Police shooting that wounded Utah teenager ruled justified

2016-08-09 08:18
Demonstrators march  to protest police abuse in the US. (File, Scott Olson, AFP)

Demonstrators march to protest police abuse in the US. (File, Scott Olson, AFP)

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Salt Lake City  - Two police officers were justified in shooting and critically wounding a teenage refugee from Somalia in a confrontation that sparked unrest and protests in Salt Lake City earlier this year, a Utah prosecutor decided on Monday.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said officers acted appropriately when they fired at Abdullahi "Abdi" Mohamed because police believed he was about to seriously injure or kill a man with a metal broom handle.

The February 27 fight began after a failed drug deal and a dispute over $1.10 near the city's bustling homeless shelter, Gill said at a news conference. The officers yelled multiple times for Mohamed to drop the weapon as he and another man attacked the victim, but he refused, Gill said. They shot him four times.

Gill revealed the most complete account yet of what led to the fight. The victim, a man who prosecutors only identified as KM, was near the shelter to buy drugs.

He approached Mohamed and asked if he could purchase marijuana. Mohamed told the man he only had methamphetamine but demanded the man's money anyway, Gill said.

The man refused and instead handed the teen a metal broom handle, which Mohamed took and used to begin hitting the man, prosecutors say. Police fired as Mohamed approached the victim and appeared ready to strike him again, the investigation found.

The officers' actions may have saved the victim's life, Gill said, declining to talk about the man's injuries. Authorities previously said he didn't need medical attention.

‘It was justified’

Mohamed's family has disputed that account. His cousin Muslima Weledi has said that witnesses told her Mohamed had a wooden broomstick and misunderstood the command.

Mohamed, then 17, was hospitalised in a medically induced coma, but survived. He turned 18 in April, and his health condition was not immediately known.

The shooting touched off unrest not far from the arena where the NBA's Utah Jazz play. It became a flashpoint in the nation's discussion about police use of force against minorities, and public outcry persisted as police refused to release video from the officers' body cameras.

Prosecutors still would not release the footage on Monday, citing new juvenile charges against Mohamed. He faces counts of aggravated robbery and possessing drugs with intent to distribute. Police said they found methamphetamine in his pocket.

Gill said the public outcry over the shooting was a reason he took more than five months to decide whether it was justified and why he asked the FBI and an expert on police use of force to review the investigation. The FBI declined to weigh in because it was justified, he said.

"It's not about making a popular decision," Gill said. "It's about committing yourself to a process that is objective, that is fair, that is accountable. Call it like you see it. It's not about choosing sides."

He said body camera footage played an important role, and it corroborated witness and officer accounts.

Mohamed came to the US with his family in 2004 from a refugee camp in Kenya, Weledi said.

Court records show he started getting in trouble with police at age 12 and spent time in juvenile detention centres for theft, trespassing and assault.

Mohamed is set to appear in court on Wednesday on the new charges.

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