them at Cristobal Street and a confrontation ensued. Police said eight or nine protesters were arrested.
Gabriel Pecoraro fights with police after police and marchers collided in the streets of Cottonwood Heights on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. The group was marching on 6710 South when police blocked them at Cristobal Street and a confrontation ensued. Police said eight or nine protesters were arrested. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Cottonwood Heights' insurance provider last month reached a $4 million settlement with James' parents in a lawsuit filed against the city. But Mayor Mike Weichers said in a statement that city leaders did not support the settlement made with the insurance provider.

Protest turns violent

A Facebook Live video posted by Bruce the day of the protest showed the group wearing masks and walking through the neighborhoods carrying "Black Lives Matter," "Justice for Bernardo" and other signs, chanting and playing music. The video later showed police tackling protesters and arresting them.

"This group has been to every other city in the valley without issue, but they come to Cottonwood Heights and we show up like it's a war zone," Bruce was heard saying in her video.

Minutes later, the video showed more confrontations between protesters and police, and officers making arrests. Bruce could be heard joining other protesters, asking police why they were deploying Tasers.

"Are you kidding me? … What is wrong with you?" the councilwoman said to one officer as she approached the front yard of a home where three people were being arrested. "You can't punch me in the throat. … I don't have to get back."

Bruce narrated in the video that she was hit in the throat by an officer "and then shoved aggressively to where I … almost fell."

Russo and Bartlett said they ordered the protesters out of the road due to traffic concerns, but attorneys say the "excuse, however, was pretextual and designed to suppress speech," emphasizing that there was "no traffic" at the time of the protest on a Sunday afternoon in the residential Mill Hollow neighborhood.

Attorneys called the order to walk on the sidewalk "surprising and disturbing to the protestors because one of their primary objectives was to gather in a group march, dance and communicate their views on police shootings and police misconduct."

Gabriel Pecoraro, center, is taken into custody by an unidentified officer, left, and  Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo after police and marchers collided in the streets of Cottonwood Heights on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. The group was marching on 6710 South when police blocked them at Cristobal Street and a confrontation ensued. Police said eight or nine protesters were arrested.
Gabriel Pecoraro, center, is taken into custody by an unidentified officer, left, and Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo after police and marchers collided in the streets of Cottonwood Heights on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. The group was marching on 6710 South when police blocked them at Cristobal Street and a confrontation ensued. Police said eight or nine protesters were arrested. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"The organizers had previous experience marching in Salt Lake City where the police officers did not interfere with marchers' rights to walk together in the streets," attorneys wrote.

Police in Cottonwood Heights have an "established custom and practice of not arresting those citizens that walk in the streets of Cottonwood Heights, and who are not protesting the actions of the police department," according to the lawsuit, and police allowed pro-police protesters to walk freely in the streets.

Bruce confronted Russo and Bartlett to ask why they were shutting down the protest and "why they were ordering their officers to take steps that were elevating violence," the complaint states. Attorneys allege Russo then threatened to arrest the councilwoman and "began aggressively walking toward her."

Later, as Bruce was recording the confrontation between protesters and police, attorneys say officer Kelly Taylor struck Bruce in the throat and shoved her. The lawsuit alleges the city took no corrective action against Taylor in connection with the incident.

The lawsuit says Cottonwood Heights "owed a duty of care" to the councilwoman to protect her from harm by its employees. She suffered injuries as a result of the city's "negligent hiring, supervision and/or retention of its employees," according to the suit.

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Ashley Imlay covers state politics and breaking news for KSL.com. A lifelong Utahn, Ashley has also worked as a reporter for the Deseret News and is a graduate of Dixie State University.

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