Fatal police shooting of man who ran justified, say US prosecutors

ELI ROSENBERG
Last updated 03:03 08/10/2017

Two police officers point guns at Patrick Harmon as he flees.

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Authorities in Salt Lake City, in the US, have cleared a police officer in the fatal shooting of a man who ran after being stopped on his bicycle, an incident caught on police body-camera video that was released this week.

The ruling comes after a month-and-a-half-long investigation into the August 13 shooting. Police say they stopped Patrick Harmon, 50, in State St near downtown Salt Lake City because he was riding his bicycle erratically and did not have a red rear light. After finding that Harmon had multiple open arrest warrants, including one stemming from a felony aggravated assault charge, the officers informed Harmon that he was under arrest. That is when he ran, according to a police body-camera video.

In their review, investigators considered accounts given by the three officers present during the shooting, including the one who fired the shots, Officer Clinton Fox, as well as footage from their body cameras.

The district attorney of Salt Lake County, Sim Gill, said in an interview that the use of deadly force was legally justified because Harmon was armed and turned back to lunge at the officers while running away.

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"While the officers were in very close proximity to Mr Harmon, he presented an opened knife as he turned towards the officers who were running at him," Gill wrote in a letter explaining his office's determination this past week. "Officer Fox reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself and/or others and therefore his use of deadly force was 'justified' under Utah state law."

The body-camera footage shows the moment that Harmon bolted from the officers as they began to arrest him. Harmon appears visibly distraught, and after one of the officers asked him to remove his backpack and put his hands behind his back, he takes off running. After a few paces, he quickly turns back toward the officers.

A split-second struggle ensues, with one of the officers falling to the ground, before Harmon keeps running. The video is blurry in parts and the audio is muddled; it appears that one of the officers yells "I'll (expletive) shoot you," before three shots were fired.

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All three officers told investigators they heard Harmon threaten to stab them.

Officer Fox said that Harmon had stopped running, turned, and yelled "I'll (expletive) stab you," with a knife in his hand. He told investigators it was the most frightening situation he had experienced during 10 years in law enforcement and two military deployments.

Officer Kris Smith, who had fired his Taser during the struggle, said he heard Harmon say, "I'm going to cut ..." and saw him reach toward his pants. Officer Scott Robinson told investigators that Harmon said something about stabbing and that he saw him holding something in his hand.

Police said they found a knife near where Harmon had fallen after being shot, which is visible on video in the moments after the shooting. Gill's office released still images from the videos that it said showed Harmon pivoting back toward police.

Gill acknowledged that the videos did not fully corroborate the officers' accounts, saying that body camera footage doesn't always capture what an officer sees.

"I wish everything was properly framed in ultra 4000HD so we could have it, but that's not the luxury I have," he said.

The debate about use of deadly force by police and its potential racial implications has churned for years, and it continues to be a heated subject of national debate.

Harmon is one of 748 people who have been killed in interactions with the police this year, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Mental illness played a role in one out of every five incidents, The Post has found. Harmon's shooting joins a litany of others captured on video and released to the public, in what has become a grim facet of the modern news cycle. It is rare for officers to face charges and rarer still for them to be convicted, due in large part to the dangers they face and requirements of their jobs.

In Utah, a police officer is justified to use deadly force against a fleeing subject when making an arrest or preventing an escape from custody if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of death or serious injury to the officer or others if not arrested immediately.

The police officers said that they had stopped Harmon in part because his bicycle did not have a red rear taillight; but red rear taillights are not required by Utah law if a rider has a red reflector. Video appears to show Harmon's bike with a red reflector.

The Salt Lake City Police Department declined to comment on the case through a spokesman, but said that Fox remains on modified duty pending the results of an internal investigating into the shooting.

"Often times we end up being tried in the court of public opinion prior to any in-depth investigation," Detective Richard Chipping told The Washington Post. " So we appreciate people giving us time to work it out so we can do a thorough investigation, and other agencies can do an investigation so we can shed light on what the situation is."

Harmon's most recent address, listed in court papers from November 2016, was the Road Home homeless shelter, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The newspaper reported that Harmon had arrest warrants stemming from a felony aggravated assault charge he had pleaded guilty to earlier this year, and the failure to comply with probation requirements from a misdemeanor drug possession case.

Harmon's family told the Guardian they had not heard from him in recent years and were distressed by the shooting.

"The police are going to stick together no matter if it's wrong or right," said Antoinette Harmon, his 54-year-old sister. "They don't care about black lives."

"They just murdered him flat out," said niece Alisha Shaw. "He was only trying to get away."

The footage from one of the body cameras shows Harmon groaning on the ground as he loses consciousness, losing blood as officers try to handcuff him and give him aid.

"Stay with us," one of the officers says. "Hey Patrick, stay with us."

Jeanetta Williams, the president of the NAACP's Salt Lake City branch said that Rio Grande, the district where Harmon was killed, has been the subject of a recent effort to get a large homeless population off the streets and tamp down on issues like drug dealing.

"I know the Salt Lake police department has been working on de-escalation and they said they tried to do de-escalation in this case but it seems like it wasn't enough," she said in a phone interview. "By looking at the video you would think they could have apprehended him in some other way."

- The Washington Post

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