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What legally justifies a police shooting? We asked the experts

Posted at 10:26 PM, Jun 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-23 00:31:24-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Within the next two weeks, the Salt Lake County District Attorney expects to release the findings of an investigation into the killing of Bernardo Palacios by police.

Protesters argue it should be an easy decision after body camera video shows Palacios being shot in the back. Utah law, however, shows it isn’t that simple.

Officers told Palacios told more than a dozen times to stop while running away from police over Memorial Day weekend. Police said he was holding a gun when officers fired more than 20 times.

“Officers make these decisions in a second or a split second,” said Greg Skordas, a defense attorney for Utah police officers and former prosecutor.

According to Utah law, police can legally kill a suspect when the officer feels they or someone else could be hurt or killed. Deadly force can also be used to “prevent the arrest from being defeated by escape.”

“These shootings that happen so quickly, especially when both people are armed. You have to put yourself in the officer’s shoes and say, ‘Was that a legitimate use of force at that moment?’” said Skordas, who has investigated more than 100 officer-involved incidents.

With the way Utah’s statute is written, Skordas said it’s rare for a prosecutor to rule against the officer — roughly 10 percent of the time.

“What we are seeing across the country is the nation saying, 'We’ve had enough of this.' Hold police officers accountable for their conduct in totality, not in that 30 seconds,” said former Salt Lake County Chief of Police Chris Burbank.

Burbank argues it’s the statute is “incomplete” and urges for reform.

“I'm not talking about unnecessarily or improperly holding officers accountable, I’m talking about changing the standards so that you train them to a different expectation. Police officers and their use of force is based upon public expectation of how we want to be policed,” Burbank said.

Gill said he’s expediting the Palacios investigation because of intense interest.

Editor’s Note:
Greg Skordas is running for Utah Attorney General.