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A Salt Lake City police officer has been fired after shooting a teenage driver in what prosecutors deemed an unjustified use of force.
Police Chief Chris Burbank confirmed that last month he fired officer Matthew Giles, who in the early hours of May 8 shot an accused car thief. Giles' lawyer on Thursday said the officer is appealing the termination, arguing he was fired "for defending his own life."
Attorney David P. Williams said Giles' firing was based on the finding of Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill that Giles' life was not actually in danger when he opened fire in the Sherwood Forrest trailer park, near 1600 West and 400 South. But Williams said Gill's analysis did not consider the sequence of events "from the eyes of the officer."
Giles was one of the officers surrounding the trailer park in an effort to contain the driver, who had been involved in an earlier hit-and-run crash. Giles told investigators he had heard another officer say over a police radio that the suspected thief had "rammed" his police cruiser.
Giles claimed that he feared for his life when he opened fire because the teen was driving the car directly at him and was 20 feet away when Giles began shooting.
But investigators determined the car was likely 60 to 100 feet away from Giles not close enough to pose an imminent threat of death or injury, Gill wrote in a July ruling.
The difference between 20 feet and 60 feet is not significant in whether Giles reasonably could have feared for his life, Williams said.
"Obviously if it's a mile away, ... there's a problem," Williams said. "But in the middle of the night, when it's dark and all you see is headlights coming at you and you hear the engine coming at you, it doesn't matter whether it's ... 60 feet. [Giles] didn't have the benefit of ... measuring the distance before taking those shots."
But Giles did have the opportunity to get out of harm's way, Gill said Thursday.
"The car is 60, 80, 100 feet away, and his foot is touching the curb; he can step away from it, but what we had was [witness statements] that he stepped into it," Gill said.
Instead, Giles continued firing seven more rounds, the last of which struck the teen as he drove past Giles. The teen, who was shot in the arm and torso, "could not be a threat to Officer Giles at that point," Gill wrote.
Williams argued that only a fraction of a second separates a head-on shot and a side shot when the target is a car moving at 35 mph.
"When a police officer has already made a decision that there is a threat, the time it takes to decide that that threat is no longer imminent is greater than that half a second," Williams said.
Gill said that doesn't explain all of Giles' actions.
"How does he fire eight shots in that same half-second where he's trying to make a decision?" Gill asked. "Nobody is saying the situation is not a dynamic situation, but how you get yourself there is subject to review. I don't accept the rationale that once you start pulling the trigger, you're not responsible. The dynamic nature of the situation is not a blanket justification for every shooting."
Investigators found that one of Giles' eight bullets hit another officer's vehicle, and another bullet missed all vehicles. Gill argued that the shooting "was not reasonably necessary to prevent [the teen's] escape ... as it subjected others to an unreasonable risk."
Williams said the accuracy of Giles' shots does not relate to his justification for firing them.
"Stray bullets are a problem in any shooting," Williams said. "You try to minimize collateral impacts. Having bullets flying around, nobody likes that. But does that mean he wasn't justified in using deadly force? Absolutely not."
Gill said the errant shots do not call into question his marksmanship but rather the reasonableness of his choices.
"Do you fire into a dark crowd, or do you try to know where the bullets are going?" Gill asked. "Do you jump out and put yourself in harm's way when no one else has even drawn their weapon? ... He said he stepped out to get a clear shot. That means he already made up his mind to shoot."