Utah Couple Say Internal Police Interview Contradicts Cottonwood Heights on Shooting Death of Son
Tiffany James and Aaron James reflect on the life of their late son, Zane James, as they sit in his bedroom, Dec. 28, 2018. Zane was shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in May 2018. (Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune)
Tiffany and Aaron James believe Cottonwood Heights police haven’t told the truth about the morning an officer fatally shot their 19-year-old son, Zane.
An internal document they have identifies two contradictions in the police’s version of events — and the information comes directly from shooting Officer Casey Davies.
The officer gave an interview as part of an internal review. The interviews fall under the 1967 Supreme Court ruling called Garrity v. New Jersey, which says police chiefs can force their officers to talk but the information can’t be used against the officer in a criminal proceeding.
Cottonwood Heights fought to keep Davies’ Garrity statement out of the courtroom in a civil case and from the public. A federal judge disagreed, giving the family access to the interview.
Police officials have said Zane James crashed his motorcycle during a chase on May 29, 2018. Davies, in his interview, said he purposefully rammed into him.
They also said Davies was on his way to the department when he heard about the search for James, and that’s why he didn’t have his body camera. In his interview, Davies said he was already at the station.
Davies has since left Cottonwood Heights and now works at the Herriman Police Department.
These revelations are part of an amended federal civil lawsuit filed Thursday by Tiffany and Aaron James. In it, the couple also allege police hid and potentially destroyed video footage of the shooting.
“Officer Davies’ statement is irrefutable evidence Zane’s death was both illegal and should have never happened,” the couple said in a statement.
Heather White, the attorney for Davies and Cottonwood Heights, said there are simple explanations for the inconsistencies.
“There is no cover-up,” she said.
She added, “I can unequivocally tell you there is no recording of this incident and never has been.”
She said the department did not talk to Davies about what happened until the internal review, which led to the misstatements.
When Davies signed a declaration in court saying he was on his way to work and was unable to grab his body camera, White said Davies didn’t read the document closely enough to note the error.
“I didn’t actually write it,” Davies said, according to a court transcript. “I just signed the document that I was asked to sign.”
What the prosecutor knew
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill cleared Davies in the case in October 2018, though he made his decision without any comment from Davies, who declined an interview with investigators, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Gill told The Salt Lake Tribune he was unaware Davies intentionally crashed into Zane James, which is a deadly use of force his office would normally investigate. As the law requires, prosecutors can’t review the Garrity statement, named after the Supreme Court case. The officers who did talk to D.A. investigators said they either saw James crash on a speed bump, heard that on the radio or assumed that’s what happened.
Gill said to investigate Davies ramming into James, he would need to learn that fact from a source outside of the Garrity statement.
“If nobody else knew that, or nobody else was aware of it, even though that may implicate potentially criminal conduct,” Gill said, “I can’t get to it unless I can get to it independently.”
He said would have his attorneys look into the discrepancies.
The Cottonwood Heights Police Department, which reviewed the Garrity interview, also cleared Davies, saying the shooting was within policy.
It wasn’t easy for the James family to get the internal interview. After months of debate, a federal judge ruled July 7 that the James family could use that Garrity statement in its civil lawsuit.
Separately, the State Records Committee has ruled the city must turn it over to The Tribune. The city is fighting that ruling, taking The Tribune to court to prevent its release.
What we know about the death of Zane James
Here are the facts, gleaned from documents about the investigation, including the Garrity statements spelled out in the amended lawsuit:
- Someone robbed two stores at gunpoint early on May 29, 2018. Police started chasing James in their cruisers because he matched the description of the suspect in those robberies. James was driving a lightweight minibike.
- Police chased James. At some point, Davies joined the pursuit and became the lead officer. James wrecked near an intersection in a residential neighborhood. He got up and was walking away. Davies fired at him four times, hitting him once in the back and once in the back of his leg, according to his autopsy. James had a fake gun in his jacket pocket, but he did not have it in his hands.
