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Police response to Salt Lake City riot: Too late or just right?

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National Guard members block auto traffic on 300 East between 400 South and 500 South and in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020. The National Guard’s presence follows a weekend of protests across the nation to decry the death of George Floyd, a black man, who died while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis earlier this week.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The remains of a burned-out Salt Lake police car. Graffiti on the state Capitol. Broken glass on numerous buildings and TRAX platforms. Police in riot gear being pelted with rocks, bricks and water bottles.

Those are some of the images that stand out from Saturday night’s riot in downtown Salt Lake City, leaving some to question whether the city and the police department waited too long before taking action.

But Salt Lake City leaders defend and praise their police department’s response, saying every decision was “calculated” and “strategic” to prevent life-threatening escalation between protesters and police.

To Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton, the overturning and burning of a police cruiser was a “small sacrifice over physical clashes between officers and civilians,” he said.


A police car is engulfed in flames as people protest police brutality in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protesters joined others across the nation to decry the death of George Floyd, a black man, who died while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis earlier this week. Video showed an officer kneeling on his neck while he implored, “I can’t breathe.”

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

“I would rather have a police car that can be replaced be destroyed than lose a single life or have serious armed confrontations between civilians and police officers,” Wharton told the Deseret News Monday.

After Salt Lake City’s streets quieted and groups of volunteers gathered to clean up debris and scrub away the graffiti, some, like a Republican lawmaker from Draper, have criticized Salt Lake City’s response.

“The death of George Floyd was horrific and we all feel outraged, but this behavior is disgusting,” Rep. Jeff Stenquist wrote in a tweet Sunday, responding to a video of protesters overturning and vandalizing the Salt Lake police cruiser.

“It’s unbelievable that #saltlakecity leaders tolerate violence and vandalism during protests like these,” Stenquist tweeted, questioning why the mayor and the Salt Lake City Council would “allow this.”

“Respectfully, Representative, our police department is the best trained and most professional law enforcement agency in the state,” Wharton tweeted back. “They have received national attention for their deescalation efforts. People are upset and they are going to act out.”

Stenquist, pointing to other protests happening in Minneapolis and other cities across the U.S., said “this wasn’t completely unexpected,” and the Salt Lake City protests “should not have been allowed to escalate to the point of property being destroyed and the governor needing to step in” by calling out the Utah National Guard.

“Now some think they can resort to anarchy without consequences,” Stenquist tweeted. “Hopefully peace can be restored before people are hurt or killed.”

No one was killed in the protests — but officers and civilians were injured. As for damage to public and private property, state and city officials are still tallying, but it’s likely tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

No ‘playbook’

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said Monday his department was surprised by how quickly the protests became violent, but said they were not caught off guard.

“I wish there was a schedule and a playbook that we could all follow. That doesn’t occur,” he said.

Brown told the Deseret News his department had a strategic plan for handling the situation in a way that no one would be hurt.

“We made a tactical decision to give people a safe place to voice their opinions, feelings, and anger. When that space was no longer safe, we deployed with a carefully laid plan based on the current situation and dynamics,” he said.

“I know there’s a lot of criticism about the time we gave to the people to exercise their First Amendment rights, but we do not take lightly the heavy responsibility of protecting lives from violence — both the protesters and all the responding officers. Equally, we do not take lightly any infringement upon people’s freedom of speech.”

To Wharton, blaming the escalation to violence, looting and property damage on “lack of leadership or competence” in cities including Salt Lake City “is an oversimplification and ignores the greater context in which these events are transpiring.”

Wharton said he has “empathy” for “anybody in our city that’s feeling frustrated and scared and like their government, whether it’s their city government, their state government or national government, is not hearing them and acknowledging these systematic failures.”

Wharton said Salt Lake City officials knew the protests could escalate to violence — and they were prepared to respond. He praised officers for balancing the need for deescalation in their response, noting the protest could have gotten way more out of control.

“If we lost even one life, this whole situation would have been even worse,” Wharton said.

Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbnank, who is currently the vice president of Law Enforcement Strategy for the Center for Policing Equity, talked about the city’s response by comparing the two protests at the state Capitol and at the Salt Lake Main Library.

At the Capitol, Utah Highway Patrol troopers stood shoulder to shoulder in their regular uniforms across the front steps leading to the main entrance. At one point, officers in riot gear briefly appeared at the top of the stairs, which seemed to fuel the crowd’s anger. Those officers then took off their riot gear.

