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Salt Lake City faces barrage of demands to slash the police budget

City leaders say they’re listening, seeking solutions

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Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the nation continues to reel over the death of George Floyd, Salt Lake City leaders spent hours Tuesday reflecting on their city’s own police department and how they could improve.

Based on Tuesday’s discussions, the Salt Lake City Council seemed willing and eager to pump more money into anti-police brutality initiatives, including increased de-escalation training, bias training, and funding to ensure every police officer has a body camera — though no decisions were made.

But later Tuesday, the council faced a barrage of demands in its public meeting, where more than 80 Salt Lake City residents called in to the online meeting demanding major cuts to the Salt Lake City Police Department’s budget while more money goes to affordable housing, homelessness, public transportation for minority groups, and other programs to address “systematic racism.”

Michael Kennedy-Yoon told the City Council he was at one of the Salt Lake City protests this week, and he saw a police officer yelling back at a 15-year-old girl protester, “screaming back words that would get him kicked out of a committee meeting.”

“I used to believe police officers were heroes,” Kennedy-Yoon said. “I think that’s been demonstrated to me severely over the last week that that’s not true. If you want to become a hero, you become an EMT, you become a firefighter, you become a school teacher, you do not become a police officer. If you want to become a bully, you become a police officer. I’m morally opposed to funding a bully.”

Yoon and other callers demanded city leaders implement a “hiring freeze” of police officers and slash the department’s budget, rather than fund it with the over $80 million proposed in the mayor’s budget for the police department.

But the budget increase would be used to pay for victim advocates, additional de-escalation bias training, and salary increases the city is already obligated to fulfill under previously executed contracts, according to city officials.

Public commenters also slammed Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s weeklong nighttime curfew announced Monday, complaining the 8 p.m. curfew each night is “heavy-handed.” Some groups, like Utah’s chapter of the ACLU, have also challenged its constitutionality, saying it raises First Amendment and fairness concerns, in part because it allows some activities to take place in public but not others. 

Because the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. order is citywide, it could lead to selective enforcement in certain neighborhoods, said ACLU of Utah legal director John Mejia. And those in more diverse enclaves may not have a grasp of various exceptions.

“There’s a lack of clarity in general, but I think that’s compounded when you have people who don’t necessarily speak English,” he said. “I think it’s causing a lot of anxiety and fear among people.” 

The mayor’s Monday order allows for activities like going out to attend religious services, traveling to the airport or dining at a restaurant during curfew hours, but does not carve out any free-speech exception.  

“That’s problematic,” Mejia said. While other cities across the nation have put in place indefinite curfews, Mejia said it appears Salt Lake City’s has more exceptions than most. 

But the mayor defended the curfew, saying it balances First Amendment rights while protecting residents and neighborhoods by keeping protests at manageable levels.

“We would love to see peaceful protest continuing and not people coming with loaded weapons to these protests, people not firing weapons as we had last night,” Mendenhall told the council earlier Tuesday. “If we see that kind of a change and, in assessing the national climate and local intelligence, we would love to not have a curfew. ... We want to get there.”

Mendenhall stressed she and other city officials have ears wide open for productive conversations about addressing police brutality and systematic racism.

“We hear you. We want to work. We are ready to work,” she said. “There is not a switch that needs to get flipped here. We’re here.”

The mayor, however, also acknowledged the protests in Salt Lake City and around the country “is a national conversation.”

“I understand that,” she said, “but Salt Lake City is ready to work.”

Some Salt Lake City Council members, tuning into Tuesday’s online meeting from their home offices, showed their support for anti-police brutality groups, with some posting signs reading “Black Lives Matter” behind their seats.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, the city’s first woman of color elected to the council, read a lengthy statement expressing her support for the movement, but she also urged for protests to be peaceful.

“The overwhelming majority of us, including the many good police officers of our city, are united against police brutality against our black neighbors,” Valdemoros said. “Thank you to our police department for their effort in keeping people safe these last few days and especially thank you to those officers that joined the crowd, kneeling or bumping elbows, showing compassion, showing that they too believe in justice and decry injustice in the hands of some their colleagues, especially after the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd.”

Valdemoros said she ran for office because “I believe we can work on solutions towards justice and equality.”

“I strongly reject attempts to make me choose a side or politicize this issue,” she said. “Demanding that we pick a side is a big reason why we are in this mess. There are no sides. It’s not an either or proposition. It is not ‘us versus them.’ It is just us.”

Valdemoros said she’s “committed to ending those antiquated systems and processes that result in discrimination and racism.”

“It is 2020. We should be so much further along,” she said.

As council members discussed the protests and sought ways to focus on improving Salt Lake City’s own police department, a police department that has won national awards for de-escalation practices, answers didn’t come easily.

The city’s police department already prohibits choke holds and knee holds. And the department already gets de-escalation training and implicit bias training. Salt Lake Police Assistant Chief Tim Doubt, asked by Council Chairman Chris Wharton what the police department would need to improve, welcomed any additional training.

“We’re going to find out what the next best thing is to teach our people, which I’m sure is going to come out of this whole thing nationwide, some kind of best practices,” he said. “We’re going to find out what those are and we’re going to have to get our people trained on them.”

Doubt also said more work could be done to hire more officers representing minority groups — but that’s difficult when it’s already challenging to recruit enough officers as is.

“It ought to match the demographics of Utah, and it doesn’t,” Doubt said. “And so we need to make sure that does, and we’re striving to do that.”

Most of all, Doubt said community relationships and recruitment improve if police officers have the time and resources to spend time in the community — which has become more possible as the City Council has increased funding in recent years to bring the police force to higher staffing levels, he said.

“They now have time to do that,” he said.

Additionally, Doubt said measures are already in place to hold the police department accountable. But the Civilian Review Board isn’t always fully staffed because the city can’t find enough people who want to take part. And the police department’s Community Advocacy Group, an informal group of citizens formed to give input on police policies, has varying participation.

“Sometimes we come, and there’s only four to five people there, but other times there’s 50,” Doubt said. “So it’s just a matter of keeping people involved and trying to keep a constant voice.”

Also, Doubt said he “wished” every Salt Lake City cop had a body camera, but “that was not affordable under the current contract we were negotiating.”

The Salt Lake City Council is slated to consider a budget amendment next week, which could include some changes to the police department’s budget, but no details were hashed out Tuesday.

The council’s meeting stretched late into the night, as over 80 public speakers urged action on police reform, many repeating the same demands to slash the department’s budget and instead fund priorities to help minority populations.

As of 9:45 p.m., over 200 people were sitting on the call waiting to speak.

Contributing: Annie Knox