‘Ridiculous’: Mendenhall, Salt Lake County D.A. dispute Gov. Cox border comments

Cox visited the Texas-Mexico border on Sunday at the invitation of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall delivers her State of the City address on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Mendenhall disputed Gov. Spencer Cox on Monday, arguing that police data didn’t back up his Sunday assertion that illegal immigration is impacting local drug use.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall disputed Gov. Spencer Cox on Monday, arguing that police data did not back up Cox’s assertions that what he called a “crisis” in illegal immigration was fueling drug use in the city.

“You can literally walk through downtown Salt Lake City and see the impacts of those drugs that are coming across the border with Mexico,” Cox told reporters after visiting the Texas-Mexico border on Sunday, joined there by 14 other Republican governors at the invitation of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

“So that’s another, again, public safety reason,” Cox continued, “that we need to do more to protect our borders and then fix legal immigration, so people can come through the front door the right way.”

Mendenhall countered Cox during a Monday news conference, where Salt Lake City police announced a new tool to help residents better understand crime in the city. The tool, an interactive data dashboard, allows users to see how often certain types of violent crime and property crime have been reported in Salt Lake City dating back to 2021.

The dashboard does not break down historical data on reported drug offenses. But when asked to comment on Cox’s comments, Mendenhall said immigration policy hasn’t influenced the amount of drugs in the city.

“Our data doesn’t show any increase related to immigration changes at the border,” Mendenhall said.

D.A. calls Cox’s remarks ‘ridiculous’

(Bethany Baker | Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill speaks during a news conference on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. He said late Monday afternoon that he found Cox’s comments “ridiculous.”

Hours after Mendenhall’s comments Monday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill late Monday afternoon told The Salt Lake Tribune that, “with all due respect,” he found Cox’s comments “absolutely ridiculous.” He added that studies have shown fentanyl is more likely to be trafficked by U.S. citizens and said he thinks Cox’s remarks were a “misstatement.”

“What you see, in reality, is a failure on our policymakers to invest in mental health and transitional housing and supportive services,” Gill said. “It’s a deflection of the responsibility of state government on its own policy failures, and trying to couple it with a photo-op on the border is beneath the governor to do so.”

An after-hours request for comment from the governor’s office late Monday afternoon wasn’t immediately returned.

Salt Lake City saw a 4% decrease in total drug offenses between 2019 and 2022, according to data that Salt Lake City police provided The Tribune in November. The first year, 2019, accounted for the highest number of drug offenses logged by the department over that four-year period.

Drug offenses can include a “wide range” of criminal charges, such as possession of drug paraphernalia, manufacturing substances or distributing substances, according to police.

“If we want to solve these issues, and honestly address these issues,” Gill said Monday, “let’s keep them in their honest perspective and not grandstand for an election year or for a political purpose. It serves no one.”

Mendenhall noted during the news conference that a Honduran cartel and other cartels have had a presence in the city for decades, but said, “That is something that we have worked very hard, and across federal and other public safety partnerships, to try to affect.”

Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown added that when he was first hired with the Police Department in 1991, cartels were bringing heroin into Salt Lake City. Now, he said, it’s fentanyl, but Brown argued that it doesn’t matter where drugs come from — only that federal, state and local partners work together to hold drug traffickers accountable.