SALT LAKE CITY — After downtown protests again turned violent Thursday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she won’t be issuing a citywide curfew, but is begging for peace ahead of what city officials expect will be more protests and civil unrest.
“We are prepared ... whatever it might bring,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards on Friday, adding that the city is partnering with state officials in their preparations for more unrest.
“We aren’t going to underestimate the potential of the protests,” she said. “And I implore people to stop hurting people and to stop breaking things, because it’s not affecting change whatsoever.”
The mayor said she was “frustrated that the space we’ve given protesters since May 30 to exercise their First Amendment rights resulted yesterday (Thursday) in such destruction and violence.”
Instead, Mendenhall asked protesters to demonstrate peacefully, and be patient as the new Salt Lake City Racial Equity in Policing Commission gets underway to explore systemic changes to the Salt Lake City Police Department.
After Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill issued his findings that two Salt Lake police officers were legally justified in using deadly force in the shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, his offices suffered tens of thousands of dollars in damage when protesters shattered at least three windows and splashed numerous gallons of red paint across its walls and steps.
Palacios’ death came just two days before the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which has sparked international protests against police brutality, excessive use of force, and systemic racism.
Thursday night, at least one police officer was hospitalized for a “significant leg injury,” according to Salt Lake police. Several protesters were arrested after Police Chief Mike Brown declared the protest an “unlawful assembly” once they began vandalizing the office.
Mendenhall’s comments come after she issued a statement Thursday, offering condolences to Palacios’ family and acknowledging that Gill’s decision did not “feel like justice” to some.
The concept of “justice,” Mendenhall said, using her fingers to put quotes around the word Friday, has become disjointed across the nation when it comes to what is legally appropriate compared to what is morally or ethically correct.
“The protests locally and nationally have been calling for justice that we see with Sim’s decision’s yesterday would mean retribution outside of the law,” she said. “If we’re able to translate the intent of the protests last night ... that wasn’t justice for so many people. There is very clearly in our local conversation and at the national level a moral disconnect for many people between what is justified today and what the law should be reshaped to reflect morally somehow in the future.”
Mendenhall, who said Gill has “done his job according to the system we elected him to work within,” said the evidence Gill presented showed “more evidence than I expected to show the justification of the actions of the Salt Lake City police officers,” and that those officers “acted absolutely according to the law and their trainings.”
But Mendenhall also said the law gives police officers too much leniency when it comes to using lethal force — and there must be changes on city, state and national levels.
“We’re beginning the technical work for how that can change,” she said.
The mayor said city leaders are relying “heavily” on the Salt Lake City Racial Equity in Policing Commission, which is made up of leaders from minority communities, to make recommendations on changes for police department policies and budget. She acknowledged the public has a general “distrust” of government elected officials to do that work on their own.
“I get that. People are distrustful of white elected people,” she said, pointing to herself. “I get that. I hear that. And that’s why we’ve put together this commission.”
Mendenhall also said she’s hopeful there will be a state conversation regarding changes to Utah’s lethal use-of-force code, while the city considers changes to its code — with the goal to “make that policy better so we have less lethal interactions between the police and the public.”
Mendenhall said she wants city leaders to “be in dialogue” with state leaders on changes to lethal use-of-force statutes, as city officials consider changes to their own ordinances, but she said it’s too soon to say what those changes may be.
The Salt Lake City Police Department Citizens Advisory Board, a board that advises Brown and the police department, issued a public letter Friday calling Gill’s decision “devastating for us as individuals and as a board.”
“We ache for his family, friends and a community mourning his loss,” the board members wrote. “We believe that shooting Bernardo in excess of 30 times as he was running away from officers was an egregious misuse of force. These are not acceptable actions representative of the manner of policing we support and want to continue seeing implemented in our community.”
The advisory board, which includes members Zendina Mostert, Tanya Hawkins, Nicole Daly, Brandy Farmer, Carole Ann Noel Barnard and DeShawn Undergust, credited Brown for working with them to implement de-escalation and implicit bias training in recent years, and more. But they have “respectfully requested” that the chief and the police department support “Campaign Zero” — a nationwide campaign aimed at curbing police violence — and an all-civilian oversight structure currently being proposed to Gov. Gary Herbert by Black Lives Matter Utah to oversee disciplinary hearings, determine policy, and evaluate hiring and firing policies of officers.
The board also requested that the FBI Use of Force Standards be implemented into existing policy, specifically that deadly use of force may not be used solely to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who last month called Palacios’ death “unlawful” after she watched some police body camera footage of his shooting, did not challenge Gill’s decision on Friday, but rather the system as a whole.
“I believe there are flaws in the process itself,” Fowler said in a prepared statement to the Deseret News. “This begins at the state level and trickles down to every other part of the system. I understand there is momentum right now to review and reform the system, which I wholeheartedly support.
“Perhaps we begin at redefining the definition of justified use of deadly force in order to ensure true accountability,” Fowler said. “I respect the job that police officers do, but there needs to be significant changes made to protect all residents of our communities.”
Fowler, along with Council Chairman Chris Wharton and Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, held a live Q&A on the council’s recent changes to the Salt Lake City police budget, which included setting aside over $5 million of the department’s budget in holding accounts, subject to changes based on the new commission’s recommendations.
They discussed the budget’s nuances, what power the City Council does and does not have to dictate how that money is spent, and how they want to facilitate change based on the commission’s recommendations.
They also discussed how the responsibilities of police have to include not only duty to deal with criminals, but also duties that include responding to calls of substance abuse and mental illness — and how perhaps that needs to change.
“We ask a lot of them,” Valdemoros said. “We still don’t have a good grasp about what it is to be suffering from severe mental health issues versus being a criminal versus having an illness or a drug addiction problem ... and we’ve asked our police department to take care of all that.”