Two arrests were reported at the Capitol for failing to disperse after curfew. The Capitol and some surrounding structures were tagged with graffiti. But Bubank said the scene was strikingly different than downtown Salt Lake City where cars were burned and police in riot gear were pelted with rocks.

During his tenure as the city’s top law enforcer, Burbank was known for defusing protests peacefully. His discussions with members of the Occupy Salt Lake movement in Pioneer Park in 2012, and protesters blocking Main Street in front of the federal courthouse in 2011 after Tim DeChristopher’s conviction, both ended without violence.

On Saturday, Burbank said Salt Lake police should have started with the same strategy instead of sending everyone in full riot gear.

“You want to have a presence there, but you don’t want to have a riot presence,” he said.

When the focus of the crowd’s anger is the police, putting police in riot gear in front of them may not be the best strategy, he said.

He also condemned the “violence and lawlessness” that took place. But rather than keep talking about what happened and repeatedly putting “Band-Aids” on problems such as police brutality, Burbank hopes that citizens and lawmakers can take action.

“It is now time. We’ve talked about the problem enough. It’s time to move from the issue and violence and solve it so it doesn’t happen tomorrow,” he said. “Stand up and say it’s wrong and stand up and say this is what we’re going to do change it. This is about changing laws so this doesn’t happen again.”

Likewise, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Monday also called for “all prosecutors and law enforcement leaders (to) take immediate action to address racially biased policing and police use of excessive force.”

In a joint statement signed by 40 elected prosecutors from across the nation, including Gill, prosecutors condemned George Floyd’s death, and called for reforms to police departments around the U.S. and the justice system.

“Justice, fairness, equality and truth are not mere words but are instead the ideals and promises of a free American society,” Gill said. “Only by working actively to rid our society and systems of structural racism will we be able to meaningfully start down the path of justice for our most alienated brothers and sisters.”

Retired Unified Police Chief Chris Bertram, who now works as a private investigator, said he understands the idea of letting people vent their frustrations. But as the protest grew and word got out on social media, he believes police should have responded quicker and then not just “hold the line” when they got there.

“I just believe there was a point where you could have got in, moved the crowd, dispersed the crowd with good tactics and it wouldn’t have grown and you wouldn’t have left those static times where there was nothing productive,” he said. “I look at it from a perspective of, Salt Lake City just made the national map. We had to call the National Guard out. We called every police department along the Wasatch Front to provide officers to quell this. Our Capitol was defaced in a way that really really bothers me. Police officers were injured.

“I do see that there were things that could have been done earlier on in my opinion, to make sure you didn’t get to where we were.”

Brent Jex, head of the Fraternal Order of Police in Utah, said there was a difference on Saturday between “protesters” and “rioters.” Because the city failed to corral the rioters and “anarchists” at the onset, the message of the protesters was lost by the actions of others, he said.

But ultimately, he said it’s up to the public to decide whether the city’s response was appropriate or if they waited too long to react.

“They implemented a strategy. If property damage and costs is acceptable to Salt Lake City, then OK. If it’s not acceptable, demand accountability,” he said.

Once officers from across northern Utah gathered in Salt Lake City and became engaged with the rioters, Jex said police did their jobs well.

“I have no problem with how (police) coordinated this once it took effect. They showed great skill,” he said.

Soliciting officer complaints?

Jex does have a problem, however, with how Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall responded to the aftermath of the riot. On Sunday, the mayor asked for anyone who felt they had been mistreated by police to step forward and file a complaint. Her response may have been prompted by a video that showed a Salt Lake police officer in riot gear knocking over an elderly man with a cane. That man was quickly helped back to his feet by other officers. Brown said the officer who knocked the man down has been taken off of crowd control duties and an internal investigation is underway.

Jex said the mayor’s focus, however, should have been on the officers who stood their ground while having rocks, bricks and other items thrown at them. One officer was hit on the head with a baseball bat, being protected only by his helmet. Jex said there were also reports of another officer who had his arm broken with a bat, though as of Monday he did not know the name of the officer or what agency he was from.

But Jex said he had personally received calls from officers who had to have stitches after being pelted with rocks. He posted on a picture of one officer who suffered a large gash on his chin.

