Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part look at policing in Utah and America.
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Protesters called it an overreaction. Overkill. A “military war zone.” A show of force as if to say, “Not in our city.”
The Cottonwood Heights police chief defends his police force’s recent actions to clamp down on a protest in his city, calling it a necessary and appropriate response to maintain law and order in the Utah suburb.
And while he said the aim wasn’t to send a political message against the Black Lives Matter movement, it was intended to send a firm message that unlawful protest actions — like marching in the street without permits — won’t fly in his city.
“In Cottonwood Heights, we simply follow the law,” Chief Robby Russo said. “And so would we do anything different? Not a thing. Not one thing.”
The Aug. 2 protest in Cottonwood Heights — a Utah suburb mostly known for its quiet neighborhoods and desirable proximity to skiing and hiking destinations in the Cottonwood canyons — became the first high-profile demonstration to escalate to violent clashes with police outside of Utah’s capital of Salt Lake City, where up until then most protesters’ demands for police reform have been focused.
Similar protests have taken place in other typically sleepy suburbs across the state, but none have ended in such a violent manner as the clash in Cottonwood Heights, which left both police and protesters with bloodied faces and broken bones.
It came amid a time of continued, heightened tension as demands for police reform persist nationwide. And the Cottonwood Heights protest, in particular, has highlighted a debate that Utah’s state and local government leaders are grappling with — but still with no clear solutions in sight.
To those who have disdain for how Cottonwood Heights Police Department handled the protest, they say it makes the case for why Utah needs legislative action to set higher or clearer statewide standards for police. To those who praise or defend Cottonwood Height’s response, they see at as an example of why a one-size-fits-all approach to police requirements would be problematic for Utah, where communities run the gamut, from rural to suburban to urban.
And to others, the protest shows how different levels of enforcement from varying police agencies can add to the tension between protesters and police — and how that can add to confusion between what is and isn’t acceptable protest behavior.
The question of whether Utah should take statewide action on police reform — whether it’s to require more de-escalation training, a state civilian review board, crack open use-of-force code, or any other possible change — is one that legislators, city leaders and police chiefs across the state began wrestling with ever since protests erupted after George Floyd’s death May 25 at the hands of Minneapolis police.
But it’s still not clear what path Utah will take, as a handful of Utah lawmakers are still formulating their legislation — though some lawmakers say there’s likely appetite to require more de-escalation training, as long as it’s not an unfunded mandate. Any sweeping changes to use-of-force code or a state civilian review board, however, seem unlikely to happen.
Still there’s no rush, since lawmakers don’t expect any action until the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session in January.
Meanwhile, unrest continues. Protests continue, as those calling for police reform grow increasingly fed up with lack of change.
The clash in Cottonwood Heights also highlights a cultural divide between what is or isn’t tolerated by different police departments when it comes to protesting — to the extent that Cottonwood Heights police chief, in an interview with the Deseret News, said “shame on” Salt Lake City police for allowing some protesters to get away with causing property damage before police officers intervened.
“In Salt Lake City, they adopted the idea that a little vandalism is OK. ... We don’t have that luxury,” Russo said. “We’re going to follow the law and protect all of our people. If Salt Lake City chooses not to? Well, shame on them.”
Salt Lake City officials have defended their decisions to allow some level of vandalism in order to prevent escalation and clashes between protesters. Most memorably, when the most violent protest to date occurred in Salt Lake City at the end of May, protesters overturned and burned a police patrol car, and officers did not intervene in order to prevent further violence.
That’s not to say the crimes were ignored. Police and prosecutors have identified, arrested and charged multiple people with committing a variety of crimes after the fact.
And in separate protests, Salt Lake police have stepped in sooner, including when protesters began breaking glass during a protest at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office building after officers were cleared in the May shooting death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal.
Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown told the Deseret News in June his department has made “tactical” decisions to “give people a safe place to voice their opinions, feelings and anger.”
“I know there’s a lot of criticism about the time we gave to the people to exercise their First Amendment rights, but we do not take lightly the heavy responsibility of protecting lives from violence — both the protesters and all the responding officers,” Brown said. “Equally, we do not take lightly any infringement upon people’s freedom of speech.”
Protesters who participated in the Cottonwood Heights marches have insisted their event was peaceful and no vandalism occurred. They say the situation only escalated because of Cottonwood Heights’ “heavy-handed” approach.
The day of the clash, protesters were marching from a park to a neighborhood where 19-year-old Zane James, who was white, was shot in the back and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018 after he allegedly robbed two stores with what was later determined to be a pellet gun. His family is suing the city over his death. James’ father, Aaron James, was one of the protesters arrested in the clash.
Darlene McDonald, a member of Salt Lake City’s new Racial Equity in Policing Commission and a Black community leader who had been invited to speak at the event, said protesters were dancing and peaceful when police arrived, then obliged when officers asked them to move to the sidewalk. But waves of officers moved in behind them, while still more appeared in their path. After some protesters threw some water onto officers, they started “grabbing protesters,” McDonald recounted in a Facebook Live video.
