State review backs officer conduct at Cottonwood Heights protest that turned violent

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS – A new report from the Utah Attorney General’s Office overwhelmingly backs how police handled a demonstration that erupted in clashes between officers and protesters in Cottonwood Heights last summer.

Investigators in the office of the state’s top law enforcer concluded that officers did not use excessive force in the Aug. 2 demonstration. Rather, they found police were reasonable and acted appropriately when they struggled with protesters in an upscale neighborhood and used batons, stun guns and pepper spray.

“Use of force never looks good, even in the most clearly justified circumstances,” special agent Matthew Thompson told city leaders in an hourlong presentation via videoconference. “This case is no exception.”

The August protest in the typically sleepy Mill Hollow neighborhood erupted into chaos, prompting calls for police reform. The council requested the probe amid the heightened scrutiny.

The review concluded that allegations of police needlessly slammed people to the ground were unfounded and claims that officers beat those they had already restrained are untrue.

Thompson’s presentation Tuesday focused largely on aggressions by what he said were a handful of protesters who seemed “determined to argue with officers rather than compromise.” He touched briefly on some officers’ violations of police department policy and listed steps police could have taken to better plan for the event, like coordinating more closely with other law enforcement agencies.

The Tuesday meeting adjourned without any debate or public comment, and any council discussion about the findings will be closed to the public because the city’s being sued over the protest, Mayor Mike Peterson said.

The city’s police department has defended its handling of the protest, saying a number of demonstrators reacted violently when officers directed them out of the road and onto sidewalks. Several of those arrested, including some march organizers and a city councilwoman, have countered that officers were more forceful than necessary.

They were marching in memory of 19-year-old Zane James – who died after police shot him twice in the back near his family’s home – during a summer of nationwide protests calling attention to police killings and racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The group of about 100 protesters were approaching the yard where James was shot when homeowners in the upscale neighborhood telephoned police with concerns. The city called in several agencies for backup and officers cordoned off the road with patrol cars, directing the group onto the sidewalks instead.

James’ brother, Gabriel Pecoraro, and father Aaron James were among several people arrested in a series of struggles with officers that left both police and protesters with bloodied faces and broken bones. The father and son now face criminal charges stemming from the confrontations.

Their family is suing the city, alleging officers shut down the protest and singled the men out because of their criticism of the police department. The Jameses previously sued Cottonwood Heights over their son’s death, alleging excessive force in a case that remains pending in federal court.

Within city government, two officials who had roles in the protest are waging other legal battles against one another.

Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo is suing Councilwoman Tali Bruce after he says she defamed him and hatched a plan with other city leaders to get him fired.

Bruce counters that Russo began bullying her after she began asking if the city could save money by moving its police force under the umbrella of the countywide Unified Police Department.

Bruce is also among those facing a criminal charge stemming from the protest. She’s pleaded not guilty to interfering with an arrest, a class B misdemeanor.

She captured live video of the chaotic demonstration that included a tense exchange with Russo. Bruce said she was struck in the neck and shoved by an officer, and later sought treatment at a hospital.

No officer has been criminally charged in connection with the demonstration.

A spokesman for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office said it has already completed its investigation that led to criminal charges for a handful of protesters but would review any new evidence that comes to light in the state report.

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