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The Utah AG’s Office Found Police Were Justified In Their Response To A Cottonwood Heights Protest

Photo of Zane James portrait.
Chelsea Naughton
The Utah Attorney General’s Office said it reviewed 42 hours of video from the Aug. 2 protest in Cottonwood Heights. The event was in remembrance of Zane James, who was shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office found police acted appropriately when they responded to a protest in Cottonwood Heights last summer that turned volatile.

The event on Aug. 2, 2020was in remembrance of Zane James, who was shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018.

Darlene McDonald, an activist and member of Salt Lake City’s Racial Equity in Policing Commission, was at the demonstration where police used tasers and pepper spray after some protesters became aggressive. McDonald said, in her view, the videos presented by the Attorney General’s office were taken out of context.

“It felt like I was watching a propaganda piece,” McDonald said. “The clips that they showed fit a narrative that they wanted to portray … one that was very positive for the police officers involved.”

An attorney for James’ family said the report “cherry-picked facts” and “ignored a mountain of evidence that shows officers’ actions were violent and violated the Constitution.”

The family filed a federal lawsuit this week alleging police used excessive force at the protest.

Heather White is an attorney representing Cottonwood Heights. She also often serves as counsel for police when they’re involved in shootings.

“Officers are not shy to criticize and discipline members of their profession who act inappropriately,” White said. “They recognize the importance and power of the positions that they hold.”

She said that’s why it’s important for law enforcement to investigate their peers.

“To understand what officers do and why, they have to know what they're trained to do, what the risks are and the effects that can occur from that,” she said.

Cottonwood Heights doesn’t have a civilian board to review officers’ use of force or other complaints. In a recent edition of the city’s newsletter, Police Chief Robby Russo wrote they were considering creating a citizen advisory board.

John Mejía, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said his organization welcomes oversight by other law enforcement agencies — as long as it’s transparent.

“Oversight of police by the AG's office is a good idea, as long as there's a clear understanding of what exactly they're looking at [and] who they're talking to,” Mejia said. “The idea of accountability is a good one. We just need to make sure that the steps we're taking towards accountability are actually meeting that goal.”

Members of the Cottonwood Heights City Council weren’t allowed to comment or ask questions during the audit presentation Tuesday evening. They will likely discuss it at an upcoming closed meeting.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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