Bad cops shouldn’t be able to jump jobs, says Salt Lake City police chief in Tribune online forum

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kamaal S. Ahmad shakes hands with Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown following a rally in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

A police officer shouldn’t be able to escape a misconduct investigation by resigning and then take a job with another department. And new training and new bodycams can help reduce incidents that build mistrust between law enforcement and the community they are sworn to protect.

That was the message Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown delivered during Trib Talk, a virtual town hall hosted by Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce on Wednesday.

The conversation, a part of a series, took place as police brutality protests continue in Utah and across the country.

Speaking of rogue officers jumping from department-to-department, Brown said, “That needs to be fixed, that is a big problem. What happens is officers will get in trouble and they’ll start an internal affairs investigation and the officer will resign and a lot of agencies won’t finish the investigation.”

Brown said his department does finish those investigations, and when appropriate adds a note to the person’s file that says the officer likely would have been fired. He said all other departments should follow suit, and he tied it to national legislation calling for a police “misconduct registry.”

Utah Valley University Associate Professor Dianne McAdams-Jones pressed Brown on making sure officers are held accountable like other professions.

“I’m a nurse, let’s just say I have a string of deaths that have been following me and they find out that I’m the cause of them but you know what, in the investigation I decide to resign. Do you want me to still practice as a nurse?” she asked Brown.

“In my profession I wouldn’t have a license,” McAdams-Jones told Brown. “But in your profession they still have the ability to get hired again.”

She said this issue highlights the importance of civilian review boards, which review accusations of police misconduct and review incidents when deadly force is used. “If you’ve got the community there and they’re [educated] and understand policing and understand leadership, they’ll call you out on it.”

What can civilian review boards do?

Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, argued that Salt Lake City’s civilian review board lacks influence.

“This board has no power, they do not have subpoena power, they do not have the power to fire, they do not have the power to bring charges,” she said during Wednesday’s town hall. “To me they’re symbolic.”

While these boards make recommendations, it is the police chief that makes the final decision. Additionally, former law enforcement and relatives of law enforcement are allowed to sit on review boards, Scott said.

“No offense to the board… it’s a joke, it is theatrics, it is not real,” she said.

Scott said she supports protesters calls to “defund the police,” which generally means shifting resources to other social services. But her primary focus is getting independent civilian review boards.

“It is my theory that if a police officer believes when he pulls that trigger that he will have an investigation and possibly be charged with a crime he might be less likely to pull that trigger, to choke that suspect to death, to put his knee on that suspect’s neck…”

University of Utah Police Chief Rodney Chatman, who moved to Utah a few months ago, said the state needs to reimagine how civilian review boards look. “It needs to be a collective conversation between the police and members of the community.“

Implicit bias training

Chatman, who has been in law enforcement for 30 years, said training should be reviewed and bolstered. In particular, he said implicit bias training can be improved. He said such trainings are usually led by someone who doesn’t understand law enforcement and the job officers do.

He suggested training police to teach their peers about implicit bias while also explaining the science behind it.

Scott said she doesn’t have confidence in police training at all.

Brown said in the past three to four years Salt Lake City Police Department has added new training sessions. Mayor Erin Mendenhall is currently organizing a commission where Utahns can tell officers what their expectations are. The Salt Lake City Council is also funding more social workers and paying for new bodycams.

Those tools are only one step toward moving past today’s acrimony, Brown said. It will take a lot of hard work to rebuild trust.

“I think it starts with transparency, you have to be transparent because transparency builds trust, trust builds relationships, and relationships build inclusive communities,” he said.

But Scott said trust won’t come easily and isn’t even the most important goal. “I don’t need to trust the police,” she said. “The police need to do their job and actually protect black and brown people.”

This was the second of three Trib Talk online conversations about police and race. The first one explored racism in Utah. The final one, taking place next Wednesday at 7 p.m. will discuss solutions. The live stream will be available at sltrib.com and on The Tribune’s Facebook page.