SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A trigger-happy policeman groomed in a vicious "shoot-to-kill-first" culture killed an unarmed 20-year-old for his "defiant look," and the cop's body camera recorded it all, the dead man's family claims in court.
The fatal shooting of Dillon Taylor made headlines in August last year, and made headlines again that October when the district attorney called the killing justified. It was all set off by a "confused, incoherent, and convoluted" call to 911, by a woman who acknowledged she had been drinking vodka, Taylor's family says in their Oct. 28 federal lawsuit.
Dillon, his brother Jerrail Taylor and their cousin Adam Thayne were walking to a convenience store on Aug. 11, 2014, when an unidentified caller reported them as "maybe suspicious," the lawsuit states.
Salt Lake City police Officer Bron Cruz went to check it out and requested backup, to which Officers Uppsen Downes and Andrew Sylelloglou responded.
"The caller stated she was 'not sure if it's an emergency,' that the party 'did not threaten me in any way,' and when asked by the 911 dispatcher if she or anyone else was in was in danger, responded, 'No, not at all.'
"The caller reported she felt the boys were 'suspicious' because of 'just the way they look,' and that she should just call it in," according to the complaint.
Cruz's body camera recorded the entire incident , including his approach to the 7-Eleven, and the 21 seconds from the time he got out of his car until he killed Taylor.
Cruz pulled out his gun within 8 seconds, trained it on Taylor, who was walking away from him, and 3 seconds after Taylor turned around, Cruz killed him, shooting him twice. The video continues for 7 more minutes, showing Cruz rolling Taylor onto his stomach, handcuffing him and searching his pockets as he died.
"Dillon had head phones in the entire time," the family says in the lawsuit.
Though that is difficult to see in the shaky video, wires can be seen in the vicinity of his head as Cruz rolls him over and handcuffs him. The video also shows Dillon's death.
Cruz gave a "shocking, despicable explanation" for the killing, the family says. He claimed that Dillon had given him "defiant look."
Apparently quoting Cruz's statement to police investigators, the complaint says Cruz stated:
"Um, and his eyes were just complete 100 percent defiance. He had this, this look on his face like, you know, like I, ah, hate? Um, like he was, he was not going to do anything that I said. Um, and it was just a horrible feeling, um, looking at him. Having him, you know, just the, it was horrible. Just hate, defiance, that he had in his eyes."
Video of the shooting shows Taylor's back was turned to Cruz for most of the time the officer had his gun trained on him, and that Taylor was about 15 feet away, backing up when Cruz shot him. It is impossible, in the video, to identify a "look" in Taylor's eyes.
"Regardless, in the United States of America, and in Utah, citizens expect consequences and not cover-up when unarmed teenagers like Dillon are killed because of the irrational subjective perceptions of 'defiance' by trigger-happy law enforcement," the lawsuit states.
The family says Cruz and the co-defendant officers were improperly trained and "groomed through a vicious culture and cycle of shoot-to-kill-first."
Taylor's brother and cousin were arrested and held for five hours, most of it handcuffed and alone in separate interrogation rooms.
"The needless and unjustified escalation of a routine investigation, the needless and unjustified use of deadly force against Dillon Taylor, and the needless and unjustified arrest and detention of Adam Thayne and Jerrail Taylor, were without basis, unlawful, and violated their clearly established right to be free of unreasonable seizure," the lawsuit states.
South Salt Lake officials and the family's attorney did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill called the killing justified.
An October 2014 article in the Salt Lake Tribune quotes a letter from Gill to then-Police Chief Chris Burbank. According to the Tribune, the letter said that only Dillon, of the three young men, was "noncompliant."
"'Nothing that Mr. Taylor did assisted in de-escalating the situation,' Gill said. 'If anything, it escalated things,'" according to the Tribune report on the letter. Courthouse News has not been able to obtain a copy of the letter.
"'Officer Cruz's belief that Dillon Taylor was armed with a gun and intended to use it against the officers was reinforced by Dillon's actions and the acts of others,'" Gill wrote to the police chief, according to the Tribune report. "'By the time Dillon drew his hands from his waistband, Officer Cruz's belief that Dillon was presenting a weapon [and ... would use the weapon against officers] was reasonable.'" (Brackets in Tribune report.)
Summarizing the district attorney's letter, the Tribune reported that Gill called the killing justified not because Dillon posed a threat, but because Cruz reasonably perceived he was a threat.
The family says Dillon was complying with Cruz's demands: turning around and showing his hands.
They seek punitive damages for wrongful death and civil rights violations from Salt Lake City and County, South Salt Lake City, and 11 police officers.
They are represented by Robert Cummings with The Salt Lake Lawyers; Kelly Fowler in Salt Lake City; and Mark Geragos with Geragos & Geragos, of Los Angeles.
Days before the shooting, Taylor said on Facebook that his life had "hit rock bottom."
"Was told a wise guy never lives to be an adult," Taylor posted. "I said I rather die young then be an adult."
"It's about my time soon," he said.
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