After the world watched George Floyd’s murder with a cop’s knee on his neck, throngs of Utahns spent the summer taking to the streets and virtually packing online Salt Lake City Council meetings.
They demanded action on perceived problems within the city’s own police force.
Elected leaders say much has changed in the year since. They introduced use-of-force reforms. They funded more body cameras. They initiated audits and boosted scrutiny of the police budget. They formed a panel of advisers to improve interactions between police and minorities.
But Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, is not impressed.
“The entire world cried out for a revolution last summer,” Scott said. “The entire world screamed, ‘We want police reform’ ... Salt Lake City screamed back, ‘We will give you little change or none at all.’”
The restless months that followed Floyd’s death also laid bare more examples of what some see as problematic behavior among the the city’s law enforcement.
At a sometimes-violent protest in the capital last May, officers hit and knocked an elderly man to the ground. In June, the city released body camera footage showing officers shooting Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal multiple times as he ran away with a gun in his hand. In August, more body camera footage became public that showed an officer ordering his police dog to bite a Black man, even as the man kneeled and complied with the offer’s commands. The next month, police shot an unarmed 13-year-old autistic boy while he was having a mental health episode.
“The work of reform is as much cultural as it is policy, and that takes time,” said Mayor Erin Mendenhall. “The evolution of our entire nation as we unpack centuries of oppression and racism is not done.”
The mayor maintains the city already has introduced significant change. Last August, she issued an executive order requiring police to use de-escalation techniques before they use force. Every use-of-force encounter now requires two levels of internal review. Police are no longer allowed to use deadly force on individuals who do not pose a threat to others. And officers are expected to intervene when they see a colleague using excessive or illegal force.
The mayor said those alterations mark the first real police reforms ever introduced in the city’s history — and, she added, it’s working.
“In the previous six months,” Mendenhall said, “Salt Lake City Police Department’s use of force has declined 15%.”
Mendenhall also suspended the use of police dog interactions with suspects last summer and conducted an audit of the K-9 program.
“I don’t imagine us going back,” the first-term mayor said. “But when I suspended the [K-9] program, we needed to see what those implications would be on policing. Will it result in other types of use of force that may be more lethal? These are legitimate questions the department needs to explore.”
In her latest budget recommendation, the mayor is aiming to fund six additional social workers so mental health resources are available in round-the-clock shifts. Mendenhall also ordered all officers to participate in KultureCity training to improve interactions with individuals who have sensory needs.
That, too, has made a difference, the mayor said, noting a case from earlier this year when a man with autism was having a mental health episode, begging police to shoot him. Officers de-escalated the dispute and took the man to a hospital.
What about the police budget?
One of the loudest and most specific demands from the past year, however, was to enact a substantial cut to the police department’s budget, if not defund the force entirely.
Instead, Mendenhall proposed a 5% increase in the coming fiscal year.
“I’m not going to massively defund our police department,” Mendenhall said. “We’re always looking for ways to be more efficient, but it’s my job to keep people safe in the city.”
Josh Kivlovitz, an organizer with Decarcerate Utah, called it a “slap in the face.”
“While the community is moving in a positive direction,” Kivlovitz said, “our elected officials seem to double down if not move backward when it comes to addressing police brutality.”
Members of Decarcerate Utah said the police budget can be significantly slashed by halving the number of officers. They want to eliminate school resource officers to help end the school-to-prison pipeline. They want to cut the narcotics unit, which the group alleges targets minority communities, and decriminalize drug use. They also want to nix the department’s public relations arm.
“The police’s P.R. department has two interests,” the organization wrote on its website, “— to convince the public that our city is dangerous, and to convince the public that the police are keeping our community safe.”
Some community leaders counter that their neighborhoods are, indeed, becoming less safe.
“Last year, we had four murders in our boundary; we’re on track to meet that again because we’ve already had two this year,” said Amy Hawkins, chair of the Ballpark Community Council. “It concerns me, not just for the lives that have been lost, but because when people perceive themselves to be less safe in their neighborhood, they’re less likely to visit local businesses, to engage, to exercise outside.”
In recent budget discussions with the City Council, Police Chief Mike Brown explained that the department has 45 vacancies, 32 recruits in training and and seven officers who recently retired or resigned. That represents 84 full-time officer positions that are “unavailable,” which is about 17% of the 503-officer police force (excluding airport officers). Police resignations in 2020 and 2021 are also up compared to previous years.
Calls for service, meanwhile, jumped by nearly 20% last year.
“It is a line we have to walk,” said Amy Fowler, chair of the City Council, which has the ultimate say over the police budget. “There is a reason that we have police, and we need to have safety within our communities. And there is also a reason we need reform. We as council members are doing the very best to do both.”
The councilwoman said reform “doesn’t happen overnight” and noted that the council funded an audit of the police budget. Next, it will do a zero-based budgeting exercise to determine whether deeper cuts are justified.
She also acknowledged that the justice system is fundamentally flawed.
“I want to take all of the things that everybody says and wave a magic wand, make it all better. But that takes time,” Fowler said. Even so, “the last year has been more reformative and more explorative, introspective, than any other year I can think of.”
Scott, with Black Lives Matter Utah, said slow, incremental change is not enough.
“At this point we have to celebrate the scraps we’re given,” Scott said, “because Salt Lake City is not the progressive city it paints itself to be. It’s not revolutionary; it’s not groundbreaking.”
While she supports the idea of budget reform, Scott said the city needs to direct more of its focus on officer-involved deaths. The number of police shootings and deaths in Utah in recent years — officers shot at a record-tying 30 people in 2018 and again in 2020 — surprised even the state attorney general’s office.
“Police officers, when they are involved in an officer shooting, the same process happens,” Scott said. “One of their fellow agencies investigates them, and the district attorney justifies the shooting and the cycle goes on over and over again.”
She wants more independent oversight over police shootings, instead of police departments being investigated by other law enforcement agencies.
“If you’re a police officer and you pull your weapon, you know your buddy down the street is going to investigate you,” Scott said. “You know the system is behind you.”
On that front, cities’ hands are largely tied. The Utah Legislature moved in 2019 to limit the power municipalities can grant to their civilian review boards.
“We are fighting a system that does not provide police accountability and transparency to any of us. All we want are checks and balances in place that will hold police accountable for their actions,” Scott said. “We will be here until this gets done correctly.”