Salt Lake City has stumbled recently in its handling of the tragic shooting late last month near the Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street.
With the heightened public scrutiny of officer-involved shootings and the active community reaction to this incident, Mayor Jackie Biskupski's administration is facing one of it most demanding public relations challenges to date.
Mayor Biskupski has expressed confidence in the Unified Police Department and District Attorney Sim Gill, who are leading an investigation into the incident. But then she also indicated that, in discussions with the city’s police chief, she had expressed concerns “whether de-escalation efforts could have been implemented.”
The mayor’s statement said conversations about this would continue and would involve community members and that this “must result in meaningful change.”
The district attorney has refused to release body camera footage of the incident, even though this has been shown to the mayor, and even though many conflicting accounts of what happened are circulating on the street, some of which have inflamed passions.
Gill insists that releasing the footage now would harm the investigation. But the city’s former police chief, Chris Burbank, has been adamant that the release would not harm the investigation but would instead signal openness and transparency.
When Burbank was chief, he quickly released video of an officer-involved shooting involving a confrontation with a man wielding a snow shovel. As we noted at the time, this was “an example of why body cameras are valuable tools, both in the way of police accountability and greater public understanding of what officers might face in the field.”
The issue reflects the lack of a consistent city policy on the release of such footage. The public is left wondering whether video that supports deadly police action is released quickly, while video that might show otherwise is not, and that is not conducive to building a sense of trust with the community.
A larger issue here concerns the factors that made this confrontation more volatile. The area around the Road Home homeless shelter has seen increased instances of drug deals, prostitution, assaults and other crimes. Efforts are underway to reorganize the city’s shelter strategy in ways that would diffuse this, but the city bears some responsibility for having allowed such conditions to fester over time. We applaud the efforts currently underway with the city and the county to address the current conditions.
Effective law enforcement tactics, community outreach and transparency all are essential elements in handling delicate situations such as these while building trust.
We understand the natural tendency of investigators to withholding evidence until trial, but other officer-involved shooting incidents across the country have demonstrated the importance of timely transparency in building trust between law enforcement and the local community.