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‘Moment of reckoning’: Salt Lake City unveils new ‘racial equity in policing’ commission

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Darlene McDonald, left, and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown talk after a press conference to announce the Salt Lake City Commission on Racial Equity in Policing at the International Peace Gardens in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 25, 2020. McDonald will serve on the commission.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Following weeks of nationwide protests calling for an end to police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, the Salt Lake mayor and City Council announced Thursday the creation of a commission aimed at addressing systemic racial issues in policing.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the council and six community members representing minority groups unveiled at noon the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, a new Salt Lake City advising body tasked with making recommendations to city leaders on the city’s policy, budget and culture of policing. 

“Society has finally reached a point of reckoning with racism,” Mendenhall said. “Recent tragedies in our nation have been a catalyst for this movement that calls on us to finally, directly address the overt racism and implicit bias that affects the ability of people of color to move freely in our country and access the opportunities to which every single American is entitled.”  

Sitting on the commission in its early stages are six “core” members, who attended Thursday’s unveiling: the Rev. France Davis, pastor emeritus of Calvary Baptist Church; Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services; Verona Sagato-Mauga, executive director of Renew Wellness & Recovery; Darlene McDonald, chairwoman of the Utah Black Roundtable; Moises Prospero of iChamps and a practitioner in the area of criminal, juvenile and social justice; and Nicole Salazar-Hall, attorney and current Salt Lake City Human Rights commissioner. 

The commission may grow as the core members look to involve community members. It has no set number of seats. In the coming days and weeks, the commission is tasked with building its membership, selecting a group facilitator and drafting a work plan.

The mayor had pledged to create a group to address short- and long-term issues facing the Salt Lake City Police Department as protesters have called for change, including “defunding” or a full abolishment of the police department. The City Council earlier this month made changes to the city’s police budget, placing more than $5 million in a holding account to help fund recommendations born from the new commission.

The mayor and City Council announced the commission at the International Peace Gardens in Jordan Park, a garden meant to symbolize democracy, world peace and cultural heritage across the globe.

“In Salt Lake City, the mandate is clear to us,” Mendenhall said. “We must confront systemic racism and take meaningful, sustainable action.”

McDonald said in an interview Thursday she’s honored to serve on the commission, but she knows it won’t be enough to appease the anger and fear that has fueled nationwide protests.

“It’s a step,” she said. “It is step one. Is it enough? No. What is enough is not only just an ongoing dialogue followed up with action. And that is a continuation of police reform and just policing within communities of color.”

Floyd’s killing was a turning point for the U.S., McDonald said.

“We watched a murder on television,” she said. “It was a moment of reckoning, and not only for me but within our country as a whole.”

While she applauded the creation of the commission, McDonald said she doesn’t expect protests to stop anytime soon.

“I expect them to hold our feet to the fire,” McDonald said. “This is step one. (Protesters) will not let up, and they should not let up until they see real change within the institution.”

There is not yet a set date for the commission’s first meeting, but McDonald said she expects it to happen soon. She said it’s too early to say what the commission will issue as its first set of recommendations, but that will come “once we have the voices at the table.”

“I should not have to feel afraid if I am driving my car and I have a headlight out, or if a police officer is behind me and whether or not I am going to make it home at the end of the day,” she said. “Those types of issues must change, and our relationship with law enforcement because of that should change.”

McDonald said she hopes to see short- and long-term changes come out of the commission — but true reform will likely take years.

“How old is this country?” she said. “What we are looking at with systemic racism within our institution started when we first were brought here in 1619. Do we expect to change 400 years of racism and anti-Blackness within a week, within two weeks? No, we don’t. We do expect to at least acknowledge what exists within those institutions and move forward so that when we are here 10 years from now, we are not having this same conversation.”

One short-term change McDonald mentioned was diverting police resources to social services, so that mental health professionals, not police officers, are dispatched to those types of calls.

As a Black woman, McDonald said she has experienced discrimination before, but why she chose to serve wasn’t just for her, but for all minority communities.

“As a community this is a moment that we are all in, and that’s all of us,” she said. “This is a moment in time for our country. We are being watched not only here in Salt Lake City ... but globally. The world is watching how we deal with this issue.”

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown stood by and listened to the announcement. He mingled with commission members after the news conference ended.

“I think a lot of good things are going to come from this,” Brown told the Deseret News. “The Salt Lake City Police Department is not afraid to have these hard conversations.”

Brown said he’s already spoken with many of the commission members over the last several years.

“We built those relationships,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen, as we come together, we’re going to look at the policing and how we do it. We’re going to build relationships, we’re going to build trust, and that trust is going to radiate out into the communities we serve.”

It’s not the first time Salt Lake City police officials have expressed a desire to improve relations with minority communities. Asked how this time is different, Brown said it’s the willingness of all city leaders and the members of the commission to work together on real change.

But Brown doesn’t expect the work to ever end.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to write the final chapter of this book or this commission,” he said. “It’s kind of like the never-ending story. Because if you ever think you’ve figured policing out, if you ever stop and coast, you’re going downhill. It’s a continual push — and that’s my commitment, that we’re willing to listen, to learn and to act, and through that we’ll affect change.”