Salt Lake City Council discusses options to ‘defund police’; thousands skate in peaceful protest

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skaters and skateboarders skate down State Street during the Black Lives Matter Skate for Solidarity protest on Thursday, June 11, 2020.

As thousands of public comments flood their meetings and inboxes with calls to defund the police, Salt Lake City Council members are weighing their options.

Elected officials and staff are looking at a multipronged approach, including moving some funds from the police department to nondepartmental accounts, putting certain funds on hold until later in the year, and conducting a third-party evaluation of the law enforcement budget.

In all their comments and emails, the most common demand from city residents is a $30 million cut to police operations. But at a work session Thursday, council chairman Chris Wharton explained that’s not possible.

“It actually is not allowed under the law,” Wharton said at the work session. “We must identify cuts specifically or we’re simply delegating our responsibility to establish the budget.”

Wharton said the $30 million figure was based on a proposed formula for cuts to the Minneapolis Police Department, but recalculated and scaled for Salt Lake City. As protests continue nationwide and in Utah, the Minneapolis department is currently facing intense scrutiny after a handcuffed George Floyd died while an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

On Thursday night, the “Black Lives Matter Skate for Solidarity” protest culminated with speaker Tyeise Bellamy asking the several hundred people remaining at Salt Lake City Hall to lie on the ground for eight minutes and 43 seconds.

A multimillion, lump-sum cut ignores many of the programs and procedures that Salt Lake City already has in place compared to Minneapolis, Wharton said.

“Our police department, we believe, is further along in achieving the goals that many of these commenters articulated that they wanted to see,” Wharton said. “While there’s no magic $30 million budget cut, there is a City Council that hears what you’re saying, that is committed to moving forward very seriously on this topic.”

While the City Council has yet to vote on a revised police budget, staff presented some ideas Thursday.

One was to transfer about $500,000 out of the police department and supplement it with other funds to guarantee every officer has a body camera. Staff also proposed transferring out and supplementing funds for de-escalation training. Moving those items out of the department would also guarantee those projects get funding, even if police officials start trimming their budget.

Staff also proposed prioritizing hiring three social worker positions and a victims advocate position, while maintaining a hiring freeze on officers. Park rangers and social workers could be moved out of the police department’s umbrella as well.

The administration identified $2.8 million in police funds that could be placed in a holding account without having unintended consequences on public safety.

“It would essentially park that money for future conversation,” said Jennifer Bruno, deputy director of the council office.

Finally, staff recommended having a third-party firm conduct a zero-based budget exercise on the police department.

“In layman’s terms, that means taking apart the budget, figuring out what building blocks make that budget, then putting it back together,” Bruno said.

The finds would be used to inform the next budget planning process.

Council members suggested creating a policy that would bar approval of any federal grants for military equipment for police. Most recently, the police department received a mine resistant ambush protected vehicle in January 2017 and a military surplus rifle in April 2013, according to a staff report.

In an interview prior to the council meeting, Wharton said militarizing police has never been a council priority.

“We have tried to, with our [police budget] increase, put that money toward things we believe are going to decrease violence and increase police accountability and neighborhood safety,” Wharton said.

The police department’s budget has risen steadily since 2013. Since Wharton took office in 2017, he said most of the increases have come from combining airport police with the city police department and increasing the amount of body cameras for officers. The number of full-time employees in the department has also increased from 555 in 2017 to 711 in 2020, according to a staff report.

“We had a large increase in police officers brought on as part of Funding our Future discussions,” Wharton said. “The thing that residents were asking for the most was infrastructure, the second was more public safety resources.”

While the City Council has received a deluge of feedback from city residents on police funding and systemic racism, Wharton said they need to represent everyone in the Salt Lake City community.

“I’ve heard from numerous residents and community councils that they want more resources for the police department. They want shorter response times to 911 calls. They want more community policing,” he said. “I have an obligation to listen and consider all those viewpoints together to try to find the right balance.”

Meanwhile, aside from a few scattered signs with messages reading “DEFUND THE POLICE,” and “My taxe$ don’t pay for you to kill black people,” and “Don’t Shoot,” Thursday evening’s protest in Salt Lake City scarcely acknowledged the police at all.

Indeed, the only role of significance that police played in the “peaceful skateboard protest” was blocking off a few streets and clearing the way for the several thousand in attendance to make their way from Liberty Park to Salt Lake City Hall.

The event was billed as “No violence, no vandalism,” and organizers took care to reinforce the point before they took off, leading the crowd in a chant of “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!”

People on skateboards, bikes, scooters, roller skates and many other wheeled vehicles converged on the corner of 400 South and State Street, hundreds of them holding signs saying “One life taken is one too many” and “Black is beautiful - BLM.” Many in the crowd held signs that said, simply, “Justice for Bernardo” — a reference to 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal. Video shows Palacios-Carbajal running from officers, who fired more than 20 shots at him and killed him.

While some of the protesters then followed one group of organizers northbound along State Street, as they were exhorted, “We are gonna ride along these streets, because these streets are ours,” another group stayed put at City Hall. There, Bellamy addressed them and encouraged the crowd to remember Floyd for who he was and how he died, rather than the imperfect moments of his life.

Tribune reporter Eric Walden contributed to this story.