Cottonwood Heights City Council debates whether Utah A.G. should investigate recent protest

Aaron James is arrested by Cottonwood Heights Police during a march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. James was among eight people arrested by Cottonwood Heights Police. He is the father Zane James, a 19-year-old white man who was shot and killed by a Cottonwood Heights Police officer in 2018 as he fled the scene of a robbery. His parents, Tiffany and Aaron James, alleged in a lawsuit filed against the police department last year that their son didn't pose a threat and shouldn't have been shot. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

As Cottonwood Heights seeks answers for an early August protest that turned violent once the police arrived, some City Council members are questioning whether it’s appropriate for the Utah attorney general’s office to conduct a third-party investigation of the incident.

That’s because the attorney general, Sean Reyes, is a Cottonwood Heights resident who reportedly lives in the district where the protest took place. At a work session Tuesday evening, council member Christine Mickell said it “just doesn’t feel right.”

The Aug. 2 rally was in support of police reform, organized by the friends and family of teenager Zane James, who was killed by Cottonwood Heights police in May 2018. When the gathering moved from a park to city streets, the police arrived, and things soon turned chaotic. Videos show officers spraying and body-slamming protesters. Council member Tali Bruce, who participated in the protest, said an officer punched her. Police arrested nine people, and Chief Robby Russo said three officers were injured.

“We had what I consider a major incident in our city,” Mickell said at the work session, stressing the importance of transparency as the incident undergoes review.

She also questioned “What steps [is] the attorney general’s office going to [take] to ensure that there’s a wall, that nothing from [Reyes’] perspective influences that investigation?”

City Manager Tim Tingey, who had asked the attorney general’s office for its help, said Reyes had recused himself and that he had confidence in the office’s staff to conduct an objective inquiry.

“This is the entity best equipped to do this investigation,” Tingey said.

Mayor Michael Peterson said he had also met with Spencer Austin, the attorney general’s chief criminal deputy, and felt assured that Reyes would not involve himself in the process.

“He made it very clear, and he was almost blunt, that he’s been told that if his department is involved in any way, that he’s not to talk to the attorney general at all, that he has delegated all authority,” Peterson said.

Bruce, the council member who was allegedly punched at the protest and has complained about police harassment in the past, said she wanted the third-party investigation to be conducted by an entity outside of the state.

“Utah is such a tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody and everybody’s related to everybody,” Bruce said. “So many relationships are intermingled in this state.”

Peterson disagreed.

“I don’t think the person who lives the farthest away is the most qualified,” Peterson said.

Because it was a work session, the City Council did not vote on the investigation or take any further action.

The attorney general’s review is one of three different reviews looking into the Aug. 2 protest. The Salt Lake County district attorney is performing a criminal investigation, and the city is conducting its own internal investigation. Findings for both will be turned over to the attorney general’s office before that investigation concludes. Tingey said he did not know how soon any of the investigations will be complete.