Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is lifting curfew

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives her first State of the City Address on Monday, March 3, 2020.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Wednesday she is lifting the curfew that has restricted residents since Saturday’s violent protests.

Her decision, which took effect Wednesday, follows two nights of largely peaceful demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality.

We’ve seen the respect that the protesters have had for each other, for the police officers, for the property in Salt Lake City,” Mendenhall said on “Trib Talk," during a conversation with Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce. “And I think that our city is once again in a place ... of peace and progress.”

The curfew had drawn criticisms from civil rights groups and residents questioning how the city could curtail the right of protesters to gather peaceably.

The mayor imposed her first citywide curfew Saturday, after violence erupted during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The rally began peacefully but became chaotic as the day wore on, with protesters smashing windows, spray-painting the state Capitol and torching a police car. A man threatened the protesters with a hunting bow, videos show, and an officer pushed an elderly man to the ground.

Mendenhall on Monday added another week to the curfew, which was to run each day from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. However, she told Napier-Pearce on Wednesday that she now feels comfortable ending these restrictions a few days earlier than expected.

“We ask from the bottom of our hearts," Mendenhall said, “that the peace that we saw for the most part with the crowd last night be able to continue.”

Asked about the decision to deploy National Guard troops in Salt Lake City streets, the mayor said the city police lacked the forces to safely handle the demonstrations alone. A staffing shortage under the circumstances would’ve endangered police and protesters alike, she said, adding that the city’s department got backup from a number of outside agencies.

“I want to be clear that Salt Lake City does not prohibit and does not try to stymie peaceful demonstrations,” she said. “But I think what we saw on Saturday surprised everyone.”

There have also been some alarming encounters since the weekend, she continued, referencing Monday’s arrest of a 27-year-old Utah man who allegedly threatened to shoot and kill police officers. Working with the FBI, West Valley City police stopped the car in which the man was riding and found four guns, including an AK-47 and an Uzi with a silencer attached.

The man told police he was on the way to Monday’s protest in Salt Lake City, although he “denied wanting to shoot police officers," according to the probable cause statement.

Mendenhall said city officials and police will continue coordinating with state public safety officials to keep future demonstrations safe.

The first-term mayor and former city councilwoman, whose initial brush with politics was as a clean air activist, said she wants to join the protesters in marching for equality. So far, she’s chosen not to participate because she doesn’t want to distract from their gatherings, she said.

During the “Trib Talk” interview, the mayor said she doesn’t believe racism is a problem within the Salt Lake City Police Department.

“But they are human beings,” she said. “I make mistakes on a daily basis, and I think any police officer across the country would say, you know, we’re human and we make mistakes.”

In contrast with many departments across the nation, Salt Lake City’s police agency has a culture of owning up to its failings and striving to improve, she argued. Chief Mike Brown on Tuesday held a listening session with prominent community members of color, explaining the departmental use-of-force policies and asking them for input. Those conversations will continue, she said.

Mendenhall’s administration is also pushing forward with the development of a citywide equity plan, a sweeping analysis of everything from where officials locate affordable housing to how they distribute funding.

On Tuesday night, city leaders listened for hours in a public hearing as speakers asked them to slash funding for the police department. Mendenhall said the city’s budget keeps most law enforcement funding level, with a few increases to satisfy contracts with the police union and cover rising insurance premiums.

However, she said she appreciated the thoughtful comments she heard during the meeting.

“I implore them to stay engaged,” she said. “You don’t have to convince us that we have broken systems. We know we do. We want to do this work.”