‘A disturbing shooting’: Salt Lake County district attorney says officer was justified in killing handcuffed man
Body camera footage shows Sgt. Tyler Longman at the West Valley City Police Department on Aug. 23, 2019. Longman shot and killed Michael Chad Breinholt after the handcuffed man reached for another officer’s gun. (Courtesy West Valley City Police)
He relied on a frame-by-frame analysis of body camera footage, the testimony of the officers involved and the advice of two expert witnesses.
With that, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the conclusion is clear: Sgt. Tyler Longman acted within the law when he shot and killed a handcuffed man at point-blank range inside the West Valley City police department nearly two years ago.
But the shooting of Michael Chad Breinholt bothers him. Gill thinks it could have been prevented and he called it “reprehensible” that Longman said “You’re about to die, my friend” before firing.
An exasperated district attorney tried to get two points across at a Thursday news conference. The first is that as the law is currently written, Longman’s shooting was justified. The second is that Gill thinks the law should be changed.
“I’ve done far too many of these things,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “We have to start learning from this. Do I think that, as a civilian, that this death could have been averted? Yeah. But the law is very clear.”
What happened — and why Sim Gill says it’s justified
Breinholt was arrested on Aug. 23, 2019, after he showed up intoxicated at his girlfriend’s workplace.
Body camera footage obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune shows Breinholt’s girlfriend and a co-worker told Officers Matt Lane and Taylor Atkin that he had taken a lot of pills and his breath smelled like alcohol.
“It seems like he just wants to commit suicide,” his girlfriend told police, later adding: “He just said that he took all those pills so he’ll die.”
The officers arrested Breinholt for DUI and they took him to the police department for a more accurate Breathalyzer test. Eventually Longman came to help the officers fill out an electronic warrant to do a blood draw.
The footage shows a situation that escalated quickly after Breinholt told officers he had a gun in his shoe. He didn’t and the officers didn’t take him seriously, but they attempted to take his shoe from him. When they did, Breinholt, with his hands cuffed behind his back, put his hand on Atkin’s gun. Two officers start wrestling with him, though the gun never leaves the holster.
Gill said when the body camera footage is slowed down, it’s clear that Longman rushed into the room, and hit Breinholt before drawing and firing his weapon. The district attorney said that Longman said, “You’re about to die, my friend” before he pulled his own gun.
Utah law says an officer can legally kill someone if they “reasonably believe” they must do so to prevent death or serious injury to an officer or someone else.
Gill wrote in his findings that Longman “was faced with a deadly force situation in which it appeared possible that, unless Mr. Breinholt was stopped, he would not stop grabbing Officer Atkin’s gun from his holster.”
It was reasonable then, he said, for Longman to believe that if he didn’t take action that Breinholt could have shot and killed an officer in that room.
Gill also relied on two law enforcement expert witnesses, who found that the struggle over the gun made Longman’s decision to shoot Breinholt “reasonable and necessary.”
What Longman told investigators
After Longman heard Atkin yell that Breinholt had his gun, the sergeant experienced tunnel vision, he said in an interview with the D.A.’s office.
He remembered focusing on Atkin’s hip and seeing hands on the gun. He saw what he described as a “jerking motion”.
“He’s fighting for an officer’s gun. If that gun comes out, Officer Atkin is going to get shot, I could be shot, I have to end it now. I have to stop the threat,” Longman said, according to the D.A. report. “At that point, it was a training based reactionary response.”
Longman said he didn’t recall drawing his gun or what he said exactly.
“I was in shock at that moment. I couldn’t believe that I had to do that,” he said. “And I just walked out. I didn’t even check on my guys. I was in complete shock.”
This was Longman’s third police shooting. He shot and killed a man in 2007 and another in 2008, and the district attorney found his actions to be legally justified in both cases also.
He’s one of 38 Utah officers who have been in more than one shooting in the past 17 years, according to the Tribune’s database, expanded with help from the PBS series FRONTLINE. He is among six West Valley City officers, both current and former, who have fired more than once.
Jeremy Jones, one of Longman’s attorneys, said they were happy with Gill’s decision — but wish it hadn’t taken so long to get to this day.
