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Paul Rolly: The challenge Chief Burbank faces in fighting police brutality

Published April 7, 2014 10:13 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank faces a challenge. He wants people who witness police brutality in his city to contact him and give him the time, location and description of the offending cops.

Then, he says, he will take immediate action.

But that's not easy.

An incident near the homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City illustrates the problem.

After Seth Commichaux witnessed what he says were two police officers cursing and manhandling a group of homeless people lying under blankets and cardboard boxes, he contacted me.

Burbank wishes Commichaux would have called him.

But given the rise of violent law enforcement incidents around the country, including one in Salt Lake City in which police in a drug investigation stormed the wrong house, where an elderly woman was living by herself, it's understandable why someone witnessing bad police behavior would not report it to the cops.

That's the challenge Burbank has.

"First, if that is true and I was aware of it and could prove it, I would fire [the offending cops]," Burbank told me when I informed him of Commichaux's claims.

The incident happened in January, just before midnight. Commichaux, a student at Utah Valley University in Orem, had just gotten off the night's last FrontRunner train and was walking to his parents' condo in downtown Salt Lake City when he happened upon the confrontation between the officers and the homeless.

"The policemen began cussing loudly and tearing the cardboard and blankets off the people and throwing the rags and paper into the dirty, icy street," Commichaux said. "One of the policemen looked like he was kicking the people lying there while shouting that they had to go into the shelter or get lost."

Commichaux waited more than a week before he sent me an email describing what had happened. And I didn't contact Burbank until several days after that. So by the time the chief got the information, the trail was too cold to investigate.

Burbank says the Pioneer Park area is a hotbed for crime. Predators selling drugs or intending other crimes frequent the place because the homeless can be easy targets.

That makes it a dangerous place for police, too. One officer was recently assaulted when he tried to investigate an incident inside the homeless shelter.

But cops nationwide face more and more scrutiny with the airing of stories about raids gone bad, including the 2012 one in Ogden when a police invasion of the home of a marijuana grower left one officer dead, five wounded and the suspect eventually committing suicide in jail.

Utah lawmakers passed bills this year that require more transparency in police raids and raises the bar for when law enforcement can justifiably use force.

Burbank, meanwhile, emphasizes the role of neighborhood cops, who become familiar and trusted on their beats. He wants the public to trust them — and him.

And that's his challenge.

prolly@sltrib.com