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Family of man killed by police claims bodycam video exists but was kept secret

Attorney for Cottonwood Heights insists video doesn’t exist

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Tiffany James and Aaron James speak about a civil rights complaint they filed alleging excessive force by Cottonwood Heights police in the 2018 shooting death of their son, 19-year-old Zane James, at a news conference at Sykes McAllister Law Offices in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 16, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — A new motion filed by the family of a man shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018 claims body camera video of the actual shooting exists but has been covered up.

In their motion filed Tuesday, Aaron and Tiffany James and their attorney, Robert Sykes, claim that former Cottonwood Heights police officer Casey Davies was actually wearing a body camera when he shot their son, Zane Anthony James, 19, in the back, ultimately leading to his death.

“Tiffany James, mother of Zane James ... has had multiple conversations with reliable individuals who are part of Cottonwood Heights government. These individuals have told Tiffany that there is indeed a video of the actual shooting, as opposed to just post shooting video. Apparently, the shooting video was shown in 2018 to the entire Cottonwood Heights City leadership and to others,” according to the motion.

Tiffany James told the Deseret News on Thursday that the video was shown during an executive session of the Cottonwood Heights City Council and that members who were there have come forward to tell her that they had seen it.

“We wouldn’t make this accusation if we didn’t feel in any way shape or form this information was reliable,” she said.

Michael Young, an attorney for Cottonwood Heights Councilwoman Tali Bruce, told the Deseret News his client, under a provision of state code that lays out criminal penalties for mishandling public records, “believed that she had an obligation to report to (Salt Lake County District Attorney) Sim Gill video footage that she had seen in a closed session meeting.”

“The information that she relayed to Mr. Gill related directly to Mr. Gill’s investigation into that shooting,” he said.

But Cottonwood Heights insisted Thursday that video does not exist.

“The city is not aware of any video footage of the shooting of Zane James,” a statement from Heather White, an attorney representing the city, said. “To the city’s knowledge, no member of the ‘Cottonwood Heights City leadership’ saw any such video in 2018 or any time since, or has ever heard of its existence.”

Bruce and Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo have a conflict-riddled history. Bruce is named in a lawsuit filed against the city by Russo, who alleges she improperly worked with others in city government to try to oust him.

On May 29, 2018, police say Zane James, 19, robbed two stores at gunpoint with an Airsoft gun. About 10 minutes later, as Davies was driving to work, he heard on his police radio that other officers were chasing a suspected robber who was on a motorcycle. Davies spotted the motorcycle and engaged in the pursuit.

As James sped through a residential area near 6675 S. 2200 East, he hit a speed bump and crashed just two blocks from his house.

According to a report on the officer-involved shooting from Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, James began running away from the officer, and while doing so, kept putting his hands near his waistband.

In the front yard of a home at 2209 E. 6675 South, James was shot twice in the back.

The investigation concluded that Davies was not wearing a body camera that day because he had not yet been to the office to pick it up.

Body camera video was released from other officers who arrived on the scene shortly after the shooting.

In May 2019, the James family filed a civil lawsuit against Davies and Cottonwood Heights. The city has filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.

But in their motion filed Tuesday, the James family is asking a judge to deny the motion to dismiss and to enter a default judgment in their favor, or let the lawsuit continue in court and make Cottonwood Heights turn over the alleged video.

“(The James family) obviously have not seen the video. But the only reason (Cottonwood Heights) would withhold such evidence is because it is harmful to their defense. The taint of this willful omission is threaded through the fabric of this case,” the motion states. “The video undoubtedly shows that Zane was the victim of illegal deadly force. Why else would (Cottonwood Heights) have hidden it?”

White said Thursday the city believes a current Cottonwood Heights council member may have been talking about “body camera footage of another police shooting. Specifically, the city believes that the video footage in question did not concern Zane James, but was of another, entirely different, nonfatal shooting by a CHPD officer that occurred outside the city following a high-speed chase in approximately September 2017. Although the city is actively investigating these new allegations, the city believes that they are entirely mistaken and without any merit whatsoever.”

But Tiffany James told the Deseret News her sources on the existence of the video are “highly reliable.” She said they came forward “after the attack on our family” during a rally to celebrate her son’s birthday on Aug. 2.

The peaceful rally turned violent when Cottonwood Heights police began arresting people for not using the sidewalk and several people began fighting with officers. The incident has sparked a call for investigations and protests of the police department.

Aaron James, Zane’s father, was one of those arrested. He was booked into jail for investigation of rioting, obstructing justice, assault on a police officer and interfering with police. As of Thursday, no formal criminal charges have been filed against him.

Aaron James told the Deseret News from his home in Cottonwood Heights that he hopes the case will be dropped. He said his family is also preparing a letter to send to District Attorney Sim Gill’s office requesting that he investigate the Cottonwood Heights Police Department for allegedly abusing its power and targeting his family. The family believes they were targeted by officers at the rally.

As for the existence of body camera video, James said he is “shocked and horrified that such evidence was held back,” but not surprised due to his family’s prior dealings with the police department.

“People are fed up with how Cottonwood Heights police have a pattern of withholding information,” Tiffany James said.

“These guys always hide evidence. They script a story,” Aaron James added.

He said it wasn’t just the alleged body camera video that was withheld from Gill’s investigation — which ultimately determined that the shooting was legally justified — but also from witnesses who were on scene whose statements were not included in the report submitted to the district attorney.

Contributing: Katie McKellar