An inside look at one stretch of downtown Salt Lake City, where police, clubs work together to curb violence

As people spill out of nightclubs in the early weekend hours, assaults and brawls have unfolded on Pierpont Avenue this summer. Police and businesses are working together to prevent violence.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Security guards check patrons before entering Echo nightclub, on Pierpont Avenue, on Friday, July 22, 2022.

Outside Echo nightclub on a recent Friday evening, about 10 security guards dressed in black milled about near an empty, velvet queue.

They stood in a loose circle under the green, leafy branches of shade trees, growing from beneath grates on the brick-lined sidewalk. Sunlight lingered in the sky, but just barely, as they readied for the night ahead.

Together, they would spend the next several hours patting down partygoers, checking hundreds of bags and IDs as guests entered the combined dance clubs, Echo and Karma. Inside, another 10 guards monitored patrons. The next night, there’d be 20 more guards working, about double the typical Friday force.

The clubs have always had security, but their owners recently began staffing more armed guards and partnering with police, who have increased patrols in the area after two large, violent brawls broke out on the block this summer.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Security guards gather for a meeting before the opening of Echo nightclub, on Friday, July 22, 2022.

This short stretch of Salt Lake City’s downtown, on Pierpont Avenue between 200 West and West Temple, is home to one other club, the nearby Sky SLC. Amid a weekly influx of people and patrons — mixed with intoxication and egos — one man ended up dead last month, a victim of a single random punch to the head, police have said. Several others have been hospitalized.

Most issues don’t develop on the dance floors. The real problem is the sidewalks and parking lots that people spill into after bars shut down, Salt Lake City police spokesperson Brent Weisberg said.

For the past several months, Salt Lake City police have tried to work with business owners to identify safety solutions, with one officer acting as a liaison.

“Having a police presence is only part of the solution. We need the help from business owners, people in the area, to address these issues,” Weisberg said. “...They’re frustrated just as much as we are. They don’t want this type of violence and criminal activity occurring in and around their businesses.”

Officers have instructed businesses not to overserve people and not to admit people who’ve already had too much to drink. They’ve also advised staff to make sure patrons don’t have weapons. But Weisberg said some level of personal responsibility is needed, too.

“I mean, it’s hard sometimes,” he said. “I fully agree that when you have a lot of people, there’s a lot of energy, sometimes there’s certainly alcohol that’s involved — and small things can escalate extremely quickly.”

What’s being done?

Inside Echo and past a dance floor’s gyrating spotlights, through a nondescript door and down several sets of stairs, is one of two “security rooms” on the property.

Douglas Kesler, who co-owns the conjoined clubs, arrived at an office-slash-command center just before 10 p.m. on July 22, bringing with him two bounding labradoodles, who were scared of the Pioneer Day fireworks but didn’t seem to mind the loud, steady thump of bass from upstairs.

“It’s getting rampant, the gangs,” Kesler said, explaining his situation amid absentminded pats to whichever dog stuck a nose in his lap. “It’s out of control.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Douglas Kesler, co-owner of Echo and Karma nightclubs, talks about security at his clubs, on Friday, July 22, 2022.

He recently updated the clubs’ dress code to prohibit jerseys and hats, as well as any clothing of a certain color that could indicate gang affiliations. Security has been on the lookout not just for obvious weapons, but also weapons hidden inside nonthreatening facades, like makeup kits.

When bouncers scan IDs, the technology cross references a list of names of people wanted by police, and immediately alerts staff who can then tell police — or refuse would-be guests entry.

“We had let ‘em kind of relax it a little bit, because, you know, [we] went through a whole space where we didn’t have any issues,” Kesler said. “But the gang’s come where everything’s happening.”

Kesler pays four off-duty SLCPD officers $100 an hour to patrol a parking lot just south of the property, not wanting to be a “drain” on resources as the department tries to recoup staff lost after an exodus following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-police protests in 2020. He also relies heavily on his security staff to detain people until police arrive.

Weisberg said there is a gang issue in the area, but it’s not the whole problem. Any time there’s a large group of people, he said, there’s bound to be some gang members or people affiliated with them.

“But as I’ve said before, what we see is people who are definitely letting smaller things escalate into much bigger problems,” Weisberg said.

In addition to multiple clubs, there’s also a parking garage and paid street-level lots nearby, where hundreds can leave their vehicles before venturing to Pierpont Avenue venues or any other bars in the area, accessible by any direction.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police and security guards patrol the parking lot across the street from Echo nightclub, on Pierpont Avenue, on Friday, July 22, 2022.

Wherever the night takes people, after-hours, crowds often gathered in the parking lot across from Echo, Kesler said. One way to make sure tensions don’t flare after-hours is to clear people from the area once clubs close.

In July, Weisberg said police worked with property owners to restrict traffic entering this block of Pierpont Avenue, shutting down the street to incoming traffic just before venues close. They also prevent cars in the parking lot across from Echo from exiting onto Pierpont Avenue, instead forcing them out onto West Temple and 300 South.