- James was paralyzed from the neck down after a bullet was lodged in his spinal canal. He died a few days later at the hospital.
Only one other officer, Cottonwood Heights’ Bryan Betenson, said he saw James crash and was there for the shooting.
He told Salt Lake City police investigators he and Davies were chasing James.
“As the motorcycle went over the second speed bump,” the investigator wrote in a report, “he saw sparks and saw that the male had lost it and wrecked the motorcycle.”
Salt Lake City Police Department investigators also talked to Cottonwood Heights Officer Jamie Croft, who had just finished a training shift that morning when he decided to respond to the chase. Croft said Davies reported James had crashed.
“As he was driving into the area, Off. Davies called out the suspect had wrecked and to get medical started,” an SLCPD investigator wrote in a report on the shooting.
In a motion to dismiss the family’s civil suit, attorney Heather White wrote, “James, in his flight from the police, unsuccessfully attempted to execute a turn and crashed his motorbike on a narrow neighborhood street….Officer Davies, who had been pursuing James, witnessed the crash.”
Yet Davies told former Cottonwood Heights Sgt. Ryan Shosted during his Garrity interview that he made the decision to run James over because he thought James was going to pull a gun and shoot him and that running him over would be safer than shooting through the police car’s windshield.
He said, “So I made the decision I’m going to run him over… So I floored it, hit him… as he was going over that second speed bump.”
White said she repeated the claim that James wrecked because she wrote it without using the Garrity statement.
“It was just a mistake on our end and on his end in reading that,” she said.
In addition to Davies saying he intentionally wrecked James, he also told Shosted he was at the police station when he heard radio traffic and decided to get involved.
This is a small but important detail, because it is inconsistent with a legal declaration Davies signed in August 2020, as well as multiple public statements made by Cottonwood Heights police officials about why they haven’t released body camera footage.
“I was not wearing my body camera during the incident involving Zane James on the morning of May, 29, 2018. I had been on my way to work at the time and had not yet gotten to the police station to pick up my body camera,” according to the document, filed in U.S. District Court.
In a November evidentiary hearing, Davies told Attorney Bob Sykes that he misunderstood what he was signing. He contended he didn’t mean to give a false statement.
In dispatch audio used as an exhibit in the amended complaint, Davies radios in that James had “wrecked out.” About 10 seconds later, he reports back: “Shots fired.”
Shosted, the same officer who would interview Davies as part of the department’s internal investigation, told The Tribune the day of the shooting that Davies was on his way to work before the shooting.
KSL reported the same thing in mid-June, when the department released video showing the aftermath of the shooting.
In the internal interview, Davies told Shosted he actually arrived to work early for a seat belt enforcement shift.
He told Shosted he heard the chase on the scanner as he was putting on his uniform. He heard that police believed the motorcyclist might be the suspect in an earlier robbery.
“At that time, I hurried and rushed. I — so my camera was still in the docking station at that point and so my belt was hanging — I was in my uniform at this time so I just grabbed my belt, threw it on, ran out,” Davies said in the internal interview.
The James family alleges in the amended complaint that this is also false, because it has evidence that shows his camera was taken off the docking station at 5:50 a.m.
White said that it’s true someone removed Davies’ camera from the docking station, but it was another police officer who removed it to upload their own camera. She said that officer put Davies’ camera in a drawer, where it remained until he returned to duty after this shooting.
She compared it to sharing a phone charger with multiple people.
Another piece of evidence the family is relying on is a City Council member who maintains that not only does video of this shooting exist, but also that she has seen it.
Does video of the shooting exist?
When The Tribune asked Cottonwood Heights City Manager Tim Tingey in August 2020 about video of this shooting, he said he wasn’t aware of any footage.
White said Thursday that the city has checked body camera records and can now say no such footage exists or ever existed.
The only video police have released is from an officer who arrives after Davies had already fired. It shows police standing around James and trying to assess his injuries and give him aid.