“Unfortunately when an individual chooses to put their hands on an officer’s firearm and try to draw that firearm, there just aren’t good options,” he said. “If an officer waits or allows the weapon to be drawn, odds are good that one of the officers isn’t going to go home.”
West Valley City police administrators said they were “pleased” with Gill’s ruling.
“This decision brings to a close a challenging chapter for all involved,” a statement reads. “We are grateful to our officers who diligently serve our community each day, and in the face of impossibly difficult decisions, consistently do their best.”
A lawsuit coming
Gill’s decision came as a shock to Breinholt’s relatives, who had hoped Longman would face criminal charges.
“I’m just devastated,” his mother, Susan Neese, said Thursday.
They feel there has been no accountability for Breinholt’s death. West Valley City police said Longman didn’t violate any policies and he went back to work two months after the shooting. Now, the district attorney gave him a pass.
“It’s been two years that we have waited and hoped to see some justice,” Breinholt’s brother, Chase, said. “So it’s shocking to feel like there won’t be accountability anymore.”
The family’s attorney, Colin King, said they will file a lawsuit before the two-year anniversary of Breinholt’s death next month.
He said they plan to challenge how Breinholt was treated by the officers prior to the shooting — which is something Gill couldn’t take into account when considering criminal charges.
“None of this should have happened,” King said. “The conduct of the West Valley City Police Department was inadequate and inappropriate in that it failed to train Officer Longman and the other officers in the correct manner to deal with impaired, intoxicated, upset and mentally unbalanced persons whom they take into custody.”
The Salt Lake Tribune, through records requests and appeals, obtained the full nine hours of bodycam that shows what led up to the fatal shot. At the request of The Tribune, Randy Shrewsberry, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, watched all of the video. He also saw a shooting that could have been avoided if Breinholt was taken to a hospital or Longman used brute force to subdue an intoxicated man.
“I saw nothing at all for which I believe that this was a necessary shooting,” he said.
Gill’s expert witnesses, Eric Daigle and Natasha Powers, disagreed.
“Longman’s actions were what a reasonably-trained and prudent police officer would likely have done given the same or similar circumstances presented in this case,” Powers wrote.
But Breinholt’s mother said she worries that this decision will empower Longman.
“It was his third shooting,” she said. “I’m concerned for that community that this officer is allowed and empowered to behave like this.”
What is necessary?
Gill said he doesn’t consider whether it’s an officer first or third shooting in his analysis, the same way he does not consider someone’s criminal history if it’s not relevant.
That’s just one of many things Gill can’t weigh as he makes these decisions.
He can’t consider the events that led to the shooting. Or why Breinholt was even in that room at all, when he asked the officers for help and to go to a psychiatric hospital. Or the other options, the officers could have used, such as physical force, though when asked by a reporter, he said that was “a valid point.”
“I think it is a legitimate question: How did we get there? What led up to this?” Gill said. “But I do not get to consider that in my analysis.”
Gill said there is “no political will” in the Utah Legislature to strengthen the laws that dictate when police are justified in shooting, which has led to a system where police officers have protections “in a disproportionate way to the expectations of our community.”
“If we want different outcomes, which is not unreasonable for us to ask, then we need to change the law,” he said. “Either that or we need to change the legislators that are not reflective of the values which the community is out there calling out.”
Last year, he suggested 22 ways to change Utah’s laws surrounding police use-of-force, including raising the bar for when officers can use force from “reasonably” fearing for their safety or someone elses to requiring them to observe “imminent danger”.
Setting the law aside, and speaking as “a civilian,” Gill said he believes Breinholt’s death could have been averted.
“You look at it at normal speed… this is a disturbing shooting,” Gill said. “I don’t know how you can not be taken aback at it.”
Jones, Longman’s attorney, criticized Gill for comments that went beyond the legal analysis, including when Gill said he found it “reprehensible” for Longman to say “You’re about to die, my friend.”
“That really portrays to me somebody that knows nothing about on-the-ground policing,” he said. “This is an insane, dynamic scenario. We utter things in those moments that we don’t have absolute cognitive control over. Sgt. Longman was trying to warn this man that he needed to stop or he was going to be hurt, if not killed.”
Gill ended the news conference and quietly gathered his things. He’ll be back. As of Thursday, he has eight more police shootings to rule on.
This story is part of a collaboration with The Salt Lake Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.