Darrien Nathaniel Hunt was an oddity in Saratoga Springs, a small, well-to-do city in Utah where a pair of white police officers gunned him down last week.
A young black man with a towering Afro, Hunt stood out in this overwhelmingly white city about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City. So much so that just moments before officers killed him in a barrage of gunfire on Sept. 10, passersby pulled out their cell phones and snapped photos of the 22-year-old with the big hair, bright red shirt and toy sword slung over his shoulder.
“People were taking pictures saying hey, look what I found,” Randall Edwards, an attorney for Hunt’s family, told msnbc. Moments later Hunt was dead, struck with half a dozen bullets. The fatal shot struck him in the back, according to Edwards.What none of the photos taken by witnesses on Sept. 10 show is what initially sparked the gunfire or any details into the circumstances that led to Hunt’s death.
Police say that officers were responding to a report of a suspicious person walking around with a “samurai-type” sword when they confronted Hunt. They say he brandished the sword and lunged at the officers, at which point they opened fire on him.
Hunt’s family and their attorney are refuting those claims, saying that witnesses saw Hunt running from the officers as they fired on him, that he was shot six times from behind and that he fell and died about 100 yards from where police initially made contact with him.
Edwards, the attorney, said that an independent autopsy conducted at the behest of the family shows that the fatal shot struck Hunt at the center of his back. Five other gunshots struck him from behind, he said, including shots to his legs, shoulder, elbow and hand.
Hunt’s family has also been adamant that they believe his race – his mother is white, his father is black – played a role in the shooting. His mother, Susan Hunt, insists he was killed “because he’s black.”
“I’m in Saratoga Springs, cause it’s a safe little community and they killed him. They killed my son because he’s black,” she told the Deseret News. “No white boy with a little sword would they shoot while he’s running away.”
Edwards said the alleged weapon that Hunt was carrying at the time of his death had a blunt edge and was largely decorative – something “you might win at a carnival for knocking over stuffed animals.”
“When you look at those facts, the report from the pathologist and witness statements, it appears clear that the story that has been given out by the County Attorney that he was brandishing a sword and lunging at the officers is at least questionable,” Edwards said. “There were no gunshot wounds from the front, so the question then is what happened. There are only 3 people on earth, 2 people on earth now, who know what went down between those officers and Darrien and one of them is dead.”
Hunt’s killing and the questionable circumstances surrounding his killing comes a little more than a month after the shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Witnesses in the Brown case say he was also running from an officer when that officer opened fire on him. Brown’s killing sparked local and national outrage with weeks of protests, some of which turned violent.
“Obviously, when you’re looking at any incident where you have a dead black kid and white officers you’re going to say what going on? Is it a similar situation in Ferguson? Only in that sense,” Edwards said. “Saratoga Springs, Utah, is not Ferguson, Missouri. Officers here don’t have a long history with confrontations with a minority population. That’s what we don’t have. What we do have are a lot of questions of what’s going on and why did this happen. I think that the family, the last thing they would ever want to do is cause or exacerbate race relations in Utah.”
While there hasn’t been any mass protests or marches in Hunt’s name, the story of Hunt’s killing has gone viral with many national news outlets picking up the story. In one seemingly small act of dissent, a page on Wikipedia for Saratoga Springs was edited to say “Saratoga Springs, Utah (Civilian Killers RIP Darrien Hunt).”
The police have denied that Hunt’s race had anything to do with the incident.
Owen Jackson, a spokesman for Saratoga Springs, said the investigation has been handed over to the Utah County Attorney’s Office. Per protocol, he said, the two officers involved in the shooting have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
Jackson said the Saratoga Springs 34-member Police Department was formed in 2007, and that there has never been a police involved shooting death in that time. Jackson said that he is unaware of any previous claims of racial profiling against the department.
About 95% of Saratoga Springs is white, according to recent Census data. It is also home to Mia Love, the city’s most recent former mayor, who is likely to become the first-ever black Republican woman elected to congress. In recent years, the population of Saratoga Springs has exploded, from just over 1,000 in 2001 to 22,000 in 2010.
John Mejia, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said that the group is calling for an open and transparent investigation while awaiting the conclusion of the county attorney’s own probe.
“I think that there needs to be sort of an openness and willingness to be as public as you can possibly be in this sort of investigation,” Mejia said.
Mejia said there have been about 10 deadly police shootings across the state so far this year, including four since August. Results in just two of those cases have been publicly released, he said.
“There are some deadly shootings that date back to April and this is sort of state-wide issue,” he said. “As lawyers we understand that these things can take a while, but I think the public does start to get uneasy when the results take so long.”
Hunt was the third person shot by Utah police in just three days, according to a report by the Salt Lake Tribune.
While Hunt’s race and the race of the officers who fired on him stand out for a number of obvious reasons, Edwards said that with so many more questions than answers, it’s unclear what roll, if any, race may have played in the shooting.
“When faced with the question ‘did race play a part in this,’ my client will say I can’t think of any other reason they would shoot my son,” Edwards said. “You have this young black man with a pretty big Afro walking down the street carrying what looks like some sort of weapon. It’s a pretty sleepy community. What happened next? And that is where things get very interesting.”
Edwards said that just moments before police shot Hunt, a woman filling her car at a Chevron gas station near the scene saw Hunt and the officers talking and snapped a photo of them. In the photo, Edwards says Hunt and the officers seem calm with their hands all by their sides.
The police aren’t in any defensive position, he said. And it’s unclear if Hunt has anything in his hands.
“She says that within seconds she looked down to finish pumping her gas and he is on the run and they are shooting at him,” Edwards said.
Edwards said the area where she snapped the initial photo and the area Hunt’s body was found is about 100 to 150 yards away. He said the family doesn’t have the resources to conduct the kind of investigation that the government will be able to do. During a vigil on Sunday night, Edwards said he was handing out flyers asking for anyone with information to come forward.
“We really hope the government will do its part and will do an objective, thorough investigation in which the questions we have will all be answered,” Edwards said.
Chief Andrew Burton of the Saratoga Springs Police Department said in a statement Monday night that immediately after the shooting the Utah County Officer Involved Shooting Protocol Team and the Utah County Attorney’s Office were notified, with the former assuming responsibility for the investigation.
Burton said the city would like the investigation to be conducted quickly, but that “the integrity of an investigation is paramount to an accurate outcome, and patience and commitment are required.”
The chief called the investigation “extremely complicated and very in-depth,” with dozens of interviews that need to be conducted, forensics to be analyzed and laboratory tests conducted. He said toxicology tests and lab results must be handed over to the county attorney and that reconstructions of the incident might be required.
All that will be time consuming, Burton said. And in the end it will be the county attorney that decides if the officers involved in the shooting were justified in using deadly force.
“It is difficult to determine how long such a comprehensive process would take,” he said. “The City of Saratoga Springs and the Saratoga Springs Police Department understand the desire on the part of the media, the family, and the public for more information about what occurred. However the City and the Police Department are unable to provide that information concerning the investigation because we are not conducting the investigation and cannot appropriately answer the questions.”
In the meantime, Hunt’s family is devastated, reeling after the death of a man they described as eccentric but gentle, Edwards said. They are planning funeral arrangements and waiting on details of the investigation to emerge.
The family is hoping to bury Hunt on Wednesday or Thursday of this week.
“The reason we had the autopsy done is for the family to get answers about what happened and why. We still don’t know. At this point it’s difficult to suggest what the motivations were for the officers or really what happened,” Edwards said. “All I can say is that it seems unlikely that you brandish a sword, you jump toward the officers, lunging toward them and end up shot in the back.”