Salt Lake City police internal review finds no excessive force by officers confronting inland port protesters

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Police struggle with protesters for control of a door at the Chamber of Commerce Building in Salt Lake City on July 9, 2019. An internal police review concluded there was no excessive force by officers confronting demonstrators.

An internal incident review conducted by the Salt Lake City Police Department into an inland port protest that turned violent this summer outlines areas for officer improvement but found “no signs” of excessive or inappropriate use of force, despite an officer punching at least one protester.

The 12-page report, released to the public Thursday, is based on a review of more than 100 narrative accounts written by officers, over 340 body camera videos and photos, as well as media and building security camera footage.

The review commends officers for “maintaining their composure during a dynamic and increasingly volatile situation, where some of the officers were physically attacked by the demonstrators. They showed great restraint in removing the demonstrators from a dangerous situation, with little direction, in the chaos that was present.”

Utah Against Police Brutality organizer Dave Newlin, who says he was punched by SLCPD Sgt. Hatch, called the internal review “garbage,” saying it misconstrued what happened and downplayed or excluded incidents of police use of force.

The report does not list Hatch’s first name, and SLCPD spokesman Greg Wilking declined to release it for fear the sergeant would be harassed.

“You can see the anger in his eyes,” said Newlin, who is a former Salt Lake Tribune employee, "[the punch] was not an action that he took out of some sort of thoughtful effort to bring the situation to a close. It was out of anger because he lost control of himself.”

The demonstration, organized by ICE Free SLC, Civil Riot, Utah Against Police Brutality and other community groups, began at Salt Lake City Hall as a protest against the inland port, a massive distribution hub development planned for a large chunk of the city’s west side.

Afterward, protesters crossed 400 South and occupied the lobby and sixth-floor offices at the Salt Lake Chamber offices at 175 E. 400 South in downtown Salt Lake City. Police arrived to find more than 200 protesters there — 50 of them on the sixth floor, where several sat with linked arms, using cylinders to cover their wrists and hands in a procedure known as a “sleeping dragon.”

When police arrived on the scene and ordered the crowd to disperse, some protesters resisted removal while others spilled into the surrounding streets in an escalating scene of pushing, shoving, thrown punches and one confrontation with a passerby shouting racial taunts.

In the lobby, the report says officers were met with a verbal barrage, including chants of “f--- the police” from the crowd. Several officers were assaulted, including one who reported being kicked in the groin, another who was pushed and spit on, and a third who was knocked to the ground and kicked by demonstrators.

The incident report states that the protest resulted in damages worth $7,000 for cleaning, $2,000 for a lobby glass door replacement, $150 in reception desk damage from demonstrators jumping on it and $125 for adjustment of surveillance cameras.

In the aftermath of the clash, demonstrators blamed overly aggressive police for escalating the tensions. Three people made internal affairs complaints via email, but the review released Thursday notes that the Civilian Review Board dismissed the matter in line with city policies because no one would respond to the department’s request for additional information or to schedule interviews.

Darin Mann, a community advocate who does not face any charges as a result of the protest, posted a pair of videos to Facebook in the wake of the event that showed an officer dragging a demonstrator along the ground and another punching a protester in the face. He said an officer had choked him to the point he nearly vomited.

Ten people have been charged in 3rd District Court for conduct during the protest and another four were charged in Salt Lake City Justice Court on misdemeanor counts. No officers will face any consequences for their conduct.

Sgt. Hatch reported punching one of the protesters to keep people from holding onto the doors at the Chamber of Commerce building as police attempted to clear the lobby.

“I struck down on the arms of the people holding onto the doors, but as one would let go, others would grab hold,” he wrote. “Again, I told them to let go of the door. When they continued to hold onto the door, I punched one of those holding the door. This had the desired effect, and all of them let go of the door and we closed the door.”

Hatch also is reported to have pushed people back in order to move around them, causing multiple demonstrators to stumble and fall. That action “appeared to incite the crowd,” the report states.

The Salt Lake County district attorney’s office reviewed the force used by Hatch and found “no evidence” that refutes his explanation for his use of force and therefore does not intend to file any criminal charges against him.

Civil Riot, one of the groups involved in the protest, released a statement Thursday from a coalition of the majority of defendants and outlined four responses to the incident.

They said the charges are “political repression,” said the inland port “threatens our community,” of which activists are part of, and asked District Attorney Sim Gill to “drop the charges.”

Newlin also called for prosecutors to drop the charges against activists, saying they were akin to “political repression" and were meant to silence dissent.

“We definitely need to keep in mind that these protesters were trying to stop a port that is going to cause violence, that’s going to hurt people,” he said. “This is a port that threatens the entire city, and protesters were absolutely doing the right thing.”

The report outlines several areas for improvement with police response, including a need for additional training on tactics used during demonstrations, like the sleeping dragon. The review also found that officers did not use the recommended language by department policy as they attempted to disperse the crowd.

Police didn’t formally tell people on the sixth floor to leave, although the review notes it appears the crowd understood the officers’ intentions and some began to leave. Still, the lobby dispersal “may have encountered less difficulty” if the formal procedure has been followed.

It is also unclear if there was an amplified formal announcement for dispersal in the lobby, the review states.

“There was time to have made multiple announcements in the lobby, which could have possibly prevented the confrontation with, or reduced the number of, demonstrators that officers had to forcefully remove,” the review states. “While it is unknown if the demonstrators would have left upon another announcement made in the lobby with amplification, it is a valid tactic and recommended per SLCPD policy.”

While outlining some room for improvement, the report also highlights "areas of merit,” including “outstanding” communication between officers, body cameras used within policy, and use of reasonable force within the department’s policy and training to remove trespassers.

The department has since met with an external international expert regarding best practices for civil disturbances and implemented a leaflet practice to remind protesters of their rights during demonstrations, such as where they can assemble and what behavior is acceptable. Police also plan to purchase amplification devices for communicating future dispersal requests.