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Cottonwood Heights files protest charge against councilwoman, then reconsiders

Tali Bruce, a rival of city’s police chief, charged with interfering with an arrest at chaotic protest

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Cottonwood Heights Councilwoman Tali Bruce answers questions about a Sunday protest that erupted in clashes with police during a press conference at Mill Hollow Park in Cottonwood Heights on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. The ACLU of Utah, a Black community leader and others are condemning how Cottonwood Heights police handled the protest, saying officers appeared to provoke the group to prove they were in control. The violence erupted down the street from where the 19-year-old Zane James was shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018 after allegedly robbing two stores. The protest followed a Saturday memorial on what would have been James’ 22nd birthday.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — A councilwoman long at odds with her city’s police chief became the first to face a criminal charge stemming from a chaotic clash with police during a protest earlier this month.

But not for long.

A day after charging Cottonwood Heights Councilwoman Tali Bruce with interfering with an arrest, a class B misdemeanor, the city announced it will be dropping the case over a potential conflict of interest. It will now bring on an outside prosecutor to review evidence and potentially file a new charge, but the details haven’t been worked out yet, city spokesman Timothy Beery said Thursday.

City leaders did not publicly voice any concerns tied to a pending legal battle between Bruce and Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo. Rather, the potential conflict lies in Bruce’s ability as a councilwoman to influence a city contract for prosecutor services from neighboring Holladay, Beery said. Her charge was filed in Holladay Justice Court.

Beery said the charge was filed against Bruce following some sort of miscommunication between City Attorney Shane Topham and the contract prosecutor, James Hansen. Both will recuse themselves, Beery said, to make the case “as fair and as unbiased as possible.”

Bruce was taking part in a march against police brutality in a Cottonwood Heights neighborhood Aug. 2 when it erupted into struggles between protesters and officers who directed them onto sidewalks instead of walking in the residential street. Police used stun guns and pepper spray, arresting eight people in the melee that prompted renewed calls for statewide reforms and de-escalation training.

Bruce captured live video of the tense scene where she says over a shaky recording that she was struck in the neck and shoved by an officer. Bruce said she later sought treatment at a hospital.

The video includes a tense exchange with Russo, who is suing Bruce after he says she defamed him and hatched a plan with other city leaders to get him fired.

Russo said Thursday he does not have concerns about any message that the criminal charge for his rival may send to the public.

“I have nothing to do with the charges. I didn’t submit the charges,” Russo said. “We just follow the law.”

Bruce is the first from the protest to face a criminal charge because she is the only one to face a misdemeanor instead of a felony, Russo said. Such low-level cases are generally filed more quickly.

Russo said his department sent evidence involving protesters to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office to consider whether criminal charges are warranted. When District Attorney Sim Gill said his office was asked by Cottonwood Heights police if it wanted to handle misdemeanor cases tied to the protest, his office said no.

Bruce’s case was then sent to Cottonwood Heights and the charge was filed against her Wednesday.

But once “city administration learned” about the charge Thursday, the city attorney told the city prosecutor to file a motion to dismiss the charge “to avoid any potential conflict of interest,” Beery said.

Potential charges against other protesters were still pending at Gill’s office Thursday.

Court documents don’t provide details about the alleged conduct supporting the charge against Bruce, but Russo said it is not tied to any interaction between him and the councilwoman.

In Bruce’s video of the Aug. 2 protest, she is seen approaching Russo who is sitting inside his vehicle. The chief jumps out of his car and says, “Get out of the street or I’ll arrest you,” then follows her as she retreats to the sidewalk. Russo can then be heard in the video mentioning something about sending her to jail before walking away after she tells him she is on the sidewalk.

Russo’s lawsuit against Bruce mentions sanctions handed down for misconduct at the city and says Bruce and others shared confidential information about him, but it doesn’t give specifics.

Bruce alleges that Russo began bullying her after she raised the question of whether the city could save money by moving its police force under the umbrella of the countywide Unified Police Department.

Police officers followed her with their lights on, yelled at her and parked their patrol cars in front of her house and the pub she co-owns, her attorneys wrote in court documents. She alleges the city’s police also harassed one of her employees and her former campaign manager.

Bruce, who is scheduled for an arraignment via telephone on Sept. 21, did not respond to a message seeking comment Thursday. The charge against her carries a sentence of up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

Demonstrators said police outnumbered them and instigated the violent exchanges that day in an attempt to silence free speech because they didn’t like their message. Family members who were marching in memory of Zane James, a 19-year-old shot and killed by police in 2018, called the response “an attack.”

Police said they were responding to calls from neighbors unsettled by two armed protesters and complaints the group of about 100 was blocking the street. When officers directed them onto a sidewalk and moved to arrest those who refused, several tried to fight them, the police department said. 

The city said it plans to ask the Utah Attorney General’s Office to review whether officers used excessive force, although some on the City Council questioned Tuesday if the plan is appropriate since Attorney General Sean Reyes lives in Cottonwood Heights, near the area where the protest occurred.

Russo said Thursday he asked for an investigation and believes it will exonerate his department.

“I welcome it,” Russo said. “In fact, I’m excited for it.”