Responding to the news that members of Salt Lake City Police Department’s K-9 unit have engaged in what she calls a “pattern of abuse of power,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall recently suggested that the “culture of an organization is shaped by the worst behavior a leader is willing to tolerate.”
I agree with the mayor, which leads me to the question of why she continues to employ Mike Brown as police chief. Given the repeated nature of the abuses committed by K-9 officers in published videos, it is clear that Brown — now in the fifth year of his tenure — is part of the problem.
The videos themselves are damning. Again and again, officers instruct dogs to “hit” suspects who are not resisting, have already been subdued or pose no threat. It is stomach-churning to watch these straightforward and straightforwardly vicious civil rights violations, and we must understand this abuse within the context of a long history of U.S. authorities using attack dogs to intimidate, punish and maim, from Birmingham to Abu Ghraib.
Of the 27 incidents that were reviewed, 18, or 66%, were referred to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to be screened for criminal charges against the officers involved. Considering that police are explicitly charged with upholding the law, not breaking it, this number is astounding.
In confirmation that the SLCPD is incapable of policing itself, Gill has since decided to review all 27 cases.
Regardless of his intentions, Brown cannot be counted on to fix a problem he is implicated in. During protests this summer that responded to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, KUTV described how Brown was “nearly moved to tears” by the actions of his officers in conducting what he called “the hardest job with the greatest restraint.”
While there can be little doubt that policing is a difficult job, there is overwhelming evidence that “restraint” does not accurately describe the culture of the SLCPD.
Far from demonstrating the restraint required of those who have been given permission to use violence against citizens, SLCPD officers have shown the same kind of sadism that led to Floyd’s death and that we usually associate with the worst human behavior. We should be gravely concerned about this gap between Brown’s description of his officers and their actual behavior.
Either Brown was unaware that his officers have been regularly violating suspects' civil rights, in which case we must ask what other abuses have gone on amid his supervisory failure, or he was aware and condoned their actions.
Brown recently made a point of kneeling with protesters against police brutality. Good for him — symbolic actions matter. But unless this symbolism reflects the actual practices of the SLCPD, it is a gesture that is empty at best and pernicious at worst.
We should not be confident that the investigation by the district attorney will alone be sufficient to right these wrongs. Gill does not have a strong record when it comes to prosecuting police for wrongdoing, and Utah law tends to protect police at the cost of the public they serve.
If Mendenhall is unable or unwilling to reform a department whose history of systemic abuse is now on record, then the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney for Utah John W. Huber should not hesitate to get involved, ideally under a new presidential administration that takes police misconduct seriously. In the meantime, two things are clear: Mendenhall should permanently disband the K-9 unit and replace our underperforming police chief.
Christopher Mead lives in Salt Lake City.