“So many guys hit with bricks,” he said Monday.

Because of that, Jex said rather than solicit “the complaints of those rioters,” Mendenhall should be personally thanking the officers who came from across the state to help.

“I was at the house of a good friend of mine who took a rock to the face and split his chin open. His uniform is all bloody. But Mayor Mendenall skated right over that like it didn’t happen,” Jex said. “We don’t expect much, but just a thank you is the least she can do.”

Jex and the Fraternal Order of Police issued an open letter on Monday, calling her out for what they called her “lack of concern and support.”

“To be sure, those in the crowd chanting, ‘The only good cop is a dead cop,’ can probably be relied upon for complaints,” the letter states, while criticizing Mendenhall for not being visible on the street Saturday night.

Other officers made social media posts, while withholding their names, talking about the way they were treated by rioters on Saturday.

“I am tired of being the bad guy just because I chose to be a cop,” one officer wrote. “Mean people seem to get the loudest voice and their objective/motivation seems to be anger and disruption. I’ve been spit on, hit, shot at, had things thrown at me and had horrible things said to me and my family. I’ve seen a lot of awfulness and kept my cool because I wanted to help people.

“My fellow officers are white, black, Hispanic, women, gay, lesbian, and all others. They do the same job I do and many for the same reason. They too are the enemy now just because they are police. I will go out my next shift and be professional, courteous, and look for opportunities to be kind and helpful to the public I swore to protect and serve because I chose to be a cop.”

The wife of one officer also felt slighted by the mayor’s response, stating her husband worked 28 straight hours on Saturday into Sunday and was hit in the face by a skateboard.

“You don’t see the mayor asking for the public to report anything like this that they might have witnessed. Don’t worry though. The officer is fine. I know because he’s my husband,” the woman wrote.

Mendenhall responded to the Fraternal Order of Police letter Monday on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic” show, apologizing that her message calling for complaints against police officers had been taken that way.

She said “if there’s any assertion” that Salt Lake City officials “didn’t want information about the destruction that’s taken place” during the protest, “that is a pretty sad misunderstanding, and I apologize if that’s the way it was taken.”

“If there’s any police officer who took my words for criticism against their actions on Saturday night, then I am sincerely sorry,” the mayor said. “My sole intention was and still is to make sure the public knows that Salt Lake City police are here to protect and serve, and our department is willing to hear from the public in the spirit of transparency.

“It’s not about taking sides with the protesters or soliciting criticism of our officers,” Mendenhall continued. “It’s about running a department that’s accountable and transparent, and that’s something we’ve always strived to be.”

Rather, the mayor said the idea of choosing between transparency and supporting the police department speaks to the larger issue now roiling America.

“I want to be very clear,” she added. “The assertion that transparency and accountability is counter to supporting our police is a false choice. It’s really actually at the root of why our nation has erupted in protest. Transparency is the best way to support our officers. I have absolute confidence theSalt Lake City Police Department continues to learn from every mistake, and we are always working to evolve our organization.”

Mendenhall praised the officers for doing an “incredible” and “amazing job that night of keeping the peace alongside dozens of other agencies.”

“I’ve seen these officers serve our community without hesitation, without complaint, I’ve heard the insults that have been hurled at them and the literal items and objects have have been hurled at them,” she said. “And they continue to strive to serve and protect. I’m incredibly grateful for their professionalism, particularly as we watch what’s unfurled across our nation.”

Asked if the Salt Lake City Police Department is racist, Mendenhall said she doesn’t believe so, and the city has processes in place to hold officers accountable. But she said there is “systematic racism in almost every facet of this nation,” from business opportunities, to health care and education.

“It is baked into the fabric of this nation, and it’s time that we start unpacking that,” she said.

Wharton said the City Council expects to be briefed by Salt Lake police on the protests during the council’s meeting Tuesday. He said it’s not clear how city leaders will act to respond directly to the protests, but he and other council members will likely be looking for any opportunity to make changes in policies or procedures, or perhaps even increase funding for deescalation training. He also said any incidents of inappropriate officer behavior will be reviewed and addressed.

“Certainly, whatever we hear tomorrow will not be the last of it,” Wharton said. “I think this is just the beginning of a new series of conversations that may lead to changes in our policies. I hope if there is any opportunity to make those changes that we embrace them and that the community embraces having that dialogue.”