Salt Lake City black teen shot: Police refuse to release body cam video

Protesters in Utah angered by the police shooting Saturday called for greater transparency after a 17-year-old immigrant, seen beating another man, was critically injured.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Several hundred protesters demonstrate against police violence in Salt Lake City, Utah February 29, 2016. The 'Utah Against Police Brutality' group organized the demonstration after a teenage boy was shot by Salt Lake City police on Saturday.

Salt Lake City police have refused to release officers' body cam videos of the Saturday shooting of a 17-year-old immigrant now in critical condition, despite protesters' calls to reform police accountability. 

Abdi Mohamed was shot twice in the torso by police intervening in his fight with an older man, whom Mr. Mohamed and another person were attacking with metal rods. Mohamed, who Unified Police Lt. Lex Bell said is a gang member, is now being investigated for the attack. The beating victim did not require medical attention.

Mohamed, a young father who moved from Somalia to Kenya, then to the United States in 2004, remains in the hospital in critical condition.

Officers say that Mohamed continued to move toward the man after police yelled at him to drop his weapon. Citing the investigations into both the attack and the officers' response, however, Salt Lake City police have refused to release body cam videos of the incident.

Some who gathered at the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building on Monday to protest the decision suggested that the police department is resisting lessons from other departments around the country, many of whom have begun responding to calls for greater transparency.

Traditionally, police videos are not released until after an investigation, to avoid influencing witnesses' statements or potential jurors' opinions. Since Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, however, activists alarmed at an alleged pattern of police brutality, particularly towards young men of color, have pushed for greater transparency, in part to win the trust of communities who feel particularly impacted by police violence.

Many police departments have listened.

"There’s certainly a movement among progressive police departments to be more transparent when it comes to many activities and certainly use of force," University of South Florida criminologist Lorie Fridell told The Christian Science Monitor in June. The changes come "in the wake of events this past year, where every shooting is presumed by many to be a bad shooting, until the police prove otherwise."

In Madison, Wisc., for example, police released the name of an officer who shot an unarmed teenager the next day. The Boston Police Department has also quickly released shooting videos. In cities that have resisted sharing footage, such as Chicago and Minneapolis, activists including the Black Lives Matter movement have strongly criticized their hesitation.

Police often stand to benefit from the release, some law enforcement experts say. "When there's a video that backs up what [officers] say, I think that's an enhancement of the public trust," Iowa City Police Chief Sam Harga told the Associated Press last fall. Promptly and openly investigating an officer who shot without proper cause could also improve trust long-term.

In Salt Lake City, protesters were angered not only by the shooting, but by officers' immediate reaction to the immediate unrest downtown on Saturday. About 100 police in riot gear shut down a four-block area as some people threw rocks and water bottles at them. Four people were arrested for civil disorder.

Police "need retraining," Kaylee Peterson, who joined in the protest Monday, told reporters. "Whatever happened to Tasers? Whatever to rubber bullets? Whatever happened to shooting shots in the sky as a warning?" Many protesters suggested that race was a factor in the cop's decision to shoot.

The department has denied racial bias played a role. "This case is not about race, they acted in defense of an innocent party," Salt Lake Police Association president Michael Millard said in a statement.

According to interim Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, the city's officers have been encouraged to deescalate conflicts. Under Utah law, however, a fatal shooting is justified if the shooter fears someone could severely injure or kill them.

The department has placed the two officers involved on routine administrative leave, pending an investigation. But Monday's protest also called for deeper changes, such as electing Police Civilian Review Board members, rather than having the mayor appoint them, and giving the Board more authority, reported the Deseret News.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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