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Nearly a year after then-17-year-old Abdullahi "Abdi" Mohamed was shot by police, body-camera footage of the violent encounter was seen publicly for the first time Monday.
On Monday morning, the videos which had sparked a fight between prosecutors and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah over their release were shown inside a 3rd District juvenile courtroom, where a preliminary hearing was held for Mohamed.
Mohamed, now 18, was charged with first-degree felony aggravated robbery and second-degree felony possession with intent to distribute. He is accused of assaulting a man with a hollow metal rod after a dispute about a drug purchase the night of Feb. 27, outside a downtown Salt Lake City homeless shelter.
Judge Julie Lund heard testimony about the alleged crimes Monday before finding that there was probable cause for the case to move forward. She will determine at a hearing next month whether Mohamed's case will stay in juvenile court or move to the adult system.
After the court hearing, the Salt Lake County district attorney's office released the videos to the public a move that came after months of denying records requests.
The ACLU recently won a victory before the State Records Committee, which unanimously approved the release of the video.
The county had said it planned to appeal the committee's decision, but after the footage was shown in court Monday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a news release that he felt it was the right time to release it. Previously, he had said it was critical for the evidence to remain private because releasing it could affect Mohamed's right to a fair trial.
"My position on public release of videos relating to the Rio Grande officer-involved shooting has never been if, but when," Gill said. "… We have always said this case presented a very close, nuanced and complicated balancing act between the statutory rights of the public versus the constitutional rights of the juvenile. We have consistently maintained that we would release all information once we were confident that doing so would not violate the rights of the accused or compromise the integrity of the process."
The ACLU on Monday called the release a "victory for open government and transparency."
"The public can finally view for themselves the controversial footage that has been repeatedly described to them by government officials, and was recorded by body cameras paid for by their tax dollars," said Brittney Nystrom, ACLU of Utah's executive director. "We maintain that the footage should have been released many months ago, because these are clearly public records; however, we are glad that transparency ultimately triumphed in this case."
David Reymann, an attorney with Parr Brown Gee and Loveless who worked with the ACLU in seeking the release of the footage, said they fought for government transparency across the board, not just in Mohamed's case.
"We sincerely hope," Reymann said, "that the next time a high-profile incident like this occurs, and community members demand accountability and transparency, Salt Lake County will not force people to hire lawyers to access records that should be immediately presumed and made public."
In addition to body-cam footage from the two police officers, Kory Checketts and Jordan Winegar, Gill also released surveillance video from the area of the homeless shelter. The footage shows the two officers initially investigating a cellphone theft at the women's shelter. When they left the shelter in search of the phone, they spotted an altercation involving Mohamed, an unidentified man and Kelly McRae.
McRae testified at Monday's hearing that Mohamed assaulted him after he had asked to buy a marijuana cigarette from the teen. McRae testified that he offered Mohamed the metal rod, which had been described as a handle for a mop, rake or a broom, in an effort to get Mohamed to leave him alone.
The body-cam videos show the two officers running toward the assault scene, yelling, "Put it down," "Drop it," and, in one instance, "Police!" The video shows the second man notice the officers and walk away from the assault, while Mohamed continues toward McRae. About 15 seconds elapse between when the two officers begin yelling and when shots are fired.
In the video, Mohamed does not appear to react to the two officers. Instead, he moves toward McRae, with the broom handle moving in his hands. McRae can be seen backing up, his hands in the air.
As the officers fire their weapons, Mohamed immediately drops to the ground and the metal handle flies from his hands.
The teen lay bleeding on the ground, for at least five minutes after the shooting without receiving any first aid. The video shows a crowd of people gathering near the teen and yelling as the two officers holler at the crowd to get back.
"Somebody needs to help him!" someone shouts in the video. "He's a little kid," another says, and another person screams, "You murderer!"
The officers continue to yell at the crowd to stay away from Mohamed, still lying on the ground, one officer telling the crowd, "We've got to get people back so we can get him medical."
After the shooting, the officers told investigators that they feared Mohamed was raising the metal rod to strike McRae again. Gill ruled that the officers were justified in using deadly force, because the officers believed the deadly force was necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to McRae.
Salt Lake City's Civilian Review Board, however, found that the shooting was "not within" policy. Its report indicates that the fight between McRae and Mohamed appeared to be winding down when the officers arrived and there was "no increased urgency" in Mohamed's attack before the shooting. Nor was there any increased urgency in McRae's response to Mohamed at that point in the confrontation, the report states. The board also noted that Mohamed's natural arm movement, as he "leisurely" walked toward the man, might have resulted in the pipe being raised and lowered.
Salt Lake City police officials said in a statement Monday that they supports Gill's decision to release the body-cam footage and his findings.
"Although we will not speak about the specifics of the video at this time, we stand by the officers," the statement reads. " ... The video released today was an important part of the investigation. It should be noted that there were numerous other factors that were part of the investigation, to include many interviews with witnesses and others involved in the incident, as well as evidence gathered at the scene."
The shooting sparked an immediate outcry from people gathered near the shelter, who shouted and threw rocks and bottles at the police. The fervor continued in the ensuing months, with protests about alleged police brutality, demands for release of the body-cam footage, and calls for better dialogue between police and the public.