The chairman of the Utah Republican Party sought to tamp down a firestorm sparked by the party’s Salt Lake County leader, saying he went too far in suggesting Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is a "cop-hater" unfit for the office.
"I would not have made the comments in the way he made them," Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said in a news conference Wednesday aimed at refocusing attention away from the comments by county party Chairman Chad Bennion. "To be inflammatory gets you off the message you’re trying to make or gets you off the issue you’re trying to raise."
In addition to calling Gill a "cop-hater," Bennion said Gill’s experience witnessing police brutality in India may have tainted his ability to be unbiased on police-force issues.
Bennion made his comments in an interview with The Tribune on Aug. 9, after Gill found two West Valley City police officers were not justified in the shooting of Danielle Willard, who was attempting to flee the scene of a suspected drug deal.
In addition to being chairman of the county party, Bennion works with the attorney representing one of the two officers and frequently represents officers on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police in disciplinary hearings.
Hours before Bennion vented on Gill to The Tribune. Bennion’s wife had been convicted of child abuse for slapping their 10-year-old child.
Evans, who had been silent about Bennion’s comments to this point, said that issues like the West Valley shooting should be a law enforcement, rather than political, debate, although he said Gill’s entire record in office will be at issue should he run for re-election next year or if he makes a bid for state attorney general.
Bennion was expected to attend Wednesday’s news conference but did not.
Evans said it was probably a mistake for Bennion to raise Gill’s ethnicity, because, he said, the news media will not give a Republican the benefit of the doubt when they bring up race.
"Any Republican and particularly any white Republican knows not to do that, because they’re not going to win on that issue," said Evans, although he didn’t see Bennion raising the issue as out of bounds, since Gill talked about it publicly.
"All of our life experiences shape how we look at society," said Evans, who is black and grew up in South Carolina. "I can stand here today and tell you I will always have ambivalence toward law enforcement because of my upbringing and what I had to go through in a segregated South."
While Evans tried to put the Bennion matter to rest, members of the Salt Lake County Council — including Republicans — voiced Tuesday their support for Gill.
"Justice shouldn’t be infiltrated with partisan politics or personal bias," said Council Chairman Steve DeBry, a 32-year police veteran who has investigated officer shootings. "I hope we can move past the ugly nature of what has been in the press and the things said and we can move forward to best serve the interests of the people, put partisanship aside and let the legal system figure it out."
Republican councilman David Wilde said it is unfortunate that Gill’s investigation has been turned into a political issue.
"To say this was the act of a cop hater based on crazy ideas based on someone’s nationality is nothing more than craziness," Wilde said. "I would suggest Chad Bennion rethink what he has to say and offer some kind of apology. It’s not appropriate to go down those kind of roads."
Mike Gorrell contributed to this report.
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