Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s Commission on Racial Equity and Policing has yet to announce its full membership or hold its first meeting, but the mayor is already working on law enforcement reform.
Both the mayor and City Council are in the early stages of examining and reconsidering how policing works in the city, weeks after protests and a deluge of public complaints about officer violence called out systemic racism and demanded the police department be defunded. City officials created the racial equity commission in response, which will provide feedback and ideas to improve law enforcement.
But Mendenhall is already moving forward on five issues: intervention, searches, body cameras, no-knock warrants and exploration of how other departments in the nation handle de-escalation.
“‘Good policing’ is, in my opinion, policing where the department has consistent and trusting relationships with all facets of the community, which are built on regular connection, meaningful engagement and accountability,” Mendenhall said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
With intervention, the mayor wants stronger requirements that officers step in when a situation escalates or another officer becomes agitated. Several groups calling for police reform note that stronger intervention from responding officers could have saved the life of George Floyd. Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes, as he cried out to breathe.
Minneapolis has policies requiring intervention when an officer uses unnecessary force, like many cities, according to The Associated Press. But even though rookie officers questioned Chauvin’s actions, they failed to intervene enough to prevent Floyd’s death. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, and the other officers have been charged in aiding and abetting.
Mendenhall said Salt Lake police have a signal they use to let one another know when an officer wants to intervene and step in.
“They have a code so they don’t have to say, ‘Hey man, you’re going too far,‘” Mendenhall said, adding, ”We could and we should require more of that from our officers.”
Christina Judd, communications and media director for Salt Lake police, said the department supports Mendenhall’s proposals, including improved intervention.
“These are larger conversations that the [police] chief and mayor have been having for weeks,” she said. We’re in lockstep with the mayor’s office, talking about what changes need to be happening, what we can do right away and what needs more thought and consideration.”
The mayor also wants to ensure people are given adequate information when a police officer asks to do a search without a warrant. The department currently has a form officers can ask suspects to sign, which informs them of their rights.
“If we’re doing a consent search, they sign that. If they don’t give consent then we don’t search,” said Salt Lake police spokesperson Michael Ruff.
Ruff acknowledged, however, that consent doesn’t need to be in writing and officers aren’t required to use the form.
“Prosecutors prefer it, although body cameras have changed that,” Ruff said. “Consent can be verbal or written.”
Mendenhall wants officers to provide the form in all cases, and for the suspect’s rights to be “more clear” and “more readable.” She also wants it translated into different languages.
“And ... not just make it that we ‘should’ share [the form] with them, but that it is mandated and that there may be consequences for not doing so,” Mendenhall said.
The City Council recently approved $1.3 million to provide all police department employees with a body camera. Mendenhall wants to make sure there are clear rules and consequences about purposely turning off the cameras while on duty.
“This is also an evolving aspect of policing, as there are cameras everywhere now,” Mendenhall said.
The mayor said she’s also concerned about no-knock warrants. In a high-profile case, Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor after officers used a no-knock warrant to batter down the door to her apartment in a drug investigation. The suspect in the case had already been arrested, and Taylor had no drugs or prior record.
“Our use of no-knock warrants as a department is actually quite low [compared] to other departments of our size, and it has decreased over time,” Mendenhall said. “But we’re still taking a look at how our policy might need to be tightened down based on the instances that we do still use [them].”
Judd and Ruff concurred that Salt Lake City police use no-knock warrants less frequently than other departments, but they did not provide numbers.
“It’s not safe for officers, it’s not safe for occupants, it’s not a good use of resources, it’s just not the best practice,” Ruff said.
No-knock warrants are one of the most dangerous ways to execute a search, Judd agreed.
Instead, officers typically “surround and announce, or even better, wait for someone to leave their house and take them into custody,” she said.
All warrants are served by the department’s SWAT team in narcotics cases, Judd said, as that team has “gold standard” training in such situations.
Finally, the mayor has asked Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown to look into “progressive” de-escalation polices used by other departments nationwide. Mendenhall specifically mentioned Camden, N.J.
Camden formerly struggled with excessive force complaints, but an activist movement prompted the police force to start a de-escalation mentoring program and implement a stronger intervention policy when officers used excessive force, as reported by the Washington Post. A NJ.com investigation found that following the mentoring program, Camden officers’ use of force began trending downward.
“Our administration, our current command staff, has brought up Camden several times,” Judd said, although she could not provide specifics on de-escalation policies the department was exploring.
“This is, again, a much bigger conversation about our community, what our citizens want, what the mayor wants,” Judd said, adding that she looks forward to recommendations from the new Racial Equity and Policing Commission. “The important thing to take away is that the police department is always changing and always looking to make sure we’re the best with some of the best national practices.”