Patrick Harmon, a 50-year-old black man, was shot and killed in August by Salt Lake City police officer Clinton Fox as he fled on foot from an arrest.
In the days following the killing, as Harmon’s family and community raised an outcry that the man had effectively been executed just for running away by officers who had numerous other options to detain him, District Attorney Sim Gill announced that Fox’s snap decision to fire three point-blank shots was justified. Gill told the public that Harmon had wheeled on pursuing officers with a switchblade and shouted “I’ll cut you.” Fox and colleagues had been within just a few steps of the running man in that moment, and his verbal and physical threat justified Fox’s choice.
But recently released body camera videos — which Gill’s office reviewed before furnishing their public decision — dispute part of the prosecutor’s narrative.
One of the videos, from Fox’s own camera, is shaky enough that it’s difficult to discern the exact body positions of the four men at the time of the killing. The other is steadier. Neither shows Harmon clearly turning around, nor is a knife visible in his hand. And neither captures the verbal threat Gill attributed to the slain man.
Officers around the country are often taught — informally by colleagues, if not in official policy and academy training drills — about the so-called “21-foot rule,” a truism of the law enforcement world which states that someone with a knife closer to you than 21 feet can kill you before you can draw your own weapon.
The “rule” is not backed by any scientific research. Many jurisdictions explicitly reject it. But its proven tough to root out of the trade, simple and catchy as it is. The core problem with the concept is that it was invented specifically to address situations where an officer has not yet drawn a firearm, as a way of discouraging quick-draw heroics inspired by old cowboy movies. Today, officers are coached to have their weapons out — not necessarily leveled, as gun experts frequently insist you should only point a deadly weapon at something you mean to kill — earlier on in encounters where they sense danger. That early readiness negates the original logic of the flawed “21-foot” concept, yet the notion persists that officers have a sort of kill-bubble surrounding them within which someone with a knife is almost automatically getting put in the ground.
Gill’s official report, published Wednesday, stresses Officer Fox’s professed fear repeatedly. Fox “was terrified by how close Mr. Harman was to the officers,” “was afraid Mr. Harmon was going to stab him,” “was worried about Officers Smith and Robinson if they tried to go ‘hands-on’ with Mr. Harmon,” and “feared if he didn’t immediately use deadly force, Mr. Harmon was going to stab him and/or the other officers.” A police officer’s experience of fear is treated as hard evidence in courtroom trials where an on-duty officer is accused of homicide. It’s not surprising then that Gill’s office decided that Fox’s fear would have rendered Harmon’s killing justified in the eyes of the court — although it uses the same sickening logic that has led to acquittals and hung juries even in heinous cases like the killings of Philando Castile and Walter Scott.
Gill’s investigators also determined that key frames in the body camera footage confirm the officers’ testimony that Harmon turned to face them, and had a knife.
But the alleged verbal threat — recalled, but in different forms, by all three officers present — is not captured on the tapes. Fox is the only person heard to make a threat, shouting “I’ll fucking shoot you” seconds before firing three times into Harmon’s body.
As with other alarming incidents between police and black civilians, the sequence of events that culminated in Fox killing Harmon began with something so minor it’s difficult to understand. Officers only approached Harmon in the first place because he’d crossed traffic lanes on his bike, which did not have a rear tail light on it. When police stopped him, Harmon became distraught — likely because he knew there were warrants out for his arrest, one for aggravated assault and the other for misdemeanor possession of narcotics — and then eventually decided to flee.
There are, of course, numerous other tactics available to law enforcement in such a situation. Before a late-arriving rookie officer shot and killed Scout Schultz on the Georgia Tech campus last month, for example, two other officers can be seen modeling the deescalation tactics that have supplanted the old kill-or-be-killed philosophy of the 21-foot rule in many jurisdictions. A foot pursuit is a different beast from the type of static encounter that ultimately led to Schultz’s death. But Salt Lake PD has abundant tools at its disposal to track down someone who runs.
“They just murdered him flat out,” Harmon’s niece Alisha Shaw told The Guardian. “They are lying. There is no way they were threatened by anything.”
Harmon’s killing and the radically incompatible interpretations of the evidence surrounding it are reminiscent of the 2016 killing of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. Where initial reports held that Scott had been unarmed, officers insisted that he had reached for a handgun in an ankle holster. But the officers had also failed to heed repeated, loud warnings from Scott’s wife that he was on powerful medication for a traumatic brain injury, and opted for escalating confrontation with him rather than conciliatory peacemaking — despite having the man’s wife right there to help talk to him.
When white men brandish weapons in public, police often do opt for the talking route. Jed Frazier pointed a gun at Pennsylvania state troopers in 2015. The officers sheltered behind their car, tried to talk Frazier down, then smashed in his window and arrested him, alive. Last year in Wake County, North Carolina, a sheriff’s deputy wrestled a shotgun and handgun away from 62-year-old William Ray, who later faced charges of assaulting a cop. There are plenty more examples where those came from.
The anecdotal disparity in how police respond to armed black men and armed white men, corroborated by the disproportionate rate at which black people are killed by police, shows what academics who study law enforcement call implicit bias. Inundated with images of black people as particularly dangerous, officers like Clinton Fox feel far deeper fear in encounters with black men than in comparable situations involving white men, the argument goes.
Yet even this straightforward attempt at cleaving through the stark differences in interpretation that attend killings like Harmon’s and Scott’s has typically gotten no traction with the most conservative members of American society. Vice President Mike Pence, for example, famously rejected the idea of implicit bias in policing during a debate with Tim Kaine last fall. Critics of police racism “use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or institutional racism, and that really has got to stop,” Pence said.