‘I was not afraid of my son, I was afraid of the police,’ says mother of man killed by officers
Riverton family files civil lawsuit, saying their son was no threat and needed help
RIVERTON — As Annie Esposito and her son walked out of her house and rounded the corner to her driveway, they were immediately met with bright lights and officers who had their guns drawn.
In the ensuing chaos that followed with all sides yelling, Jason Whittle, 26, was shot by police in the head and killed.
“And he fell from me. And I look behind and there’s my son, bleeding out of his head. I had literally put my hands out in a stopping motion and said, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’” an emotional Esposito recounted on Wednesday. “I was not afraid of my son, I was afraid of the police. I was afraid of their guns and their lights.”
Thursday marks two years since Whittle was killed by Unified police officer Darrell Broadhead. Police say Whittle was holding a knife to his mother’s throat. Broadhead was determined to be legally justified in using deadly force by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
But Whittle’s parents say the district attorney’s report only tells half the story. Esposito said she told 911 dispatchers that her son was mentally ill and needed help and that he had a butter knife. They contend that their son was “ambushed” and shot in the head “execution-style.”
On Wednesday, Esposito and Rob Whittle, Jason Whittle’s father, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Broadhead, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, former Riverton Precinct Chief Jason Adamson and the Unified Police Department.
Whittle’s parents say they hope the lawsuit will bring about changes in how police are trained to deal with the mentally ill and drug-addicted people, and how officer-involved shooting investigations are conducted.
“Right now the laws completely protect police no matter how egregious their conduct,” Rob Whittle said.
“I was amazed at how airtight the laws are in favor of police who cause death. It is so airtight,” Esposito added. “There is nothing that these police can be convicted of.”
On Oct. 22, 2018, Unified police were called to Esposito’s home, 11779 S. Stone Ridge Court, about 6:40 a.m. They arrived to find “a man holding a female by the neck with a knife to her neck,” said Rivera.
“Jason was shot in the head and killed within 30 seconds of exiting Annie’s home at the request of the police,” the lawsuit states.
Whittle’s parents say their son had been homeless for several months at that point, and earlier that morning was “mugged” and assaulted and had his shoes and glasses stolen.
“He reached the end of his rope and knew he needed help,” Rob Whittle said.
Early on the morning of Oct. 22, 2018, while it was still dark, Jason Whittle went to his mother’s house for help.
Whittle had a history of drug abuse and was diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to the lawsuit. In similar incidents when Whittle would exhibit the symptoms, “he would call the police and officers would escort him to the hospital,” the lawsuit states.
According to his family, after arriving at his mother’s house, Whittle was in the kitchen as Esposito called 911, holding his dog in one arm and a butter knife that he had just used to butter toast in his hand.
“Annie told the dispatcher that Jason had a butter knife and that he was not in a proper mental state because of his schizophrenia. However, she repeatedly told the dispatcher she was in no danger from Jason,” the lawsuit states. “Instead the dispatcher told officers they were responding to a bipolar/schizophrenic male with a knife in his hand.”
Esposito believes the dispatcher left out the important fact that her son did not have a butcher knife or a hunting knife.
“This is a butter knife, to me that makes a difference,” she said.
When officers arrived at the house, Broadhead instructed emergency dispatchers to tell Whittle and his mother to come out of the house “where they were essentially ambushed by a show of police force,” the lawsuit alleges.
With flashing red-and-blue lights and bright headlights from police cars shining on them, and officers with their guns drawn, a “scared” Jason reacted by “dropping his dog and grabbing his mother,” according to the lawsuit.
“Jason grabbed me and he had a knife, a butter knife. But within two to three seconds he had it down,” his mother said.
“We can’t understand that because it was the furthest thing from his mind at the time,” Rob Whittle said of his son’s actions.
Esposito said she never felt threatened by her son, and both she and Whittle do not believe their son would have hurt her.
“According to the neighbor’s witness statement, he heard Annie yelling not to shoot, that Jason was mentally ill, and that he only had a butter knife,” the lawsuit states.
Broadhead fired from 10 to 15 feet away, the family said.
“And I looked at the policeman and I said, ‘No! No!’ And he was still pointing a gun at me, like if I make a move, if I do anything he’s going shoot me. That is what I believed,” Esposito said, crying as she recalled what happened.
The lawsuit contends police failed to use nonlethal options that were available.
“The police made no effort, no effort to defuse the situation,” Rob Whittle said. “Yeah, there were a lot of things that Jason did that were absolutely wrong. But it could have very easily been defused. Jason didn’t have the intent on hurting anybody.”
“As a result, Annie has suffered immensely. She suffers every day and has been diagnosed from PTSD. It is debilitating, and most days she can hardly get out of bed,” the lawsuit states.
Family seeks changes
Broadhead was never interviewed for District Attorney Sim Gill’s officer-involved shooting investigation nor did he provide a written statement, which Gill noted is the officer’s right. Because of that, investigators could not say whether Broadhead heard Esposito yelling not to shoot.
“Without officer Broadhead’s explanation of his use of deadly force against Mr. Whittle, we don’t know his reason for his decision to fire his weapon,” Gill wrote.
Whittle’s parents believe the laws on how officer-involved shooting investigations are conducted need to be changed.
“The laws are made to protect the police and the pendulum has swung way too far to the other side where now it not only protects the police’s good conduct, but it also protects the police’s egregious conduct,” Rob Whittle said. “And the culture of police cover-ups must be changed as well.”
Unified police declined comment Wednesday, saying their response will come in the form of a response to the lawsuit in court documents. Police also referred the public to Gill’s letter clearing Broadhead for any questions about the incident.
But despite what happened to their son, Whittle and Esposito say they do not support movements to defund the police. In fact, they believe police and other first responders and even emergency dispatchers should receive more funding to get better training.
“Please, please let’s work together,” Esposito pleaded. “Let’s come together and change these things. I don’t want the police unprotected. I don’t them defunded. I want more funding for their training, for their protection, for their ability to deal with the mentally ill and addicts. They’re not bad people, they’re in a bad place.
“(Police) have to defend,” she continued. “But I’m telling you, these laws, these dispatchers, these policemen, any first responder needs to understand that the death of a human being, the death of a young man who belongs to a large family who grieves him ...”
“You can’t undo that,” Rob Whittle interjected.
“You can’t undo a death.”