SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from the family of a Black man shot and killed by a white Salt Lake police officer, rejecting their allegations of excessive force and racial discrimination.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby found officer Clinton Fox was “legally objectively reasonable” in shooting 50-year-old Patrick Harmon three times in August 2017. Shelby pointed out that his Friday decision comes “in the midst of an important national conversation concerning race and policing” following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Qualified immunity, the legal doctrine granting police officers and public officials broad protection from lawsuits, shields Fox from the legal claims, Shelby said in the 30-page order dismissing the case. He found Fox did not violate Harmon’s constitutional rights.
The judge noted the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans have prompted widespread dissent against police brutality and calls to reconsider qualified immunity laws. But Shelby said he was not expressing any opinion on those “or other matters touching on the important issues we are grappling with as a nation.”
Attorney Andrew Deiss, who represents Harmon’s family, said “legally” is the key word in the judge’s finding that lethal force was justified. Deiss said the “failed legal doctrine” of qualified immunity is responsible for blocking the case from reaching a jury.
“Thousands who watch the tape of the shooting would not agree that the shooting was reasonable,” Deiss said. “As long as the doctrine of qualified immunity is alive and kicking, there will be no justice.”
His clients, Patrick Harmon II and Tasha Smith, have said their father did not lead a perfect life but had reunited with them and found a renewed spirituality before his death.
On Aug. 13, 2017, police stopped Harmon after he rode his bike across six lanes on State Street near 1000 South, noticing he didn’t have a required rear light.
They began to arrest him on outstanding warrants when he broke into a run, then turned back toward them with what Fox later told investigators he believed was a knife in his hand. Fox said Harmon had made a threat to “cut you” while facing the three white officers although body camera recordings did not capture any such statement.
Fox then shot Harmon three times while yelling, “I’ll (expletive) shoot you.” Video of the shooting appeared to show Harmon being shot in the back. At about the same time, another officer deployed a Taser, striking Harmon in the chest.
Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown has stood by Fox, saying he had the training and judgment to react properly in split-second scenarios.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office found Fox was legally justified when he shot and killed Harmon, reporting Fox told investigators “it was the scariest situation” he had faced in a decade of law enforcement and two military deployments. The following month, the city’s civilian review board determined he had followed department policy.
Attorneys for Patrick Harmon’s son, Patrick Harmon II, and daughter, Tasha Smith, have emphasized that none of the footage from the three body cameras showed a knife. Investigators reported later finding one at the scene after one of the officers had spotted it on the ground by Harmon’s right hand after the shooting, court records say.
Lex Scott with Black Lives Matter Utah said the officers tried to justify the shooting based on a knife that could have tumbled from Harmon’s backpack. They would not have stopped him if he were a white woman on a bike, she said.
“I’m so heartbroken right now for the Harmons,” Scott said, her voice catching. “Nothing has changed in this state since Patrick Harmon was murdered by police.”
In the Friday ruling, Shelby said the nighttime video is at times muffled and shaky during the chaotic four-second scene. But it made clear that Harmon posed an immediate threat to the officers’ safety after he threw one officer to the ground as he tried to get away.
The judge said police acted reasonably based on a perception Harmon had a knife. Harmon had pivoted toward them with his right arm at his chest “in a manner a reasonable officer could view as a threatening, stabbing stance” from 5 to 7 feet away, Shelby wrote.
The lawsuit against Fox and the city alleged racial discrimination was a “substantial motivating factor” in Fox’s decision to shoot, reflecting a pattern of bias in the department. Shelby said Harmon’s son and daughter provided statistics pointing to racially based policing in Salt Lake City, but the figures were not were not directly tied to Fox.
Harmon’s family had argued that less than 3% of Salt Lake City is Black, yet the demographic group was involved in roughly 13% of use-of-force incidents in 2017 and 2018. All three people fatally shot by police in Salt Lake County in 2018 were people of color, they argued.
Deiss called the video of the shooting “awful” but urged people to watch it and consider for themselves whether it was reasonable. He said Harmon deserved an opportunity for a jury to make that call on behalf of the public.
“It is not much to ask; especially from the family of a Black man shot three times in the back,” Deiss said.