Family members of a 22-year-old Utah man have sued over what they and their lawyer call an unconstitutional shooting death by police officers.
On Sept. 10, Darrien Hunt was walking in a commercial area in Saratoga Springs, Utah, while holding a katana, or thin Japanese-style sword, which Hunt had purchased for a costume inspired by a Japanese anime.
Surveillance video from a local convenience store and shopping plaza shows Hunt walking down the sidewalk with a sword on his back. The weapon was enclosed in a case while Hunt was walking.
In the surveillance video, a woman is seen on the sidewalk, undisturbed by Hunt. Shortly after, another camera picked up Hunt running away from two officers.
Video and audio from inside the convenience store shows customers reacting with alarm to officers chasing and shooting Hunt.
Because Hunt was African-American, his family and their attorney claim that the incident was motivated by race. The population of Saratoga Springs is 93% white and less than 1% black out of a total of 23,000 people, according to U.S. Census data.
Witnesses in the case say that Hunt had swung the sword at officers, a claim that Hunt’s family disputes. Hunt was shot after he tripped while running from the police.
The family and their attorney, Robert Sykes, are arguing that the video doesn’t show these reckless actions but a young man who feared for his life. The prosecution also believes that this case may have been racially motivated.
Yet the two officers, represented by attorney Heather White, said the shooting was not motivated by race and that the officers shot in self defense.
The case arrives at a time when many other white police officers throughout the country have been accused of police brutality and the murder of unarmed black men. These situations have been met with protests and experts warning citizens to “know your rights with police officers.”
“Carrying a weapon, or what could be easily mistaken for one even legally, is more dangerous than people generally understand,” explains Robert Bennett, partner and attorney at Gaskins Bennett Birrell Schupp LLP. “That is not, in itself, an issue of race. When confronted by law enforcement, even if the contact is racially based, extra care and compliance with police commands is necessary to ensure a safe conclusion. Having said that, mere flight does not justify a shooting in ‘self defense.’”
Currently, the family is seeking $2 million in damages from the Saratoga Springs Police Department.
At a news conference on Feb. 4, White referred to Hunt’s death as a preventable one. “Had he not swung the sword at the officers and run with it toward a crowd of people, he would be alive today,” she said.
The case has so far gained national attention and has received calls from the NAACP to have the U.S. Department of Justice review whether police violated civil rights.
White expects that the trial could be years away, if the lawsuit progresses. She said she didn’t know how much the lawsuit would cost the city of Saratoga Springs, but it would likely be expensive.