Police and protesters clash in Cottonwood Heights; officers detain several demonstrators

A protester is led away by Cottonwood Heights police officers during a march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. The protest was a "March for Justice" focused largely around Zane James, who was fatally shot by police in Cottonwood Heights in 2018. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A march advocating police reform in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County turned chaotic Sunday as multiple people were detained and allegedly pepper-sprayed and tased by police officers in Cottonwood Heights.

Officers took nine people into custody and impounded five vehicles, Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo told The Salt Lake Tribune. Three of his officers were injured, he said, and several were sprayed with water guns containing an unknown liquid he described as “hazardous.”

A nearly 40-minute video shot and broadcast live on Facebook by Tali Bruce, a Cottonwood Heights city councilwoman, shows dozens of people marching and chanting down a residential street. A few minutes later, the march was stopped by police asking people to move from the street to the sidewalk.

After several minutes of discussion, the march continued on the sidewalk before moving back to the street. That’s when police officers and protesters are shown confronting and yelling at one another.

Russo said there were no issues when the march began at Mill Hollow Park at 4 p.m. before moving into the neighborhood. But after about an hour, “hundreds” of people joined, took to the streets and started “blocking the roadways and not letting people go to and from their homes around the neighborhood,” he said, and the interactions between officers and protesters escalated.

One officer in the video is visible as he lifts a young woman into the air and slams her onto the lawn in front of a home. The woman says, “I can’t see,” three times as officers are detaining her.

Later, a couple of officers are visible as they are tackling a shirtless man to the ground and detaining him. Nearby, an officer is shown spraying a man in the face. The man fell to the ground, with his face in both hands, and writhed in pain.

Russo said the actions of the large group of protesters spurred the call for officers to respond. He described the people demonstrating as “rioters.”

“When you take to the streets, stop the flow of traffic, intimidate people, scare people in their homes,” Russo said, “you’re no longer a protester to me.”

Russo also said in his view, a sizable portion of the protesters were not there to support the march’s cause. “I would certainly make the argument they were there looking to create havoc in the neighborhood,” he said. “We just can’t have that.”

The march was organized by a coalition of business owners, police reform activists, and friends and family of teenager Zane James, who was killed by Cottonwood Heights police on May 29, 2018, after police said he robbed a store in Sandy with an airsoft gun.

In a subsequent Facebook video, Bruce alleges that an officer punched her “hard” and also shoved her to the ground so forcefully that “an accessory to my hair came out.”

“I saw countless people spray gassed, beaten, bloodied — including Zane [James’] father,” Bruce said in the video as she begins to cry while driving in a vehicle. “I can’t even believe this is Cottonwood Heights.”

(Warning: Language in the video below may be offensive to some viewers.)

Russo said Bruce had exchanges with more than one officer, including himself. He said that Bruce’s allegation that an officer hit her in the throat and threw her to the ground “is not representative of what had occurred.” Russo declined to elaborate because, he said, “there is more coming.”

Russo filed a lawsuit against the city and Bruce last month, claiming there is a conspiracy to get him fired.

Sunday’s protest was one of the latest of many calling for police reform after the May death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota.

Russo said discussions surrounding police reform are happening in the department and with city council members and community leaders, and that he looks forward to them.

“But what I will not do is be like other jurisdictions where I allow outsiders to come into my community — where I am charged with the safety of those individuals — and create havoc, cause fear, destroy their property and threaten their safety,” Russo said. “And if those people say that that is me escalating the situation, so be it.”