SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, March 5, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office has found that an officer-involved shooting fatal in Taylorsville last March was not justified, but charges will not be filed.
“After conducting an Officer Involved Critical Incident (OICI) review, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office has determined that the March 21, 2020 use of deadly force by a Unified Police Department Officer was not justified,” said a news release from the DA’s Office.
“After determining the facts do not support the affirmative legal defense of justification, we reviewed the evidence and considered whether Officer Flores should be charged criminally for his use of deadly force.”
Officials determined there is a lack of proof of the required criminal intent to support a criminal charge, and that officials lacked sufficient quantity and quality of evidence to support each element of a criminal charge.
“Therefore, consistent with the legal and ethical obligations to satisfy our burden of proof (which legal and ethical obligation govern our ability to file a criminal case) we declined to file charges against the officer, as explained more fully in the attached letter,” the news release said. “No body-worn cameras recorded this shooting.”
The deceased man was identified as Bryan Pena-Valencia, 28, of Salt Lake City, Unified Police Department said at the time.
UPD officers responded to a call of shots fired at about 3:20 a.m. March 21, Unified PD Sgt. Melody Cutler told reporters at the scene.
“Taylorsville units received a call of shots fired in the neighborhood just north of 6200 South and 3200 West,” Cutler said. “There was a vehicle seen fleeing the scene and headed westbound.”
Officers to the west spotted a suspicious vehicle leaving a neighborhood in Kearns, Cutler said.
“They went to make a traffic stop on that vehicle, and it fled. The officers did not pursue that vehicle, but the car made a turn onto 3200 West, where we’re at, where it appeared to strike a median and it came to rest at a street sign,” she said. “The officers observed the driver get out of that vehicle and flee, and jump over a fence, and officers chased that suspect, where an altercation occurred in the backyard between the officers and the suspect.”
The backyard where the officer-involved critical incident occurred belongs to a residence that is vacant, she said.
The letter that was sent with the news release Friday describes the moments leading up to the shooting as developed from OICI protocol investigation.
The letter says that the Officer Omar Flores discharged his Taser twice, but it appeared to have no effect on the man.
“The man then reached into the pocket of his hoodie and the officer told him to show him his hands or he would shoot the man,” the letter said. “The man withdrew his hand, holding an object that the man threw over the fence.”
The two officers on scene said they ordered the suspect to show his hands and get on the ground multiple times but he did not comply. Flores said “he felt an overwhelming fear for my partner’s life and my own,” the letter said. He said he yelled as loud as he could “Show me your hands or you will be shot,” and “Do not f—ing reach, I will f—ing shoot you.”
The officer then said the suspect “did not comply and quickly moved both of his hands down towards the left side of his waist.” He said he thought the man was reaching for a firearm. The officer fired his weapon six times.
The suspect did not have a gun. The letter goes on to say that Flores could not specifically point to a reason why he thought suspect had a gun; he did not say he saw part of a gun, the outline of a gun, or items relating to a gun such as a holster, a magazine or cartridges.
The suspect did not verbally refer to having a gun, the officer did not see the suspect drop something and pick it up, and the suspect was not carrying anything in his hands. He also did not make a drawing motion or act as if he was drawing a gun from his waistband immediately prior to the shooting.
Sheriff Rosie Rivera released a statement after the decision, saying the officer has been placed on paid administrative leave and an internal investigation has been initiated.
“Because an independent protocol team takes over OICI investigations at the scene, this is the first time in nearly a year since Mr. Pena-Valencia’s death that UPD has been able to review the evidence in this investigation. Our investigative process will proceed as efficiently as possible while adhering to department policy.
“With the officer on paid administrative leave, his policing authority is suspended pending the outcome of the Internal Affairs investigation. IA will review this use of deadly force to determine if any internal policies were violated, the DA’s published findings will be included in the review of evidence.”
Their findings will be provided to command staff and the Major Incident Review Board for review. At this time, a final determination can be made, and action can be taken up to and including termination.
The statement said Flores was wearing a body-worn camera, but it detached during the pursuit. UPD will be reviewing what happened to the body-worn camera as part of the review.
Gephardt Daily will have more information as it is released by investigators.