“What started off as an extremely peaceful protest became a military war zone,” she said. “Basically, they were armed and waiting for a fight. They literally instigated a fight with the protesters.”
Russo, however, blames protesters for instigating the violence.
If protesters had “followed the law” to begin with and not began marching in the street without a permit, Russo said it would have played out differently. He also noted a suburban neighborhood is a “far cry” from a downtown setting, and police had received calls from nervous neighbors who felt threatened.
To critics of Cottonwood Heights’ response and continued protests calling for change, Russo stands firmly in defense of his police department, and says his officers already have received de-escalation training.
However, Cottonwood Heights leaders have sought to send a message that the city is listening and responsive to calls for change. Mayor Mike Peterson, prior to the protest in his city, joined other Utah mayors in Salt Lake City protests to support police reform and racial equity. Prior to the protest in Cottonwood Heights, officials committed to reviewing their policies and practices, and that conversation continues, Peterson said.
Two days after the protest, Peterson announced the city would send body camera footage and other materials to the Utah Attorney General’s Office for review to determine whether officers used excessive force, saying the city is open to improvements. In an interview with the Deseret News, the mayor called the situation “unfortunate,” but said the police were “caught off guard” when that march left the park and went into the neighborhood, leading to more tension as police received “numerous calls from residents who felt nervous.”
“I think that’s what probably made this different — it moved right into a neighborhood,” Peterson said. “We support the right of every citizen to protest and rally. ... When it moved to the neighborhood, constituents and residents got very nervous and concerned.”
Some members of the City Council also marched with protesters, including Councilwoman Tali Bruce, who said the police force illustrates a need for reform. Bruce also has a history of conflict with Russo, who names Bruce in a lawsuit against the city, alleging that she improperly worked with others in city government to try to oust him.
Brown, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, and the Salt Lake City Council’s reaction to the protests have aimed to send a clear message that the city has heard demands for change. The city created the new Salt Lake City Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, unveiled policy changes for police use of force and body camera footage, and Mendenhall has said the law gives police officers too much leniency when it comes to using lethal force, calling for changes on city, state and national levels.
To Mendenhall, what happened in Cottonwood Heights demonstrates a need to set clearer standards and rules of engagement between police and the public.
“Salt Lake City, as the capital city, is taking as many steps as we can to do it ourselves, but I think we all recognize we live in a very urbanized area where the boundaries of cities are imperceptible to residents,” Mendenhall said, noting that even some protests that have started in Salt Lake City have crossed city boundaries multiple times.
“In an urbanized setting like this, inconsistency in police training, standards and culture can result in dramatically different interactions for a person.”
Mendenhall said most officers “do what they’re trained and directed to do,” and that can be influenced by a police department’s culture, as well as its policies. But if all of Utah is to respond to the demands for change, there needs to be more consistency.
“The predictability and consistency of police engagement should not bend and change when you cross an imaginary city boundary,” she said.
That need for consistency is one that Russo agrees with. He said he supports uniform public order unit training, or clearer rules of engagement with the public as it relates to responding to protests.
“The complication comes from if another municipality says they are willing to allow a certain amount of disorder or lawlessness before they get involved, then doesn’t that create confusion for the protesters?” Russo asked.
He said it’s an issue he’s discussed with Brown and other police chiefs, but he sees where establishing those rules of engagement can be tricky.
“You can’t compare downtown Salt Lake City and a suburb in Cottonwood Heights or Herriman or Riverton,” Russo said. “You can’t. They’re just not the same.”
A group of Democratic lawmakers — Sens. Luz Escamilla and Jani Iwamoto; and Reps. Angela Romero, Karen Kwan and Mark Wheatley — have denounced Cottonwood Heights’ response as “heavy-handed” with some officers dressed in military combat gear. They called for an investigation and statewide de-escalation training and police reform.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who has received political heat for concluding that the use of lethal force against Palacios was legally justified, has also called for statewide reform, including one among a list of 22 recommendations that would require “law enforcement use the least lethal force that is reasonably available,” and another that would require “extensive officer training on the value and effective uses of less-than-lethal force.”
In interviews with the Deseret News, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said there is a bipartisan effort underway to find consensus on some type of statewide action as it relates to police reform — but legislation is still taking shape.
Romero, who in a recent interview with the Deseret News called Cottonwood Heights police response “disappointing,” said she plans to run legislation to require additional de-escalation training statewide. Wheatley said he’s looking to run a bill to create a state-level civilian review board (currently the only cities in Utah that have civilian review boards are Salt Lake City and West Valley City). There will surely be more bills to come dealing with a broad range of police issues.
Mendenhall, who credits Salt Lake City lawmakers for working with her on being responsive to the loud demands for change, said she isn’t seeing that same sense of urgency from legislative leaders. However, Mendenhall credited Gov. Gary Herbert for being proactive and meeting with community groups to ensure they know he’s listening.
