SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County district attorney on Wednesday determined that the shooting of a 17-year-old boy by a Cottonwood Heights police officer in September was legally justified.
Sgt. Chris McHugh reasonably believed his life was in imminent danger when he shot a teenager who appeared to be reaching for something in his pants, said District Attorney Sim Gill. The boy, identified only as AJ, was shot once in the abdomen and taken to a local hospital.
"While at the hospital, the medical personnel found a loaded .22-caliber revolver handgun concealed in AJ’s underwear …,” Gill said.
The incident happened about 3 a.m. on Sept. 3. McHugh attempted to pull over a vehicle driving recklessly. But the driver took off. The ensuing chase reached speeds of 100 mph and ended when AJ crashed his car on I-15 near 1300 South.
AJ and a teen girl exited the vehicle and ran under the 1300 South overpass. As McHugh drove up to AJ, he saw him remove his backpack and reach inside for something. When he did this, a box of bullets fell to the ground, McHugh said in a recorded interview with the authorities who investigated the officer-involved shooting.
"He pulls something out. I can’t see what’s in his hand. He turns his back completely to me so I can’t see what he’s doing. His hand goes down his pants,” McHugh continued. "I hadn’t seen it. But the movement that he made and what I had seen fall out of the bag, the only thing that I could think of was he was either trying to get that gun back out or trying to hide it.”
As McHugh got out of his patrol car, he held his Taser in one hand and his gun in the other and approached AJ yelling, "Drop the gun! Drop the gun! Drop the gun now!"
AJ seemed to comply with the officer's commands at first, and sat on the ground while raising his hands above his head. McHugh then ordered the boy to roll over onto his stomach. It's at that point that the officer believes the situation is de-escalating and puts his gun back in his holster.
Gill said that was a key moment.
As soon as the sound of the officer's holster snapped, "his hand immediately goes down his pants to where I saw him shove it in as he’s running way,” McHugh said.
McHugh immediately drew his gun again and told AJ to stop moving his hand. The shooting was recorded on the officer's body camera.
"Don't. Don't. Don't," the sergeant continues to yell in quick succession in the recording before firing one shot.
After firing the shot, the officer orders the teen to "stay down." He then radios to police dispatch, "Suspect reached for his waist, shots fired."
"What were you reaching for?" McHugh asks the 17-year-old.
The boy is still conscious and alert after being shot and is able to communicate in the video with the sergeant.
The teen was taken to a local hospital where he underwent surgery. He was released about a week later. AJ has since been charged in juvenile court with fleeing and illegal possession of a firearm.
Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robbie Russo was so confident that it was a justified shooting that he took McHugh off of administrative leave before Gill's investigation was completed and held a press conference to show McHugh's body camera video.