Salt Lake City mayoral candidates say young people must push City Hall to take ‘courageous steps’ in gun violence prevention

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Part of the huge crowd on the south lawn of the Utah State Capitol for the "For Our lives" rally, Saturday, March 24, 2018.

Most of the action that’s needed around gun reform and school safety initiatives in Salt Lake City has to come from state lawmakers and the federal government, candidates vying to lead the capital city of one of the youngest states in the nation said Monday night.

Still, the mayoral hopefuls promised they would work to engage youth voices at City Hall and would lead the charge on issues primarily impacting the demographic, if elected.

“I believe that it is part of the responsibility of an elected person to bring along the next generation and get them in the rooms when the decisions are being made,” former state Sen. Jim Dabakis told a group of nearly 50 people at a candidate forum hosted by March for Our Lives Utah, a student-led anti gun-violence group.

Dabakis, who polls show is the early frontrunner among a slate of eight candidates ahead of August’s primary election, pledged also to sit down with the city’s chief of the police, if elected, to ensure resources officers in Salt Lake City schools are "the best of the best of the best."

Addressing issues around school police officers has been one of the top priorities for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski before she leaves office next January. She recently announced that those officials will undergo more training in an effort to cut down on the number of students who are arrested and that officers will be staffed at all middle and high schools and not just those on the west side.

But as school safety has become a flashpoint across the nation amid a seemingly endless barrage of gun violence, several candidates noted that they don’t believe the way to secure schools comes through more weapons.

“The idea that we address the gun violence issue in our schools by bringing more guns into our school is insanity, right?” said former City Councilman Stan Penfold. “It’s insanity."

Instead, he pledged to create a Violence Prevention Office that would begin treating gun violence as a public health issue and that would provide resources to groups researching and addressing gun violence and domestic violence. He also said he’d task the Commission Against Gun Violence, which Biskupski created last year, to provide a list of recommendations to the city administration on meaningful policy changes around the issue within his first six months in office.

The hourlong mayoral forum, hosted at Impact Hub downtown, became deeply personal at some points — particularly when it came time to talk about racial disparities in policing.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla’s voice cracked as she addressed the gun violence that she noted disproportionately impacts communities of color and that she worries could affect her own family.

“Kids of color have a better chance of having a bad interaction with law enforcement with resource officers,” she said. “... I am committed to ending that. Because to me, again, it’s personal. I’m afraid when my kids don’t come home, thinking that they’re driving and something will happen to them because of the color of their skin.”

Escamilla, a Latina who currently serves Salt Lake City’s west side communities in the state Legislature, said that as mayor she would look to address the school-to-prison pipeline, use data to ensure bias is not creeping into school discipline systems and work to make City Hall look more like the communities it serves.

David Ibarra, a local businessman, shared his own experiences with racial profiling, noting that he was taught to always keep his hands on the steering wheel if he got pulled over while driving. He also noted that his family had a firsthand experience with senseless gun violence when his niece was killed in a drive-by shooting in California.

“We’ve got to go way upstream and start talking about guns,” he said, advocating for reform at the state level. “Should somebody be able to lend their gun to somebody else and not be responsible for what happens with that gun? The answer is no. They should be. Should we have guns that are out and about and not gone through background checks? Some of these things are so common-sense easy, but we make them complicated.”

As mayor, Ibarra said he would lobby the Legislature to ensure some of those ideas came to fruition.

During a conversation on suicide prevention — an issue that is prevalent in Utah and often affects young people and those from the LGBTQ community — Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall advocated for more guidance counselors to address mental health needs in schools across the district.

“I can think back to a time in my life when I needed that kind of support,” she said, noting that her father died when she was 14. “And I know today as my son goes to West High School that the ratio of students to counselors is hundreds to one. And the need for those kind of relationships is probably stronger than it was when I was that age in school.”

Mendenhall called for a cultural shift in schools to create inclusive spaces, which she said could include flying an LGBTQ flag at City Hall, and pledged in her first 100 days to convene the mayor’s Commission Against Gun Violence, the Salt Lake City Police Department and the City Council for a conversation about how to implement policy around what are now only ideas.

David Garbett, the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, said he supported the commission but encouraged the young people at the event to continue pushing the mayor’s office forward.

“This is a clear case where March for Our Lives has to be at the city demanding action, pushing us on that policy front,” he said. “Because a commission is about the city saying, ‘Let’s do it at our pace.’ But our pace isn’t necessarily the right pace, and that’s where you come in. That is really where this outside pressure is a key aspect of getting us to be bold and take courageous steps.”

To address youth suicide, Garbett said he wanted to see the city pursue adequate funding of quick response mental health teams in schools in an effort to respond quickly to those who are at risk of attempting suicide, to implement mandated health reporting and to work with the county to expand programs creating places for at-risk youth to address their needs with mental health counselors.

AJ Erznoznik, a March for Our Lives Utah organizer and a recent West Jordan High School graduate, said her group organized the mayoral forum in an effort not only to draw attention to the upcoming municipal race but also to the issues affecting young people.

Overall, she said she was impressed by the candidates’ responses.

“I think they addressed a lot of things that are important to us and I think a lot of them are starting to realize that the youth really do have power,” she said. “They really need to listen to us and they need to help us help them.”