“I’ve been meeting with Salt Lake City legislators and legislators of color. All of them are minorities in every sense, politically and racially,” the mayor said. “I have not seen legislative leadership take the mantel that is theirs to lead in these conversations yet.”
In response to a request for an interview with House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, his chief of staff Abby Osborne, said legislative leadership have been more focused on COVID-19 issues and haven’t been discussing changes to statewide police standards.
“We have not had a chance to discuss with our leadership team or the caucus because our focus on the pandemic and getting ready for the (special session) next week,” she wrote in a text message. “This will be a topic that will have much discussion and debate over the next several months and into the 2021 general session.”
A request for an interview with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, was returned by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who said it’s still too early to say what will happen in the 2021 general session, but there seems to be early support for additional de-escalation training requirements, which would need to come with funding attached as to avoid an unfunded mandate.
“There does seem to be pretty good appetite to pursue de-escalation training,” Vickers said, adding that the money it would require will be a challenge amid what’s sure to be a tight budget due to the pandemic. “But if it’s going to benefit the state, we’ll do everything we can to find funding for it.”
Vickers said he’s working with Escamilla and other lawmakers to form community meetings to take input. “We’re working hard in a bipartisan way to be reactive and listen to the concerns,” he said.
The topic likely won’t be taken up in any special sessions between now and the general session, Vickers said, because it involves many complicated issues that will require thorough debate. “Getting the policy right the first time is more important than just doing something,” he said.
Shortly after the death of Floyd, the Utah Legislature in a special session implemented a statewide ban on chokeholds. But as far as any additional sweeping policy changes to use-of-force statutes, there likely won’t be an appetite for that, according to Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a recently retired Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant who is often involved in drafting law enforcement legislation.
“I don’t suspect there are going to be a lot of changes there,” Perry said, explaining that loosening that statute too much would allow criminals the ability to “flee” without worrying about consequences.
Perry also said a statewide civilian review board may not be warmly received because he said it would be difficult to formulate a board that would work well for all Utah communities — rural and urban — since cultures and populations they serve could be so drastically different depending on the area.
Any type of statewide policy is often tricky waters to navigate at the Utah Legislature, where a one-size-fits-all approach on any topic isn’t well received, Vickers said.
To Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, who is also president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, that rings very true.
“We advocate for most decisions to be made at the local level,” he said. “A large urban agency versus a small urban or rural versus an urban, those are all very different communities. They hate it the most when somebody is saying one size fits all. They hate it.”
So whatever action is taken on a state level must walk a fine line between local control and finding uniformity for all police agencies, Ross said. That’s an issue both the Utah Chiefs of Police Association and the Utah League of Cities and Towns have been working on as they seek ways to respond to demands for change in a coordinated way.
“Over the last couple of months, city leaders across Utah, from Cedar City to Sandy, have been engaging in dialogue with community leaders to better understand the concerns around community trust and respect around police,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
“Shocked” by Floyd’s death, Diehl said elected leaders across Utah and police chiefs have been working together to take feedback from the community to help shape local or state policy actions, but they don’t want to rush toward solutions.
“We feel like we need to truly understand the underlying problems before we jump to potential solutions,” he said.
What happened in Cottonwood Heights shows those calls for change don’t just impact Utah’s capital, he said.
“Whether it’s Cottonwood Heights, Salt Lake City, Provo or St. George, we are seeing more and more public displays of concern, and that is why the league and the police association are working together to listen,” Diehl said.
In the meantime, unrest continues. To Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, that change can start happening now on the ground level with each city.
“I would challenge each community and each police department to go through a very, very in-depth review of police procedures,” the mayor said, “and assure that they are modernizing their police force and investing in solutions.”
Kirby Gaherty, program manager of Justice Reform & Youth Engagement at the National League of Cities, said so far in the U.S., cities have tended to take the bolder actions compared to their state and federal level counterparts when it comes to “reimagining” the role of police.
“As far as bigger-picture, rethinking the police, totally that’s happening more on a city level,” Gaherty said.
Take Albuquerque, New Mexico, which created a whole new alternative department called Albuquerque Community Safety, made up of unarmed personnel and social workers that respond to substance abuse, homelessness, addiction and mental health calls. San Francisco did something similar, replacing police officers with trained, unarmed professionals to respond to noncriminal calls.
What’s happening in Utah falls in line with how most states — at least those that are doing something rather than nothing — are responding to calls for change, Gaherty said. And it’s not surprising that Salt Lake City, being the more diverse, Democratic stronghold in a red state, would be looking to take bolder action as compared to the rest of the state.
But that doesn’t mean statewide policy changes can’t happen in a state like Utah, she said.
“It could happen on the state level if there’s coordination,” she said. “Right now, cities are where the movement is because it’s easier for cities to get together and collaborate.”
Coming Monday: The difficulty of turning protest into policy. A look at policing in Salt Lake City and what other states are doing in their urban centers.