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Salt Lake scrambles to respond to police outrage, but doesn’t move to ‘defund’

Attorneys for officers in Palacios-Carbajal shooting call city leader comments on shooting ‘irresponsible and unfair’

People march past police outside of the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, protesting racism, police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 5, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a tidal wave of nationwide demands to immediately “defund” U.S. police departments after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Salt Lake City Police Department hasn’t been immune — but city leaders are taking a different approach.

Last week, Salt Lake City leaders faced a barrage of demands to slash their police department budget by $30 million. But making that drastic cut to the Salt Lake City Police Department’s $84 million proposed budget this year wasn’t a topic of discussion during the Salt Lake City Council’s meeting on Tuesday.

Rather, council members signaled early support for exploring a judgement levy (or a one-time property tax increase) to potentially fit every police officer with body cameras this year, and they expressed interest in placing some police department funding in a holding account to place tighter controls on how it is spent.

Funding priorities such as de-escalation training and body cameras shouldn’t be “extras” or “optional,” said City Councilman Darin Mano, but rather those should “feel as essential as the gun.”

But no decisions were made Tuesday, as council members are expected to dive deeper into that budget discussion in another meeting scheduled Thursday.

However, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said he plans to present a revision to policies to explicitly ban chokeholds, tear gas and rubber bullets — even though he emphasized Salt Lake police currently don’t employ those tactics.

Later Tuesday evening, another army of over 100 angry public commenters flooded the council’s online public meeting, demanding “defunding” of the police department. Many also demanded a complete “abolition” of the department, the resignation or firing of Brown, and justice for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, who was shot and killed by Salt Lake police May 23, two days before Floyd’s death.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City leaders were under fire from another direction.

‘Political interference’

The law firm representing the officers involved in Palacios-Carbajal’s shooting sent a letter Tuesday to Mendenhall and the City Council calling public remarks made by the mayor and council members about the shooting before the investigation is complete “disturbing, irresponsible and unfair to everyone involved.”

“Critically, the remarks perpetuate a false narrative at a time where our system is at a crossroads and all involved are begging each other to listen and to only speak the truth,” states the letter, signed by attorneys Tara Isaacson and Walter Bugden. “This, in itself, is tragic.”

The day body camera footage of Palacios-Carbajal’s shooting was released, Mendenhall called the incident “genuinely disturbing and upsetting,” though she refrained from giving more of her opinion because of due process for both the officers and Palacios’ family.

The Salt Lake City Council that day also released a joint statement saying they were “outraged” at Palacios-Carbajal’s death, calling for action and change. Councilwoman Amy Fowler took a stronger stance, posting on social media that Palacios-Carbajal was “unlawfully killed.”

“We have concerns with how the City Council and the mayor have distorted and misrepresented the incident,” Isaacson wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “It is important that the process and investigation be allowed to go forward without political interference by elected officials.”

Facts that haven’t been addressed, the attorneys’ letter states, include that officers were called to the scene because there were reports of an individual threatening at least two people with a gun, and Palacios-Carbajal was ordered to drop his weapon nine times, but he continued to run. The letter also states he “picked up the weapon three separate times.”

“At the point the suspect attempted to pick up his weapon the final time and continue to flee, the officers were compelled to use deadly force,” the letter states.

“There are additional facts that are being investigated by Unified police that will be made public after a full investigation,” the letter continues. “But please, we ask that members of the City Council and other officials refrain from making statements to score political points without knowing all the facts.”

Mendenhall, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. The Salt Lake City Council, which was listening to public commenters late into Tuesday evening, did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to their office.

Banning choke holds, tear gas

In a work meeting earlier Tuesday, the council spent most of its time grilling Brown about current de-escalation practices and use of force tactics in his police department.

Though Brown said police officers aren’t trained to use chokeholds or knee holds, and public order units deployed to control riots do not have tear gas or rubber bullets in their arsenal, he noted those items aren’t explicitly banned in the city’s police policy.

“We have started to revisit or rewrite that policy,” Brown said, telling the council his administrative team plans to present copies of the revised policy to city leaders on Wednesday. “We don’t do these things, but it should be stated in black and white, ‘These are prohibited.’”

When asked why rubber bullets were used in last week’s protest downtown, Brown said other agencies across the state were called to assist Salt Lake City’s response to the rioting, “and they may have different tactics.” The chief said he could not speak to what agencies used those rubber bullets, but he said talks have begun to perhaps form a “metro order unit” where agencies “all train together” and have policies that align.

It’s a conversation that also needs to happen nationwide, Brown said.

“We as law enforcement nationally are stepping up to say, ‘There needs to be some very core policies and procedures that value the sanctity of life and that we use the very best practices in what we do and how we police our nation,” Brown said.

Brown, who also spoke of the need to “hire more diversity” within his department to reflect the community it serves and improve relationships with the public, also urged the council against defunding the police department. He noted the council in recent years have approved long-sought hiring of enough officers to relieve what has been a hamstrung department.

“Before, we were going call to call to call, “ Brown said, explaining police didn’t have enough time to spend with neighbors and “become of a part of the community they serve.” Now, he said that’s more possible.

“I can’t speak enough as to how important it is to have the staffing to interact with our community in a positive way, because that’s where true change is going to come in this country,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City Erin Mendenhall and her staff also discussed with the council their plans to launch a new city commission on “racial equity and policing” and task it with working toward a “community compact or charter of sorts” with community advocates with regard to police policies, said Rachel Otto, the mayor’s chief of staff.

Rather than a sweeping “defunding” of the police department, the council discussed a gradual shift of resources, long term, to perhaps divert funds for more social services with the aim to use more social workers rather than police to respond to substance abuse or homelessness issues.

“It may take several years to get us there,” said Councilman Darin Mano, but he said if those changes are realized, “the demands on the police department would be fewer and (officers) would be freed up to focus on people who really are repeated criminal offenders.”