The move has cut down on the number of vehicles circling the block and encouraged crowds to head home, he said.

Most violent offenses reported on weekends, data shows

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of police calls for service on the block shows that since 2020, the vast majority are generated on weekends.

There were 273 calls for service for this block in 2021, compared to 148 the year before. This year, as of early July, police had been called to the block 115 times.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Assaults are the most common reported offense, followed by fights. On the weekdays, officers are primarily called to investigate thefts or people suspected of car prowling.

There’s only been two “incidents” at the club since Kesler took over around the start of the pandemic, he said. One in 2020, when a man left the club and came back in later with a gun and began firing. An employee fatally shot that man as clubgoers frantically fled.

The second happened this summer, on June 5, when someone slipped a knife into the club and stabbed someone.

Police have released few details about that attack, or the fights that flared up afterward as patrons left. They’ve reported three people were stabbed and five others were injured in the Pierpont area that night.

Police haven’t made any arrests in connection with the June stabbing. Responding officers arrested a 19-year-old woman outside the club after they said she drunkenly tried to get into a fight. A probable cause statement alleged she slapped an officer who broke up the skirmish and threatened to “put a bullet in the officers’ heads.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Kesler has two screens mounted on the plywood walls behind his desk where he can monitor a live feed from cameras inside and outside the two clubs. He’s watched hours of security footage trying to figure out how someone got a knife into the club that night. He’s still not sure.

His cameras also picked up the alleged assailant in the July 10 fatal assault. The man stood across the street for more than 40 minutes, Kesler said, prior to punching 37-year-old Yusuf Mohammed in the adjacent parking lot.

Charging documents state Mohammed and a friend had been at Echo and lingered in the parking lot after leaving. They were there, near Mohammed’s car, for about 30 minutes when a group of men confronted them. The witness told police he didn’t know the men, and that when Mohammed asked them, “What’s up?”, one of them punched him. It was nearly 2 a.m.

The force of the blow knocked Mohammed on his back, rendering him immediately unconscious. Police found him in the northwest corner of the lot, bleeding heavily from his mouth and nose. He was taken to a hospital but later died. A medical examiner said the punch and subsequent fall fractured his skull. He died of blunt force trauma.

Salt Lake County prosecutors charged 21-year-old Kepueli Penisini with a second-degree felony count of manslaughter. Charging documents note Penisini is 6-foot-3 and weighs nearly 300 pounds, while Mohammed was 5-foot-5 and weighed about 155 pounds.

Penisini told police, according to a probable cause statement, that he punched Mohammed after hearing the older man assaulted one of Penisini’s relatives.

Those off-duty officers, plus the increased patrols and on-site security, meant officials responded quickly that night in July. But there’s only so much law enforcement can do in such a “chaotic” scene, with more than 100 people on the streets, many of them panicked, amid active fights and reports of gunfire, Weisberg said.

“If they’re going hands-on with somebody and they don’t have enough backing officers, who knows what could happen if their backs are turned,” he said. “So it’s really a big officer-safety concern when we have these large brawls unfolding.”

Ana Valdemoros, the Salt Lake City council member who represents downtown, said she’s concerned about every crime in her district, but especially in the spaces that attract hundreds for entertainment and nightlife

“It goes without saying that proactive and preventive crime prevention is of the utmost importance to the City Council and we are making every effort to ensure that,” she said in a statement. “Our downtown culture is not defined by the actions of a few.”

She said the council has worked with police to provide more patrols in the area, and that some problems should be fixed when the department stabilizes staffing levels. Weisberg said a class of SLCPD officers will finish field training in the fall, and after more than a year of training will become full-fledged members of the force, meaning they can go on solo patrol shifts.

The increased patrols, Weisberg said, have seemed to help. So will adding additional officers to bolster those patrols. But police can’t prevent every problem. Some people don’t mind if police are around. It doesn’t stop them from engaging in “criminal behavior.”

Rob Joseph, Echo’s other owner, agreed and said it seems like some people feel emboldened.

“We get people that will literally come outside and start a fight in front of six police officers,” he said. “We look at them and we’re like, ‘Are you guys f------ nuts? The cops are here.’ They don’t care.”

Echo and Karma bill themselves as the city’s most “unique and vibrant night club,” playing hip hop music on one side and Latin music on the other. Kesler said that upstairs from his office, you’d find lots of people from different ethnicities, people from different countries. Most of them are younger, looking for a place to let loose and dance.

“I mean, 99% of the people are here to have fun — and they do,” he said. “It’s the 1% that just ruins it for them.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrons line up for the security check the crowd before entering Echo nightclub, on Pierpont Avenue, on Friday, July 22, 2022.

Correction • Aug. 8, 9:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the night clubs on Pierpont Avenue. They are between 200 West and West Temple.