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Police union files ethics complaint against councilwoman for calling shooting ‘unlawful’

Bar complaint accuses Amy Fowler of ‘reckless’ public statements; she cites freedom of speech

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Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler discusses the opening of a new temporary, emergency overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness during a press conference at the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake police union has filed an ethics complaint against a Salt Lake City councilwoman after she called the fatal police shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal “unlawful.”

Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who is also a trial attorney and former public defender, said she was exercising her right to freedom of speech when she posted the comment on Facebook in June.

The Salt Lake police officers that shot and killed an armed Palacios, 22, on May 23 while he fled were legally justified, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill determined in July. The Salt Lake Police Civilian Review Board also determined that the two officers, Neil Iversen and Kevin Fortuna, did not violate department policy in their use of deadly force.

That was after Fowler made her comments — leading Steven Winters, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, to file an ethics complaint against Fowler with the Utah State Bar on behalf of the union.

“She made these statements without the benefit of all the information and during an ongoing investigation into the incident,” Winters wrote in the complaint. “Her actions have jeopardized and politicized an ongoing investigation and elicited death threats to at least one Salt Lake City police officer.”

The complaint accuses Fowler of “inappropriately” using her position as a councilwoman “to influence this investigation by making reckless and unethical public statements.” He accused her of violating Utah Rules of Professional Conduct “by publicly misrepresenting information, engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, and attempting to influence the governmental agencies investigating the shooting.”

“Just because you’re able to speak to the media ... that doesn’t mean you should exercise it necessarily,” Winters told the Deseret News Thursday. “We were having riots, and she’s making these statements and feeding them. She’s feeding the fire, and that’s reckless. ... She was feeding (the protests), and I believe she should be held liable for that.”

Palacios’ death came just two days before the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which has sparked international protests against police brutality, excessive use of force and systematic racism. In Utah’s capital city, where protests persisted for months, Palacios’ death also became a flashpoint for outrage over police violence and excessive use of force.

After watching police body camera footage of the shooting, Fowler took to Facebook to express her own outrage.

“I believe Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was unlawfully killed and I am outraged,” Fowler posted on June 6. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that justice is served. There should be no special treatment for police and they should be held to the same standard as anyone else suspected of a similar act.”

At the time, other Salt Lake leaders called for an expedited and thorough investigation of the shooting. But Fowler set herself apart when she deemed the death “unlawful.”

In an interview with the Deseret News the following Monday, Fowler said the 34 shots fired by police (of which 13 to 15 bullets hit Palacios), was “excessive” — but she also said it was up to the review process to determine the legality of his shooting.

“Using 20-plus rounds on a young man running away seems excessive and unlawful,” Fowler said at the time. “But that’s also for the process to determine.”

On Thursday, Fowler defended her comments as a “personal statement about my own beliefs” on her personal Facebook page and said she didn’t violate any ethical duties.

“I don’t represent any of the parties involved,” she said. “I had the same exact knowledge and facts that the public did, and I made a personal comment. As an attorney, when we take the oath we don’t give up our constitutional rights, and I was exercising my freedom of speech.”

Fowler said since being notified about the complaint, she has not heard anything from the Office of Professional Conduct. She welcomes the complaint and its process to play out.

She also stood by her comments expressing concern around Palacios’ death.

“I believe we need to look seriously and closely at our state laws so that it is less justified to use excessive force and deadly force,” Fowler said. “We as a City Council are certainly looking at our police department and getting back to community policing. ... I feel strongly about doing that.”

Winters, when asked what he expects to come of the complaint, said he “would hope there would be some action, but I’m not holding my breath.”

“The process is the process,” he said. “We have to accept the process, and they have to accept ours.”