Salt Lake City Council reviews police budget as residents, protesters call for defunding the department

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Party for Socialism and Liberation Salt Lake walks from the Utah Capitol to the Wallace Bennett Federal Building to join forces with another protest group Salt Lake Equal Rights Movement, June 9, 2020.

Dozens and dozens of Salt Lake City residents attended a virtual City Council meeting again Tuesday to discuss the city budget and police policy.

At the same time, more than 800 protesters took to downtown streets — marching from the state Capitol to the federal building to the courthouse and the Gallivan Center — to decry racism and call for systemic change.

Like last week, Tuesday night’s City Council public comment period lasted for hours. Most speakers again asked the council to defund the Salt Lake City Police Department. They asked for that money to be spent instead on social services, such as housing, public transit and mental health care. And they spoke out against discrimination and police violence.

The commenters also added some new demands. They wanted justice for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, a Salt Lake City man who was shot more than 20 times by police on May 23, bodycam footage shows. They want those officers fired and charged with murder. They want Chief Mike Brown to step down. Some want the police department abolished entirely.

City resident Christian Olsen told the council he has never felt safe around Salt Lake City police.

“When my sister was having a crisis from a drug overdose, that was escalated by the police. When my black and brown friends have walked to work … they have been harassed,” he said. “Reform is not going to help the police department. They cannot help us.”

The number most often floated by those advocating for funding cuts is $30 million, which would take the police department’s budget to 2013 levels. Funding allocated to police has steadily grown since then, with Mayor Erin Mendenhall proposing $84 million for the department in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

As the Tuesday meeting began, council Chairman Chris Wharton said the city had received more than 2,000 public comments about eliminating racism and defunding police. Ahead of the meeting, council members held a work session to ask Chief Brown about reform and to explore the city’s options.

Brown acknowledged that there’s no written policy banning chokeholds or the type of neck manipulation Minneapolis police officers used on George Floyd when he died while under arrest. There’s also no policy prohibiting use of rubber bullets. The police chief said police don’t use either of those tactics, but he added that he was in the process of formalizing those policies and could have a draft to the council by Wednesday.

Council members also asked Brown about police use of tear gas. He said using the material would be an “indiscriminate use of force,” but added that the police policy does state tear gas is allowed.

“That will be changed,” Brown said.

At one point, Councilman Darin Mano asked Brown whether he thought the police department had a problem with implicit bias and racism.

Brown said no.

“The public perception is quite the opposite,” Mano said. “What can we do … to help bridge that gap?”

Brown suggested more diverse hiring in the department and better community outreach.

As council members weighed their budget options for the police department, city staff floated the idea of moving at least some of the funds to non-departmental budgets to create more management transparency. It would also allow the city to set priorities for the department, including body cameras for all officers.

Calls for the city to divert a portion of its police budget to social services echoed beyond the council meeting Tuesday, as protesters marched in the streets with signs asking for similar change.

Several protesters calling for defunding the police said they had already sent emails and made phone calls to council members over the last week asking for their support on such an effort. But they said being at the protest in person rather than at the City Council meeting virtually offered an equally important outlet to demand change.

“I had already put my voice out to the City Council and I feel like having a big number of people show up to these things is important to show that people still care,” said Maya Wheeler, 23, of Salt Lake City.

Protesters began gathering at the state capitol building Tuesday around 5:30 p.m. There, around 250 people chanted and held signs as speakers issued calls for an end to systemic racism and drivers passing by honked messages of support.

Organizers encouraged attendees to register to vote in an effort to evict lawmakers who don’t stand against racism. And they asked the white people in attendance to do more than just post a message on social media decrying police brutality.

“Your silence is violence,” said Will Kemner, a 20-year-old Salt Lake Community College student and a founding member of the Salt Lake Equal Rights Movement, which organized the protest.

To be real agents of change, he said, white people need to have hard conversations with the people in their lives and call those people out when they say or do racist things.

Protesters walked from the capitol to the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, where they met up with a larger group at a separate demonstration organized by the Salt Lake Party for Socialism and Liberation.

There, organizers with the party outlined a series of three demands. They said they want the city to defund its police department and to drop all charges against protesters involved in recent demonstrations against police brutality. And they asked the city to reopen all cases in which Salt Lake City Police officers killed someone and mandate those cases be investigated by a non-police panel.

Salt Lake City already has an independent, 14-member board charged with providing oversight of its police department but it doesn’t have much teeth. Activists have called on the city in recent years to replace its Police Civilian Review Board with a democratically elected one with the power to strike down old policies, veto the choice of police chief and overrule new law enforcement rules.

In response to those calls, lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 that preempted municipalities from giving independent boards much power, including the ability to discipline officers.

Near the end of the protest, which lasted for more than three hours, demonstrators made one of their final stops at the Gallivan Plaza, where organizers promised they would disband soon and let everyone make their way home after another series of speeches.

“We’re not tired!” the protesters shouted, undeterred.

They’d walk as long as asked, they said — and many promised to return the next day.