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Utah district attorney says police justified in killing armed, fleeing man

SALT LAKE CITY — Two police officers in Utah were cleared Thursday in the death of an armed man shot at more than 30 times as he ran from police, a decision that prompted his grieving family to heighten their calls for systematic changes to law enforcement.

The killing of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, 22, has become a rallying point for protesters in the state amid a national wave of dissent against police brutality.

District Attorney Sim Gill said Palacios-Carbajal was struck 13 to 15 times as he ran away from Salt Lake City police officers who were investigating a gun-threat call and had yelled for him to drop a gun.

Two officers, Neil Iversen and Kevin Fortuna, fired their weapons at Palacios-Carbajal when they confirmed he had a gun in his possession, Gill said. The weapon could be seen on top of Palacios-Carbajal’s body after the shooting, according to body camera footage Gill presented Thursday.

Gill offered condolences to the family shortly before he announced the determination that the shooting was justified.

Gill, a Democrat, said police saw Palacios-Carbajal had a gun, and officers are generally considered legally justified in using deadly force if they reasonably believe their lives or the lives of others are in danger.

“We decline to file criminal charges against either officer for his use of deadly force,” Gill said.

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Members of Palacios-Carbajal’s family expressed pain and frustration with the district attorney’s decision. The family’s attorneys said Gill had chosen to perpetuate a “system of oppression” by not bringing charges against the officers.

“As a family, we will not stop in our pursuit of justice for Bernardo through all means that are available to us,” attorney Nathan S. Morris read from a statement prepared on behalf of the family, who called for peaceful protest.

Protesters rallied Thursday evening and some clashed with police. Authorities declared an unlawful assembly after windows were smashed at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said on Twitter. An officer was injured and two people were arrested, according to police. The governor declared a state of emergency to close the Capitol building and grounds until July 13, The Deseret News reported.

Attorney Brian Webber said the officers had every opportunity to use non-lethal force, and “there was no reason to fire shot No. 1, let alone shot No. 34.”

Lucy Carbajal, Palacios-Carbajal’s mother, sobbed as she described in Spanish the pain her family has felt following her son’s death. His brother, Freddie Palacios-Carbajal, said that hearing Gill’s decision made him feel sick.

“I feel like they just get a pat on the back for what they did, and I don’t agree with any of it,” he said.

Demonstrators have chanted Palacios-Carbajal’s name, posted fliers calling for justice and painted the street outside Gill’s office red to symbolize blood. Mayor Erin Mendenhall previously called video of the shooting “disturbing and upsetting,” though the Democrat said Thursday the full evidence showed the officers followed their training and state law.

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Still, she acknowledged the calls for reform: “I know that for some, today’s decision does not feel like justice.”

Democratic lawmakers who belong to racial and ethnic minorities, meanwhile, encouraged protesters to channel their frustration into pushing for changes at the capitol, saying current state law makes it “highly unlikely that police officer-involved shootings are ever criminally prosecuted.”

Palacios-Carbajal died shortly after midnight on May 23, after someone called police to report an apparent armed robbery, Gill said. Officers saw Palacios-Carbajal near the Utah Village Motel and chased him, yelling for him to stop and drop the weapon, Gill said.

Video footage shows Palacios-Carbajal trip and fall several times before getting up and continuing to run, picking up what officers identified as a gun from the ground before two officers begin shooting, Gill said.
“The desire to retrieve the gun was greater than the desire to run away,” he said.

The family’s attorneys said Gill was speculating about the reason for Palacios-Carbajal’s actions.

Iversen and Fortuna were put on administrative leave, standard practice for a police shooting. Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said in a statement he trusts the review process and his officers. “They are asked to do an impossible job, and often receive little thanks for it,” he said.