SALT LAKE CITY — Five Salt Lake police officers were legally justified when they shot and killed a man who raised a cellphone at them in November based on the totality of the circumstances.
That was the conclusion announced Friday by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
Cody Paris Belgard, 30, of Salt Lake City, was shot twice and killed by police in November after disobeying orders to show his hands and to get on the ground. He then reached into his waistband, pulled out a cellphone and pointed it at officers, Gill said.
"He's got a gun!" an officer is heard yelling on body camera video that recorded the Nov. 9 shooting. "He's pointing!" another yells before four officers fired their handguns and a fifth fired a shotgun.
A total of eight shots were fired, two of them striking Belgard. When officers placed him in handcuffs, they realized he was holding a large, black cellphone and not a gun.
But Gill said the fact Belgard did not have a gun was only one part of a much broader investigation.
"Even though officers subsequently discovered their mistaken belief, their decision to use deadly force must be evaluated on the information they had at the time as the facts unfolded before then, not against the additional facts that subsequent investigation eventually revealed,” Gill wrote in his final report.
"While some may focus on the fact that Mr. Belgard did not have a gun, it is not unreasonable, given the totality of the evidence, that Mr. Belgard acted in a manner that the officers reasonably perceived as having and pointing a gun. The question is not whether or not Mr. Belgrade actually had a gun; the question is whether the officers perceived Mr. Belgard was a threat,” the report states.
On Nov. 9, police were looking for a man whom they had placed a GPS tracking device on his car, Gill said. The car was located in a parking lot at 2274 S. 1300 East. Belgard was not the man police were looking for at that time.
But as officers approached the car with guns drawn, Belgard, who was in the passenger seat, disobeyed commands to get out. A woman in the driver's seat complied, but Belgard did not.
"Please, don’t be stupid, dude. Oh, my gosh,” one officer is heard exclaiming on body camera video.
The woman tells officers in the video that Belgard does not have a gun. But Belgard shifts from the passenger seat into the driver's seat — despite cries from the woman telling him to stop — puts the car into reverse and strikes a police car, then goes forward and hits another vehicle, before finally backing out of his parking spot and speeding away, bumping an officer in the process and causing minor injuries.
Despite having their guns drawn, police did not fire any shots.
Belgard sped away on I-80 and onto residential streets, reportedly at speeds between 70 and 90 mph, Gill said. But because the tracking device was still on the car, officers used that to follow him.
Less than 20 minutes later, the car was found abandoned near 800 N. Sir Michael Drive (1955 West). Police confronted Belgard on a sidewalk. Gill said officers ordered him four times to get on the ground. But Belgard continued to keep his hands near his waistband and at one point turned his back to police. Gill said Belgard then pulled an object out and pointed it at officers. The object was a cellphone, but was reasonably perceived by officers to be a gun, he said.
The autopsy revealed that Belgard was shot twice in the upper back with the trajectory of both rounds being in an upward direction, according to the report.
Gill noted that the officers who were interviewed all had similar accounts of what happened. He said that at least two officers initially had their Tasers drawn but switched to their guns when the situation escalated.
"It was the movement and gesture and the unfolding of what was happening before them that they went from less lethal to lethal force," the district attorney said.
When analyzing the case, Gill said he had to look at whether the officers' statements and their actions were reasonable and "were the officers' perceptions at the moment that they pulled the trigger reasonable given the totality of all the information that they had."
Gill concluded that they were.
Outside his office, protesters were already denouncing the decision Friday. Gill met with family members before the press conference began to inform them of his decision.
Afterward, some family members and the group Utah Against Police Brutality protested the decision by holding signs stating "Justice for Cody." Some members of the group rolled themselves up in tarps on the ground to give the appearance of body bags, and wore toe tags with the names of people shot and killed by police in Utah, including Belgard.
Marvin Oliveros, Belgard's step-brother, believes the shooting was not justified based on the fact that Cody was unarmed and because he was shot in the back, which he believes was done while Belgard was attempting to comply with officers' orders and get on the ground.
"All on the basis that an officer yelled, 'He has a gun.' And because of that, that deems — within the eyes of the law … that permitted all officers to open fire. And I don't think that's right because we know he did not have a gun," Oliveros said. "His lie triggered all the other officers to pull their trigger. So that's wrong."
Oliveros said even with the body camera video, the officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
"We can't deal with these bones they're throwing us in terms of body cam and stuff, because when you see the body cam and you see these illegal actions take place, they don't do anything about it. So we need accountability with what they call transparency," he said. "I got no trust in the local law enforcement. I got no trust in the judicial system. And I got no trust in our elected officials.
"If there's no accountability from our officials in finding wrongdoing within the body cameras, the body cameras mean nothing on a legal level if they're not willing to enforce anything," he said. "When officers mess up, they need to be held accountable."
Oliveros believes there is a "systematic failure within the police department" and policies are to blame. He would like to see more transparency from officials, more de-escalating training and mental health training for officers.
The meeting with Gill ended with the family asking him if he would request another independent review of the case from the FBI. Gill told reporters that he would submit the request and it would be up to the FBI to decide whether it want to review it.