Tingey wrote the city believes the allegations of undisclosed bodycam footage are “entirely mistaken and without any merit whatsoever,” and that they stemmed from a councilperson confusing “another, entirely different, non-fatal shooting” with the Zane James shooting.
He was referring to City Council member Natalie “Tali” Bruce and arguing that she conflated this shooting with Cottonwood Heights Officer Chris McHugh shooting a different teenager in September 2017. That shooting took place under an overpass in a different part of the city at night. James was shot in daylight in a residential area of Cottonwood Heights.
Bruce has since testified in a November 2020 evidentiary hearing that she and others saw a video of Davies shooting Zane James during a June 12, 2018, closed meeting.
In the hearing, she described the video in detail. She said it begins with the image of a “crumpled motorcycle” and pans left to James “hobbling on the grass.” Bruce said it was clear that he was injured, according to a transcript.
“[H]is pants were sliding down on his hips, you could see the waistband of his underwear. And his left arm went back, to me it looked evident that he was going to pull up his pants, which were dropping as he was attempting to flee,” Bruce said. “At that point, you hear pow-pow, pow-pow and he went down, facedown into the grass.”
She added Davies didn’t give any sort of verbal commands to James before shooting him in the back. Bruce said she didn’t see a weapon. The next day, she asked the mayor and council a question in an email obtained by The Tribune.
“I apologise [sic]. I should have asked this last night but my brain was exhausted,” she wrote. “Was a Tazer [sic] not an option with the pursuit?”
At least 13 people — including council members who would have been at this meeting, Tingey and Police Chief Robby Russo — have signed sworn declarations they hadn’t seen video of the shooting and that they don’t believe it exists.
At the evidentiary hearing, White, the attorney representing the city, asked Bruce why so many people would have sworn the video didn’t exist if they saw it. Bruce cited “gaslighting” by Tingey and former Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore.
Bruce’s attorney, Michael Young, released a statement about the Garrity revelations Wednesday.
“I am not surprised by a continued pattern of malfeasance by Cottonwood Heights, as reflected in the current litigation between Ms. Bruce, the city and others,” he said.
Russo sued Bruce and Cottonwood Heights in May 2020, alleging they were part of a scheme to get him fired. He recently received $70,000 as part of a settlement in that case, KUTV reported.
Bruce filed a countersuit to Russo’s initial complaint, alleging the police chief “began a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Bruce” after she questioned “the utility of using city resources to fund a police department,” according to the court filing.
That case is still pending.
The original May 2019 lawsuit alleges James didn’t pose a threat and that officials covered up Davies’ negligence. It cited a witness of the shooting who said that despite law enforcement statements, Davies didn’t give James any commands before firing, and that Davies fired as James ran away.
It also cast doubt on police statements that James reached for a gun.
Attorney Bob Sykes wrote in the original lawsuit “that claim makes no sense because Zane knew he did not have a real gun, so why would he reach for a toy gun, knowing armed officers were close behind?”
The amended complaint, filed Thursday in federal court, includes the facts established in the Garrity statement and builds on those earlier ideas.
The suit alleges that James was wrongfully killed and Cottonwood Heights didn’t properly train its officers in de-escalation tactics and other established rules of policing.
“Davies believed he could use deadly force against a fleeing felon, even if there is no imminent threat to the officer or the public,” the lawsuit states, saying this belief is baked “on a deep misunderstanding” of the law.
The lawsuit is asking for Davies to be held in criminal contempt for “his knowing submission of false testimony,” as well as for Cottonwood Heights to eliminate its training programs and create new ones. It also asks that the matter be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for review, and that an outside supervisor be appointed to audit the department’s training and policies.
The family is seeking monetary damages and attorney fees.
White said it is untrue that the city tried to hide anything in this case.
“I feel for this family. They’ve been through a terrible ordeal and they don’t trust police,” White said, “but their theories about what they think happened are completely inconsistent with the physical evidence and the testimony that has been given.”
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.