As Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall reflected over the past year since the killing of George Floyd — and what has and hasn’t changed since — she roamed the grounds and hallways of the Salt Lake City-County Building, not far from where protests consumed the streets of Utah’s capital.
Still there in front of City Hall, painted on the concrete in colorful letters celebrating faces of people of color, is the Black Lives Matter mural. The mural was painted by local artists last summer to make clear Salt Lake City leaders supported the cause and committed to real change.
The tribute was painted months after Floyd’s murder, and after protests in Salt Lake City boiled over into violence unlike anything ever seen before in the state. Protesters overturned and set fire to a police patrol car. The exterior of Utah’s Capitol was vandalized. Dozens were arrested and several officers injured.
Mendenhall looked out at the mural from City Hall’s east-facing balcony as she spoke with the Deseret News on Wednesday, a day after the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, which brought guilty verdicts to ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the crime.
“The loss of his life and the circumstances of it have changed the world. They’ve changed the way that I come to work every day. And they’ve changed the way that our nation talks about and demands reckoning for centuries of oppression and racism. And it’s high time — it’s beyond time — that we do this work.”
She paused. Her eyes brimmed with tears momentarily before she continued.
“It’s a tragic loss of life that is symbolic of thousands of other losses in our BIPOC communities over the course of history that we are finally standing up against as an entire nation,” she said. Then she added: “I know ‘entire nation’ is not exactly an accurate sentiment. But I see people in positions of leadership far greater than the mayor recognizing that the status quo is unjust and that every one of us deserves opportunities to succeed and thrive.”
As Mendenhall spoke, she walked from City Hall’s balcony back inside and stopped in the lobby. Still visible on the wall behind her is a gash in the plaster from when a 5.7-magnitude earthquake rattled Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front in March 2020, not long after the U.S. came to a grinding halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The crack is a lingering scar of the fear, pain and suffering Utahns and Salt Lake City residents experienced over the past year — Mendenhall’s first year in office, which is likely one of the most tragedy-filled years in city history.
But while the earthquake shook Utah, the shockwaves from Floyd’s killing reverberated throughout the world — and continue to reverberate. Looking at that crack, Mendenhall said Floyd’s murder exposed the “bones” of U.S. history, much like the earthquake did on the walls of City Hall.
“This exposure of the bones, through tragedy and loss and hundreds of thousands of voices screaming in the streets of cities across the nation,” she said, “is clearing a pathway for us to make the changes at these deepest levels we haven’t touched.”
Mendenhall points to a slew of reforms enacted in Salt Lake City over the past year, from an August executive order that requires police officers to use de-escalation tactics before using force, bans use of deadly force to prevent someone from self-harm, and requires police officers who reasonably believe a fellow officer is about to use force that is illegal, excessive or otherwise inconsistent with city policy must do whatever they can to prevent it.
Salt Lake City officers are also now required to include additional detail when reporting uses of force, including de-escalation tactics they tried. And two levels of supervisors now review all uses of force, not just those that result in bodily injury.
Salt Lake City police officers now also face stricter body camera requirements. The city’s policy explicitly allows discipline for officers who intentionally or negligently fail to activate their cameras.
The executive order also included a new search and seizure policy. Officers searching property or vehicles without a warrant are required to inform the person being searched of their right to refuse and to obtain their signature consenting to the search.
Also in August of last year, Mendenhall suspended the city’s K-9 apprehension program, and about a month later announced findings of an audit that found what she called a “pattern of abuse.” The department reviewed cases going back four years from last fall, and ended up referring 19 videos of K-9 deployment to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office for investigation.
In this year’s budget, subject to approval by the Salt Lake City Council, Mendenhall recommended a 5% boost to the city’s police budget. That includes funding to hire six additional social workers to ensure the city has a mental health professional on duty almost 24-7 to respond to 911 calls. She also recommended funding a full-time, on-site clinician for Salt Lake City police officers to provide mental health support. Additionally, she recommended over $200,000 for additional equity, inclusion and diversity training for police officers, and the creation of a senior-level position in the mayor’s office to work with education partners on equity and justice issues.
Then there’s also the city’s new Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, which she charged with reviewing the Salt Lake City Police Department’s policies and practices. That commission, since it was created June 25, has met nearly weekly and held two listening sessions. It made an initial set of recommendations, with more expected. Mendenhall funded several of those recommendations in her budget proposal.
