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Five officers leave Salt Lake City Police Department amid increased scrutiny

‘It’s always been scrutinized, but now even more so,’ chief says of profession

Salt Lake City’s police chief is interviewed by reporters in Salt Lake City during a year when many police reform initiatives were brought up.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown speaks to reporters at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Five Salt Lake police officers have left the force amid widespread protests and criticism of policing in Utah and across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota.
Derek Petersen, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Five Salt Lake City police officers have left the force amid widespread protests and criticism of police brutality against black people following George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota.

Two of the five are officers of color, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said Wednesday.

Their exit comes as the agency that regulates police in Utah gave early approval to a plan that would boost anti-bias training and better teach officers to fight with their hands as an alternative to immediately drawing a weapon.

Brown said he spoke with three of those on their way out. They were early in their law enforcement careers and sought to pursue further education and go into a different line of work.

“I can’t fault them for that, but there is — there’s pressure out there. This job, I mean it’s highly scrutinized. It’s always been scrutinized, but now even more so,” he said on KSL NewsRadio’s “Dave and Dujanovic” show.

Four of the officers resigned and one is retiring.

“They just felt like there were family concerns, that they felt like they could relieve some of the stress on their family and some of their concerns by getting into a different career,” Brown said. “Nobody said they were protesting the police department or our issues.”

The department is now in a hiring freeze, but Brown said he’s hopeful his force of more than 500 can maintain its numbers.

His comments come a day after the Salt Lake City Council moved to place tighter controls on about $5 million of the proposed $84 million police budget and set aside new money for body cameras.

Brown said he understands what the council’s expectations are and is listening to concerns from the public.

The chief said the weeks since Floyd’s “tragic” death — combined with the pandemic and the March earthquake — make it “probably the most difficult time I’ve ever seen in law enforcement.”

Asked about morale in his department, he said, “It’s tough. It’s really tough,” although a peer support program and letters from community members have helped to lift spirits.

Calls for a $30 million budget cut to his agency “would decimate the police department,” he said, and prevent it from keeping people safe, investigate crimes and build relationships within a community.

The transparency the body cameras provide builds trust, Brown said, and he welcomes the new infusion to purchase more. Many of the department’s current devices lose battery power before an officer’s shift is over. The additional cameras will switch on automatically if the officer pulls out a firearm or a Taser, he said.

“It’s difficult in a very heated situation to make sure you tap that button twice and get that camera on, so this is a very good move and I support it strongly,” he said.

The change comes amid broader efforts to take a new look at the department’s role and analyze how minority Utahns are policed amid a flood of calls to slash the budget, funnel more money to address social needs and tackle racism within police agencies.

Brown said he’s looking forward to the findings of a new city commission being formed to focus on racial equity and policing.

He has long sought to meet with those seeking to talk with him, whether they represent refugees, city residents of color or others, he said. He emphasized his employees must confront their own bias in trainings.

“We want to listen, we want to learn, and then we want to act to effectuate change,” Brown told the radio show.

On Wednesday, the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training Council voted to allow its director, Maj. Scott Stephenson, to further hash out a plan that would beef up police academy requirements. It would add a total of 30 hours of training in three main areas: bias; procedural justice, meaning how to treat a person fairly at each stage of an interaction; and the lessons in hand-to-hand combat.

“He doesn’t want officers to panic, so they need to be more confident using their hands and not going to their tool belt immediately,” said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Currently, just one hour of anti-bias training is required of cadets. The council must approve the changes in a second vote before they become final.

In Salt Lake City, Brown said he is proud of his organization. His officers have answered every call in the wake of a May 30 protest in downtown Salt Lake City punctuated by violent outbursts and where a police car was flipped and set ablaze, he said. Weeks of peaceful demonstrations have followed.

He said that for the past four years, officers and social workers have tag-teamed calls to help those who are homeless, struggling with addiction or mental health. He has been authorized to hire three more social workers — a development Brown called “a great move.”

Brown emphasized he supports the creation of a national misconduct registry for officers.

“The practice has been that a lot of times, when officers get in trouble, they resign and go to another agency. It’s on us as chiefs and organizations to finish those investigations so that we have finalized termination so they can’t keep doing this.”

He said currently his force completes its own probe after an officer leaves and places that information in their files.