Salt Lake City leaders are launching an advisory panel to examine the policies, budget and culture of the police department with the aim of achieving racial equity and justice.

Called the “Commission on Racial Equity in Policing,” City Council members have discussed forming the group after receiving thousands of comments this month about defunding the Salt Lake City Police Department. It also followed nightly protests against brutality that began days after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, City Council Chairman Chris Wharton and a few members of the newly formed commission spoke briefly at a news conference Thursday at the International Peace Gardens.

“Once the protests end and the streets become quiet, it is imperative that we not lose focus. We must redefine a new normal in policing,” said Darlene McDonald, chairwoman of the Utah Black Roundtable, one of the core members of the commission.

The mayor called the commission a “significant step forward” in addressing systemic racism in Salt Lake City, saying that it could serve as an example to other cities in the country.

“Society has finally reached a point of reckoning with racism,” Mendenhall said. “Recent tragedies in our nation have been a catalyst for a movement that calls on us to finally, directly address the overt racism and implicit bias that affects the ability of people of color to move freely in our country and access the opportunities to which every single American should be entitled.”

Commission members also include Rev. France Davis, pastor emeritus of the Calvary Baptist Church; Aden Batar with Catholic Community Services; Verona Sagato-Mauga of Renew Wellness & Recovery; Dr. Moises Prospero, a direct practitioner in the area of criminal, juvenile & social justice; and Nicole Salazar-Hall, attorney and current Salt Lake City Human Rights commissioner.

In an interview, Mendenhall said those core members would be responsible for forming an even larger commission, which could include 50 members or more.

“It’s really up to the core commission to decide what’s a manageable size ... that’s inclusive of the spectrum of voices,” Mendenhall said.

The City Council has earmarked $100,000 for the commission, which will also be staffed with a facilitator. The group is charged with providing regular updates to the council and mayor as well as policy recommendations, including changes to the police budget and culture.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown attended the news conference and tweeted that he is looking forward to working with the commission.

The announcement came nearly a week after Decarcerate Utah posted a lengthy open letter to the mayor and City Council, taking them to task for failing to implement stricter reforms. The group had helped rally Salt Lake City residents to demand that elected officials cut $30 million from the police department budget and redirect the funds toward social programs, like housing and mental health services.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Author and activist Darlene McDonald, speaks with Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown following a news event with Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the Salt Lake City Council, and members of the community who announced the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, at the International Peace Gardens on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The new advising body convened to make recommendations to the Mayor and City Council on Salt Lake City's policy, budget, and culture of policing.
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“Council, you asked that we ‘stick with [you] in this conversation.' We are well past the need for dialogue and conversations, and equitable action has been long overdue,” the group wrote in its letter.

The council approved its police budget June 16, which placed $2.8 million in funds into a holding account and moved $2.5 million for social workers into a different fund, although those employees will still be housed in the police department. The council also placed a hiring freeze on new employees in the department.

Council chairman Wharton told The Tribune that he understood people wanted to see bigger cuts, but the time constraints of the budget process meant that wasn’t possible.

“We’ve tried to emphasize from the beginning, this is just a start. ... It doesn’t mean there won’t be more cuts in the future,” Wharton said.

Budgeting is a long and complicated process, Wharton said, and big cuts require deliberation and statements of legislative intent.

“There are laws and ordinances that require the police to do certain things,” Wharton said, noting that the council itself would be in violation of those law if it took money that prevented the police from fulfilling those obligations. “So we have to change some of those laws and ordinances that tell police what they’re supposed to do before we can go and take funding from them. Those things take time.”

It also takes a thorough understanding of how funds are specifically used and the council is currently soliciting a third-party audit to do just that. Wharton said it’s theoretically possible to slash $30 million from the police department, but it could have unintended consequences and potentially exacerbate problems protesters want to change.

“I think it will take us away from a lot of what we want to be moving towards, in terms of more community oversight and more community participation in the department,” Wharton said.

In its open letter, Decarcerate Utah also called out the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing “an additional bureaucratic hurdle disguised as community input” and that organizers in the city have already provided elected officials with feedback on what needs to change with policing and inequality.

But both Wharton and the mayor said a commission that looks specifically at racial equity and police injustice is not something the city has seen before.

“We’ve never formed a policy review and recommending body. This is the first,” Mendenhall said. “This is a sizable amount of work we’re asking them to do.”