One Year Later: The Palacios-Carbajal Family Still Wants ‘Justice For Bernardo’
Karina and Freddie Palacios-Carbajal are sitting in their mom’s kitchen in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood. It’s almost dinner time. Food in a crockpot fills the house with delicious smells.
There are two leg lamps in the living room, like the ones from the movie “A Christmas Story.”
In the corner of the room is a memorial with fresh flowers, flickering candles and a picture of Karina’s little brother — Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal.
"We'd get together here, and it kind of feels pointless because he's not here to enjoy it with us.”
“It definitely doesn't feel like it's been a year,” she said.
Salt Lake City police officers shot and killed Bernardo on May 23, 2020. He was 22 years old.
Police were responding to a call about an armed robbery near downtown. When they arrived, he ran and dropped a gun multiple times along the way, stopping each time to pick it up.
Then, he was shot from behind. Officers fired a total of 34 shots at him, though not all the bullets hit him.
His death — just two days before George Floyd’s in Minneapolis — launched months of protests in Salt Lake City.
Karina, 36, said over the years, her relationship with Bernardo strengthened.
“When I was younger and he was born, I would change his diaper, I would make his bottle. I babysat him,” she said. “And then as he grew up, he liked to hang out with me. That's [a thing] I definitely miss.”
Bernardo’s older brother, Freddie, 31, owns a power washing business where the two of them worked. He said the two of them had a lot of fun together.
“Even when I was in a bad mood, like trying to get stuff done at work, [he was] always spraying me with water when we were supposed to be working,” Freddie said. “Just messing around.”
He said Bernardo’s loss is really felt at family gatherings.
“We’re not a huge family,” he said. “So whenever it was my son's birthday, it was us and then him. We'd get together here, and it kind of feels pointless because he's not here to enjoy it with us.”
Waiting For Change
While his family has had to adapt, Freddie said he feels like everything else has stayed the same.
“Honestly, I just feel like [in] every other state that something like this has happened, you always hear on the news there's some sort of change to the law or like the chief of police resigned,” he said. “It almost feels like here in Utah, they just kind of want it just to blow over.”
Less than two months after Bernardo’s death, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill ruled the two officers involved were justified in the shooting.
Then in August, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued an executive order requiring officers to use de-escalation tactics first and raising the bar for deadly force.
The city formed the Racial Equity in Policing Commission, which recommends changes to police funding and policies.
The Utah Legislature also passed some police reform measures during the 2021 General Session, mostly around data collection and additional training for law enforcement.
But according to Jorge Camacho, director of policing, law and policy at Yale University’s Justice Collaboratory, not much has changed anywhere since Floyd and Palacios-Carbajal died.
“There were these bold calls for change, followed by, at best, incremental changes,” Camacho said. “Even in places where there was a lot of will to get the big things, for whatever reason, politics, money, fear the big things didn't happen.”
For example, after outrage around Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle its police department and replace it with a new community safety department.
They later changed course and decided to instead reallocate $8 million from the police budget while maintaining staffing levels.
“So they went from abolishing and replacing to voting to keep it exactly as it is,” he said.
Keeping Hope Alive
Still, Camacho is trying to be optimistic. He looks to Ferguson, Missouri as an example, which is where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by police in 2014. The events that followed Brown’s death put the Black Lives Matter movement on the map.
Camacho said Ferguson still isn’t a good model for policing, but the community engagement that continued after the protests is something to look up to.
“In Ferguson, there was a follow through and endurance that needs to happen in order to see change happen,” he said. “And all too often that endurance can be sidelined by other things, like a pandemic.”
The protests in Salt Lake City have ended. But Karina and the rest of her family still want justice.
“I always think how is it possible that my brother was killed, in the way he was killed, and these officers that killed him wake up every day and they can enjoy their lives, their families, and it’s OK? That, to me, is just so wrong.”
In September, they filed a lawsuit against Salt Lake City and its police department. The suit alleges the officers used excessive force when they fired 34 shots at him.
The case is still pending.