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Public raises policing fears, questions to new racial equity commission

Thursday’s ‘listening session’ was first of several Salt Lake City group will undertake with the public

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A statue on a fountain on Washington Square in front of the Salt Lake City-County Building is pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Maggie’s voice shook as she told a group of city leaders about repeatedly finding men injecting drugs in the stall of a women’s bathroom where she works in downtown Salt Lake City.

“We called the police, nothing happens,” she said. “I’m left to chase the man, who is shooting up, out of the bathroom, out of our business. We’ve had to go through this so many times that my boss didn’t want us to feel unsafe any longer. So he had to install a locking mechanism so no one can come in our doors now unless we buzz them in.”

Her comments came during a virtual meeting meant to gather concerns, questions and issues from the community by the city’s Racial Equity in Policing Commission. It’s a group of community members formed in the wake of protests over police brutality that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police that is looking at a wide variety of policing issues, including implicit bias training, use of force, school resource officers and hiring practices.

Also listening to the public comments were four members of the Salt Lake City Council, Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Police Chief Mike Brown.

Maggie, who did not give a last name, said the public needs to have trust in the police department.

“We need to be able to count on our police force to be there for us when we call,” she said. “Instead of wondering are they going to show up? Are they going to help? Or are they going to make it worse?”

Hers was among the most emotional comments from the public, which also included questions like how would having a more diverse police force impact policing practices?

“Just because it’s a gay person committing police brutality against a Black person, would it make it any better?” said a person identified as Milo. “What have the police done to show that their policing policies aren’t unfairly targeting homeless people?”

Brown was asked what he hoped to take from the listening session and he said he hoped to listen and understand what the community wants.

“I’m sitting here tonight to understand,” he said. “I want you to know I’m committed to this process.”

Amy Hawkins, chairwoman of the Ballpark Community Council, asked if the department would consider hiring an outside entity to examine why police officers are leaving the profession.

A couple of people asked what role the police unions are playing in reform efforts, while several people said they appreciate the work police do and the help officers have offered them.

One woman talked about her experience with a citizen police academy, how uncomfortable jokes were made and how videos of police shootings were shared with attendees. She found the experience very upsetting, and said it has only made her more “terrified” to interact with police.

A mother shared the experience of dealing with her daughter’s murder in 2018, only to learn that the crime scene had been compromised and the killer was offered a deal that allowed him to plead to significantly reduced charges. She wanted to know if there is a review process so police officers can learn from mistakes and improve with training so another family won’t suffer because of similar issues.

A man named Matthew, who works with refugees, wondered if there isn’t a way to get refugees involved in policing efforts so they are “policing their own communities.”

“I would love this commission to work with us on building a program that we can get in (Peace Officer Standards and Training) and the (police) academy to involve more people that are from and live within those communities,” he said.

The day before the members of the commission listened to public comments, they discussed their own work. Rachel Otto, Mendenhall’s chief of staff, gave a report on law enforcement related legislation — two of which dealt with use of force.

But the most passionate discussion took place after facilitator Larry Schooler offered a report about his conversations with officers.

“Those conversations were quite interesting and quite revealing,” he said. “And I think it’s important to share with you. ... There are certainly members of the department who are concerned, I would say, about what this commission might ultimately recommend and how it might impact the work that they do as officers.”

He said the officers feel that their work is racially unbiased, and they were unclear how the commission’s work will impact them. Otto said officers have expressed a desire to deal more directly with members of the commission.

“They would really like to be more of a part of the commission and weigh in on the work and be more integrated in any way that the commission might be willing to have, particularly on the policy piece, particularly on the training piece, where I think we have people who are highly trained and could really add a lot of value,” Otto said.

Several commission members said they want more direct conversations, even though there are former police officers serving on the commission, and they feel it is important to understand all the aspects of policing as they contemplate recommendations for improvements or changes.

But others suggested that if they were going to have more police input, they ought to seek input from families who have been adversely impacted by police contact. The meetings for the commission, including subcommittee meetings on training and school resource officers, are broadcast on YouTube each week.

The commission also has several other listening sessions scheduled, and anyone can send anonymous questions or concerns to the text line 22333.