Mendenhall points to that commission as the key to a “lasting mechanism” in Utah’s capital city to “constantly learn — learn from the community and with the community” to seek the best training and mental health engagement tactics as they evolve.
“My intention is to build that work into the permanent structure of our city government,” she said.
Finally, Mendenhall also ordered every Salt Lake City police officer to take “KultureCity training,” which teaches how to safely interact with people who have sensory needs. The training came after Salt Lake City police officers last fall chased and shot a 13-year-old autistic boy after his mother asked for their help getting him to a hospital while he was having a mental health crisis.
Mendenhall credits that KultureCity training in directly helping Salt Lake police officers avoid use of force and violence, pointing to several incidents where officers have responded to suicidal people — one man armed with knives, another with a meat cleaver — and have avoided lethal force.
“I believe that none of our police officers ever want to take an individual’s life,” Mendenhall said. “This is a department that is always hungry to learn and evolve their training.”
In comparing the last six months of Salt Lake City police use of force data with the previous six months, the department’s use of force has declined 15%, Mendenhall said.
But asked if these city reforms are enough, Mendenhall is quick to answer, “No.”
“No. It’s a great beginning,” she said, calling the recent reforms “the most significant police reforms in city history.”
When asked whether she thinks other cities or state leaders have done enough to address police reform, Mendenhall said “it’s a different bailiwick,” and a bit like comparing “apples and oranges.” However, the mayor added they are “inextricably linked in the state’s authority” over things like the statewide Peace Officer Standards and Training.
“So I hope that they feel like they’re far from done,” she said. Specifically, Mendenhall said she hopes legislation to change Utah’s qualified immunity law to allow police officers and police agencies to be sued will come before the Utah Legislature again. (That bill didn’t advance earlier this year.) And she said she hoped a bill to address lethal use of force, HB237, wasn’t so watered down.
Despite Salt Lake City’s reforms, activists aren’t satisfied. They demand more. Meanwhile, Mendenhall has faced criticism from police union leaders who cry foul citing low morale among police officers who feel unsupported.
Over the past year, as Salt Lake City police were required to respond to more than 300 protests, at times facing suspended vacation. Many police officers resigned, citing burnout and mental health issues. Others retired.
As of May 11, the Salt Lake City Police Department had 45 vacant police officer positions, according to a department briefing to the City Council. Add on top of that there are 32 officers that are newly hired and still in training, making them unavailable for responding to calls, and seven more upcoming retirements and resignations. That means more than 16% of the city’s 503 sworn officer positions aren’t or won’t soon be fully available for duty.
Salt Lake Police Association President Joe McBride said a year after the riot and numerous protests that happened in the city in the months that followed, morale among officers remains low. Officers are afraid they can’t do their jobs “without fear of consequence or without fear of being a political scapegoat.”
He said officers would like “leadership” to be more vocal in its support of police.
“We want to see that the city truly supports their officers and allows them to do their jobs safely,” McBride said.
During the riot, a Salt Lake officer in riot gear pushed a 67-year-old man with a cane to the ground. Other officers immediately helped the man back to his feet. But the incident prompted Mendenhall to put out a request to the public for anyone who feels they were mistreated by police during the riot to contact her office. That prompted a backlash from the Fraternal Order of Police, which said the mayor’s focus should have been on the officers who were attacked.
Asked about her relationship with the police union, Mendenhall said she keeps “showing up to the conversation” to work through issues.
“If they say they don’t feel supported by me, then I want to know what actions or inactions have made them feel that way,” she said. “So that means showing up (to meetings), reaching out after reading the watch log to give them my thanks, and talking publicly about the fact that we have the best police department in the nation — not because we don’t make mistakes but because we’re going to keep trying and keep learning. So we’re going to keep at it.”
As city officials do every year during budget season, Mendenhall is now in the middle of negotiations with the Salt Lake Police Association on what pay raise — if any — police officers might receive this year.
With those negotiations still ongoing, the mayor wouldn’t say whether she’d be proposing a pay raise for police officers.
“When we look at our total compensation package, we are very competitive,” Mendenhall said. “We also know we’re losing officers over a $1 or $2 difference.”
To ensure the Salt Lake City Police Department is the “most competitive” police agency, the mayor said it may take several years due to economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It may take us some time,” she said, “and we’re working with the council to make sure that we can all support that direction.”
Contributing: Pat Reavy