SALT LAKE CITY — Cottonwood Heights will ask the state to determine whether officers used excessive force at a Sunday march that erupted in fights as police ordered demonstrators out of a street and used pepper spray, stun guns and batons.
Mayor Mike Peterson said Wednesday the city will send body camera footage and other materials on to the Utah Attorney General’s Office.
“We will always look for ways to improve,” Peterson said.
But it could be several months before the office digs in on the review. Cottonwood Heights police plan to first finish a criminal investigation and recommend potential charges for more demonstrators beyond the eight arrested Sunday, Chief Robby Russo said Tuesday at a meeting of the City Council.
Similar demonstrations have taken place in other typically sleepy suburbs across the state, but none have ended in such a violent manner as Sunday’s, which left both police and protesters with bloodied faces and broken bones.
About 100 protesters were marching and dancing against police brutality and in memory of 19-year-old Zane James, shot and killed by a Cottonwood Heights officer in 2018. As the group approached the yard where James was fatally wounded, homeowners in the upscale neighborhood telephoned police with concerns. The city’s police called in several agencies for backup.
Councilwoman Christine Mikell said she is proud of the city but it should get an understanding of “what went wrong Sunday, so that we can be, as a council and a city, prepared not to see that again.”
Amid calls for reform from Democratic state lawmakers and several who voiced frustration at a council meeting Tuesday, the city plans to continue talking about potential police reforms.
“My son has already lost his life,” said Tiffany James, Zane James’ mother. “I think you owe it to your citizens to do something now.”
She and other demonstrators said officers provoked the group after boxing them in. Police countered that many ignored their commands and then attacked officers who tried to arrest them for blocking traffic, tearing off the law enforcers’ body cameras, a magazine and a set of keys.
Some at the Tuesday meeting said they were grateful police responded quickly and forcefully after demonstrators confronted homeowners and blared music.
Others decried what they said was a double-standard on the part of police: force for demonstrators critical of police and friendliness toward those supporting officers.
Peterson, the mayor, said there were two main differences between Sunday’s violence and a relatively calm pro-police rally Tuesday night rally at Cottonwood Heights City Hall, where many carried assault rifles on a plaza as counterprotesters gathered across the street.
The first distinction is that the march took police by surprise, but the city had caught wind of the rally and held an emergency meeting to plot out safety measures. The second difference is that the march happened in a neighborhood and the Tuesday event took place away from homes.
“Citizens have every right to protest and to march,” Peterson said. “It’s just unfortunate that when you take it into a neighborhood, that neighborhood becomes very nervous and concerned, and there are confrontations and we get calls.”
At the Tuesday rally, few police could be seen. Some plain-clothes officers scattered throughout the crowd, Peterson said, while others monitored from inside or from down the street.
“I can’t tell you it doesn’t make me nervous when I see that much armed individuals at one site. What would happen if something set it off? It would be a catastrophe,” he said, but “they were peaceful. They were not confrontational with anybody or anything.”
Police said protesters could have avoided the confrontation by applying for a permit. But Peterson acknowledged the city has ceased granting event permits in the pandemic. Still, he said, communication from organizers would have been helpful.
Aaron James, Zane James’ father and one of the eight arrested Sunday, rejected the notion. “The CHPD does not need to give me permission to drive down to the place where my son was shot,” he said at a Monday news conference.
Correction: An earlier version misspelled Councilwoman Christine Mikell’s last name as McKell.