SALT LAKE CITY – The fatal shooting of a man who ran from police while officers attempted to switch handcuffs and then engaged in a close-quarters melee with several officers in an attempt to escape was ruled justified, according to a letter released Friday, and the District Attorney stated the body camera footage captured in the incident helped corroborate witness statements about the fatal encounter.
Jeffrey R. Nielson was shot by police January 14 after a scuffle inside his vehicle, and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the officers attempted to use non-lethal force but were unsuccessful and that because the suspect was wielding a knife and making stabbing motions they had reason to fear for their lives. West Valley City Police Department's Officer Jason Vincent's use of deadly force was ruled legally justified under Utah law.
Gill discussed the findings in a letter, stating that Vincent was on his way to work when he saw Nielson inside a vehicle at 120 East Honey Berry Court in Draper. When he approached, he said he saw drug paraphernalia in man's hand. While talking with Nielson, the officer observed signs of habitual drug use and worried he may be impaired. Initially Nielson didn’t answer when asked if there were weapons in the vehicle, but later in the discussion he stated there was a knife in the glove box.
Vincent called Draper police for assistance, and several other officers arrived and a police K9 indicated there were possibly drugs in the vehicle. A substance believed to be crack cocaine was located. Nielson was handcuffed and searched, and he had heroin in his pocket. Nielson was handcuffed and questioned, the letter from Gill states.
Officer Vincent was going to take Nielson to jail while Draper PD officer Walter Deutsch was going to take the vehicle to impound, so the pair agreed to switch handcuffs—as the current pair belonged to another responding officer, Sgt. Harris. They notified Nielson, and at that time Deutsch, “commended Mr. Nielson on being cooperative and told Mr. Nielson the handcuff switch would take place.”
When police began to remove the handcuffs, Nielson ran to his vehicle and was able to get it into drive before police caught up. The vehicle moved several feet and a scuffle ensued.
During the fight, Deutsch called for someone to use their Taser, and Sgt. Lund of the West Valley City Police Department stated she tried to use her Taser but was unsuccessful. Lund, Vincent and Harris, “wrestled with Mr. Nielson to try to get him out of the vehicle and back into custody.”
Vincent said “he gave distraction blows” to the back of Nielson’s head but the man continued to fight and resist, though police were able to eventually partially extract the man from the vehicle. The man then broke free, however, and went back inside.
Gill states in the letter that, “At times, there were four people struggling during the melee, and everyone was in close quarters with each other.”
At that point, Vincent said he saw Nielson with a knife in his hand and said it looked like the suspect was making stabbing movements at the officers struggling with him. He yelled, “knife” and was afraid that an officer had been or would be stabbed, according to the letter from Gill. He drew and fired his weapon five times, and all shots hit Nielson, who was killed.
Gill stated Sgt. Harris’ body camera was recording, and added that the extreme situation meant the camera’s view was sometimes obscured but that they were still able to review the recording and use it to corroborate witnesses’ statements about the incident.
Gill noted that the officers tried to use less-lethal force at first, and he stated in conclusion: “Officer Vincent was involved in a melee with several officers and Mr. Nielson in very close quarters. When Mr. Nielson produced a knife and made stabbing motions, Officer Vincent reasonably believed his life and the lives of the other officers were in danger. Mr. Nielson’s imminent, unlawful threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officers made Officer Vincent’s belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury reasonable. Accordingly, Officer Vincent’s use of deadly force was "justified" under Utah State law.”
This is the second time Vincent has been found justified after firing his weapon at a suspect, click here for details on the other incident.