Despite growing calls for defunding the police, the state’s four GOP candidates for Utah governor are largely in accord that withdrawing resources would be the wrong tactic, calling for investing more in agencies that they say are overworked and under pressure.

The Republican rivals — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP chairman Thomas Wright — acknowledged the need for policing reforms and broader societal conversations about racism during a Tuesday evening televised debate.

But they stopped short of leveling specific criticisms at Utah police.

“We have issues with the police. They are underfunded, undertrained, underappreciated,” Huntsman, who recently announced his endorsement from the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, said during the two-hour forum hosted by KUTV and the Pioneer Park Coalition. “And they work their hearts out. And they do everything humanly possible.”

When asked whether racism is present in Utah’s police agencies, Cox didn’t answer directly.

“I have not met a racist cop in this state,” he said. “That does not mean they’re not out there. It’s very possible that there are — there are good and bad in everything."

Several of the candidates saved their harshest admonishments for protesters who resort to violence and for state and local leaders who have tried to rein in the civil unrest that spilled out on Salt Lake City’s streets in late May.

“It was four hours of unabated, uninterrupted violence,” Hughes said. “It could have been stopped earlier on. It got so out of hand.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former House Speaker Greg Hughes in the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

The forum follows more than two weeks of mostly peaceful demonstrations in Salt Lake City in response to 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 protests have ignited new conversations about racism and policing in Utah, as state lawmakers look at banning officers from using knee-on-neck chokeholds and the Salt Lake City Council considers calls to defund the police.

The event also took place just a couple weeks ahead of the June 30 primary election, where voters will pick one Republican candidate will go on to face Democrat Chris Peterson in the general election.

Huntsman took part in the forum at Eccles Theater’s Black Box theater even as he battles a coronavirus infection. The debate organizers made special arrangements to isolate the former governor, so he could participate without exposing anyone to the infection, KUTV reported.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Gov. Jon Huntsman appears on a screen participating in the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate with former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and former House Speaker Greg Hughes, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

On policing

The lieutenant governor choked up briefly as he talked about his recent conversation with a black woman who spoke about the racism she and her sons experienced. He also mentioned an interaction with an officer who’d been on the front lines of the recent unrest and had to dodge rocks and bottles.

“This is a critical moment in our state’s history, in our nation’s history,” he said. “Giving us the opportunity to talk about real change.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

Cox noted that Herbert has already prohibited state troopers and corrections officers from using chokeholds on people in custody and that state lawmakers will consider a policing reform bill in this week’s special session.

Police are overtaxed, he added, asked to respond to mental health crises and other problems they’re not equipped to tackle. The state should invest in better mental health care services while supporting improved police training and working to eradicate racism in society at large, he added.

Huntsman critiqued his opponents for failing to offer up solutions to the grievances expressed through the recent protests and said he would listen to “both sides” as a way to chart a course forward.

“We’ve got people who have taken to the streets,” he said. “People don’t take to the streets in this country unless they have no other means by which they can express their grievances and their disagreements.”

If elected, Wright said he would undertake a review of Utah’s police curriculum that would look for ways to modernize law enforcement training. He also said he was open to a more wide-ranging conversation about policing.

“Is there a better way for us to police? There might be,” he said. “But we need to do that thoughtfully. ... We need to make sure that we don’t put public safety at risk by doing it too quickly and not having a very clear definition of what that means.”

Hughes advocated for requiring officers to report any misconduct or excessive force they see a colleague use. But he also warned that “you can’t raise these kids to think that the police and ... law enforcement are the bad guys."

“You can’t do that,” he said. “This is not going to end well.”

On recent protests

Hughes was adamant that state and local officials did not use enough force to crack down on a late May protest that turned violent — with one man drawing a bow and arrow on the crowd and demonstrators flipping over a police car and leaving graffiti on the Utah Capitol.

If he’d been governor, he said, “we wouldn’t let the Capitol be defaced and destroyed with spray paint.”

He expressed skepticism that the disruptive participants in that protest “actually even care about what happened to that poor man,” meaning Floyd, and said they seemed more interested in sowing discord.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright in the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

Following that protest, Salt Lake City’s mayor imposed a temporary curfew, and Herbert deployed the National Guard to Utah’s streets. The numerous demonstrations since then have largely remained peaceful.

But Wright and Hughes agreed that Herbert waited too long to summon the National Guard forces, saying the governor should’ve recognized earlier the potential for violence to erupt.

“It was pretty obvious when the crowd was forming that there was the possibility that there was going to be vandalism and some unruly behavior,” Wright said.

For his part, Huntsman said a militarized response to a protest is an “admission of failure” by government leaders. During the recent unrest, he said, “I saw something on the streets of Salt Lake that I’ve never seen before. I saw Black Hawk helicopters in the sky and I saw a Humvee, heavy armored personnel carriers on the ground.”

If he’d been in charge, he would’ve “done everything possible” through negotiation and communication with protesters to avoid calling in heavily armored officers and troops, he said.

On the coronavirus

As one of the leaders of the state’s coronavirus response, Cox defended TestUtah, a statewide coronavirus screening and testing initiative spearheaded by a group of tech companies that have landed state contracts worth millions of dollars.

Though questions have swirled about the accuracy of the tests used in the initiative, Cox said the entrepreneurs behind the project deserve credit for helping Utah ramp up its testing.

“I’m here to tell you, they saved us in many, many ways,” he said. “They were able to use their supply chains in China and other places to get additional testing capacity here.”

Huntsman spoke about the opportunities he sees to set the state’s economy on track for a major boom coming out of COVID-19 and even expressed support for raising the state’s minimum wage.

“When you’re at your darkest point and there’s despair, that’s when you have opportunities,” Huntsman said. “So in this moment of uncertainty, globally, nationally and in our state, I see huge opportunity for our state to grow and bring in additional opportunity and investment.”

For his part, Hughes argued against government restrictions during the coronavirus, saying Utahns can determine for themselves how to deal with the pandemic.

“You need a governor who trusts the people of the state of Utah to make these good decisions and not take their jobs away,” he said.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.