The Cottonwood Heights City Council briefly mulled policing reforms Tuesday night shortly before numerous residents expressed misgivings about the city’s law enforcement.
It was the council’s first public meeting since two protests over police violence in the city. The first of those gatherings, held Sunday, turned violent when officers arrived and made nine arrests. At a second rally, held Monday, police did not engage, although the situation became tense as heavily armed Utah Citizens’ Alarm faced off with supporters of Black Lives Matter.
At a work session ahead of their regular meeting, council members wondered how things escalated and asked what should happen next.
“I’m proud of our city, but I think there are some things we need to understand as to what went wrong on Sunday so we can be, as a council and a city, prepared not to see that again,” said council member Christine Mikell.
Sunday’s gathering had initially organized as a tribute to Zane James, who was killed by Cottonwood Heights officers two years ago. Police say the 19-year-old robbed a store with an airsoft gun. Attendees of the police violence protest danced to music and brought pinwheels and water guns. Police arrived to clear protesters from the streets. At some point things escalated, with videos showing officers slamming a woman to the ground and using pepper spray on people.
Police Chief Robby Russo previously told The Salt Lake Tribune that protesters had sprayed officers with a “hazardous” substance. He also called the demonstrators “rioters.”
Mikell asked city officials to consider their language.
“What occurred on Sunday, I believe, was a rally and a march,” she said. “So I think we should stop using words like ‘riots’ and ‘protests.’”
Lt. Dan Bartlett said the rally participants pulled objects off the officers, including five body cameras. One of those cameras remains missing, he said, as well as keys to a police vehicle.
“Anything the officers had on was getting pulled off of them. Keys, magazines, any tools they had on their belt, those things were getting pulled from them,” Bartlett said.
Council member Tali Bruce called on the council to consider police reform policies recently mandated by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, such as discipline for officers who voluntarily disable their body cameras.
Bruce participated in the Sunday rally, filmed the clash and says an officer punched her.
“This particular group had conducted this same little walk, little stroll, in eight or nine communities before they came to Cottonwood Heights,” Bruce said. “Before they arrived in our city, they never, ever had any incident of any kind.”
Moving forward, Bartlett, Russo and city staff explained that a third party will conduct an investigation of the Sunday protest and determine whether to bring charges. The police department will then conduct its own internal review and a state agency, likely the attorney general’s office, will also investigate.
“I’ve had the governor contact me directly, talk to me about what has occurred, offer assistance,” said City Manager Tim Tingey.
Mayor Michael Peterson said the council will evaluate police policies and delve into reforms in later meetings.
“Body cams, hiring, SWAT, civilian review boards, social media policy, drug testing — those are things that we have in place [to discuss], but we’re going to review that as a council so we’re educated and can make comment,” Peterson said.
The public speaks out
By the time the City Council’s formal meeting began at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 100 members of the public had joined before Tingey realized their virtual Zoom meeting had capped participation and more people could not sign up to comment.
Opinion seemed to be divided among people who expressed support for the police department and those who felt concern and disgust. Many commenters had participated in at least one of the recent protests or run across one.
Tiffany James, mother of Zane James, was among the first to comment. Zane James’ father and brother were forecefully arrested during the rally Sunday.
“My son has already lost his life. I think you owe it to your citizens to do something now,” she said.
She called on the council to implement numerous changes, including dismissing all charges against the protesters “intimidated, beaten and arrested” Sunday. She also said Russo’s claims that water guns contained urine and other substances were “unsubstantiated” and untrue. She called for a full suspension of the police chief while the city investigates officer conduct.
Some called for defunding the Cottonwood Heights police force, similar to comments that flooded the Salt Lake City Council weeks ago, or for the city council to adopt Mayor Mendenhall’s recent police reforms.
“How clear it was that it was our message that the officers didn’t like. We are protesting police brutality and police brutality is clearly an issue in Cottonwood Heights,” said Karma Fry, who attended the Sunday gathering. “It is absolutely legal to protest in the streets. We did not incite violence as has been said on the news multiple times.”
Others called the police response to the Utah Citizens’ Alarm rally hypocritical.
“I was afraid [Monday] when I saw a car of five militia men carrying rifles and shouting from the back of their pickup truck,” said Erika Kazi, adding that a friend called the police and got no response. “Now, how is it fair that some people’s fear is taken seriously and mine wasn’t?”
Numerous other city residents expressed frustration over protesters who used foul language, played music blaring “f--- the police” and blocked the road on Sunday.
“I am grateful for the police department and their presence there,” said Kim Steenblik, who lives on the street where the protest clash took place. She said she heard chanting that “was ‘bleep you racists, bleep you racists,’ which didn’t sound too peaceful to me.”
Annette Ellis, however, said those residents were comparing white neighborhood comfort to “black and marginalized lives being killed and threatened by the police department.”
“To claim that your comfort is somehow more important than a movement that stands for the actual lives being taken away by the police department seems a bit comical to me,” she said.