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The mother of Darrien Hunt, a 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by Utah police last year, rejected an offer to settle her lawsuit against the city and two police officers involved. Had she accepted the settlement, she would have been barred from speaking publicly about the incident.
“To me it was a gag order [that said], ‘Here’s hush money, don’t ever say Darrien’s name again,'” Susan Hunt, mother of Darrien, told Utah’s KSL news about turning down the $900,000 settlement the city offered in response to her wrongful death lawsuit.
The suit alleges that the police used excessive force and violated Darrien’s constitutional rights when they confronted him and shot him to death while he was wearing a costume and carrying a metal samurai-style sword, one that his family says was rounded and not an actual weapon. The lawsuit seeks $2 million in damages as well the prioritization of body-cameras and use-of-force training for law enforcement.
Heather White, the attorney representing the city and the officers involved in the shooting, declined to comment on the negotiations or reaction from Hunt’s mother, citing ethical standards for attorneys to discuss such matters publicly, but did confirm that no settlement had been reached.
Payouts over alleged police misconduct have soared in recent years. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, the 10 cities with the largest police departments paid nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in settlements and court judgments in 2014, up almost 50 percent since 2010. Those same cities paid out over $1 billion over that five-year period in cases that involved alleged shootings, beatings and wrongful imprisonment. That money, like the rest of the police department’s budget, comes from taxpayers.
While controversial, settlements are often touted as good business decisions by city officials who argue that it could actually cost taxpayers more money to litigate every single complaint — both with and without merit — that is brought against the city government.
But it’s also a convenient defense, as it shifts the financial responsibility onto taxpayers and can allow police to quash evidence that might exist against officers accused of wrongdoing. And when a gag order is included in that settlement, accusers are forced to remain silent about any concerns that they may still have, despite having settled.
“The idea is to resolve the case through a compromise, stop any pending legal proceedings in their tracks, and put the incident behind everyone,” Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, told The Huffington Post.
Medwed explained that it’s critical for all parties involved in these settlement negotiations to speak freely, and if everything said during that negotiation process is later made public, there can be a chilling effect on the conversation to begin with — making the prospect of an agreement far less likely.
“Gag orders as a condition to a completed settlement partially relate to this concept — it’s designed to enhance closure and truly ‘settle,’ both calm down and resolve, the dispute,” Medwed said. “That said, the existence of a gag order may — understandably — be interpreted by the public as a tacit admission of guilt.”
Hunt was confronted by Saratoga Springs police officers, Cpl. Matthew Schauerhamer and Officer Nicholas Judson, on Sept. 10, 2014, as he walked around an area strip mall dressed as an anime character carrying a metal sword. Following a 911 call from someone near the mall who saw Hunt with the sword, police responded and ultimately shot at Hunt who, police claim, lunged at them with the sword. Police then say Hunt fled as officers gave chase and opened fire upon Hunt again.
An autopsy report later found that Hunt died from six gunshot wounds, with at least four entering his body from behind.
After a nearly two-month-long investigation in the shooting, Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman said that the officers’ use of deadly force was “justified” due to the officers believing that their own lives, or those of the nearby public, were at risk.
The family has disputed the police account that Hunt swung his sword at the officers, and have said that race was a factor in the incident. Police deny that the shooting was racially motivated.
The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the killing of Hunt. Saratoga Springs officials said they would fully cooperate with that effort.