Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown looks to the future after year of protests, cutbacks
Salt Lake City’s police department responded to 290 events since a violet protest on May 30 last year. We sat down with the police chief to talk crime, response, and what comes next.
Last year was one like no other for the Salt Lake City Police Department.
A riot, numerous protests, calls for defunding the police, controversy over the use of police K-9s for apprehension, a rise in violent crime, low morale and a hiring freeze while the department was down 60 employees all made for unprecedented 2020 for Salt Lake police.
Mike Brown has been with the Salt Lake City Police Department since 1991. He was made interim chief in 2015 and formally appointed to the position full time in 2016. He sat down with the Deseret News to answer six questions reflecting on 2020, what lessons were learned and what improvements are being made for 2021.
Deseret News: There was a sharp increase in violent crime statewide, including Salt Lake City, last year. Meanwhile, you ended the year down about 60 officers. Part of that problem was resolved when the hiring freeze was recently lifted. But how do you resolve both issues this year?
Mike Brown: Good question. And yeah, that’s a big issue. As a police chief, violent crime at a 21% increase is shocking. It’s alarming. But when you really break those numbers down, 21% is 287 more victims that were victimized in violent crimes. So that’s impactful.
So what we’ve tried to do, we’ve put forth our crime reduction plan. Part of that was to put more officers into the field. We had 18 officers graduate from the Field Training Officer program in November. They went back into the field to replace some of those officers who had left. The other part of that is we went through and we took officers from different units within the department and put them back into patrol to fill those numbers, because patrol really is the backbone of any police agency. That’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. When somebody calls 911 or they need the police, we need to be able to respond in a timely manner.
With everything that occurred in 2020, it was very difficult. So, 38 more officers to patrol. All the beats are now filled up. What that does, though, to violent crime, if you have officers present in the communities, just the optics of seeing that — a car going through — those that are there for illegal or nefarious activities, they’ll leave. They don’t want to be around when cops are around. So hopefully that will have an impact.
But then, in that press conference I stood with U.S. Attorney John Huber, U.S. Marshal Matthew Harris, the mayor, Commissioner Jess Anderson (of the Department of Public Safety). What we’re trying to do is leverage partnerships to go after those apex criminals that are actually driving the violent crime. So, I think through those partnerships, renewed partnerships, I think will really make an impact.
DN: The city recently lifted the hiring freeze for your department. How quickly will you be able to get new officers on the street?
Brown: I wish it was as easy as flipping a switch. It’s not. People don’t realize that cops ... it takes from start to finish about 18 months. Several months of background and testing and things like that to make sure we get very good, qualified candidates. Then we put them through an academy. The basic academy is about 22 weeks, so about five months. And then they go into FTO, which is the Field Training Officer program where they ride with another officer and they go out and learn the skill of being a police officer and doing the things like we do it in Salt Lake City. That’s about another 16 weeks. So you're looking at about 9 1⁄2 to 10 months.
That class of 30 that we talked about, they’re starting in February, I think Feb. 22. So we won’t see them til mid-December. There’s no options that we’re not looking at. So we may do another lateral class inbetween to get more officers out there. But the thing that’s important is that the hiring freeze is lifted, we’re processing applicants again. We just recently did another outreach and I think we had 400 people put in to be a law enforcement officers here. So, there’s a desire. Even with everything that happened in 2020, people would say, “Who would want to go into that profession?” I’m telling you, there are people that are stepping up. And specifically for Salt Lake City, raising their hands and saying, “I want to be part of that team.”
DN: In September, the mayor suspended your K-9 Apprehension Unit. As of today it remains suspended. Can you update us on what’s happening behind the scenes, what the status is of getting that unit back?
Brown: Let me just correct, I suspended the K-9 program. The apprehension part of that team. It’s still suspended. We’re now in three prongs of review: The district attorney’s reviewing some of those K-9 bites; internally, we’re running that through our internal affairs process; and we would like to bring in an outside expert to take a real thorough look at the actual procedures and policies that we have and give us best practices going forward.
So, it’s still on hold. I think we’re kind of in the middle of a lot of those things. But we do have two bloodhounds. In fact, we just picked up another little bloodhound named Bruce. And they’re very active. So we have Huck and Bruce and they’re on patrol and they go out every night and their tracking ability is second to none. And they’ve been very active in catching some of these criminals that you see in the watch command logs.
DN: We’ve talked about you being down officers. And there are those who have quit or threatened to quit over their frustrations over police reforms that have been proposed or enacted in recent months by the mayor's office. Two-part question: How would you rate the morale in your department right now? Did you and the mayor learned something from each other last year?
Brown: 2020. Who could have predicted what we endured last year, especially in law enforcement. We started out well, high hopes for a great year. And then COVID hit. And that put a lot of restrictions on how we wanted to patrol and serve our communities because we had to wear personal protective equipment. A lot of our ability to get out and interact with people has been halted because we don’t want to spread COVID. And then you look at what happened on May 30.
May 30 was alarming and shocking here in Salt Lake City. We have never seen anything like that, to see a police car flipped over and burned. Our officers, almost the entire department, responded in those 24 hours. And I want you to know that during that time, they endured rocks, bottles, crow bars, baseball bats, manhole covers were thrown at them. Twenty-one officers went to the hospital injured. Concussions, one officer had his knee blown out, one officer sustained permanent hand damage.
That has an impact. But throughout those days, it wasn’t just one day. You need to know we endured 290 events (since May 30). Protests, marches, things like that. So our officers, they have been called back to work missing birthdays, anniversaries, dance recitals, they have done everything we’ve asked them to do ... and more.
Morale is low. But they have never shirked one responsibility. They’ve answered the bell. They’ve taken every call. They have done everything that we have asked him to do. And I couldn’t be prouder of this organization, those women and men ...
At this point, the chief becomes emotional as he speaks, and stops the interview for a moment to get a cup of water.
I tell ya, I get a little emotional because I love these officers. They are the best. They are the best in the country. And they have the heart of a lion and compassion beyond belief. Yeah, morale is low, but there’s a reason. No other agency in this state has been through what we’ve been through.
Here's the thing: These officers are not only protecting these individuals (marchers and protesters) but they’re the target of some of the most vile, vulgar language you've ever heard and physical assaults. So, it’s been tough.
Let me tell you, I had a conversation with Mayor Erin Mendenhall in early 2020. She’s a new mayor and we’re talking back and forth, and she said, “Chief, we need to have a relationship based on trust and honesty.” And I said. “Mayor, I couldn’t agree more.” And so, we have tried very hard to be very open and honest. And that’s the type of person she is. She cares, and I know she cares deeply for the officers of this department. I heard her say that to union leadership today.
But it’s not a relationship of blind trust. We’ve had hard conversations. I mean, if you can imagine a new mayor going through everything that we’ve gone through in a year, having those pressures of COVID, economic issues, things like that. We’ve had hard conversations. But I think what has come of that and where the growth has come, we’ve been able to learn, to grow and to solve problems together. And I think that’s the growth me and the mayor have had. And I compliment her on her leadership.
Have I done everything right? Absolutely not. I wish I could find a handbook that says what to do in a pandemic, social unrest, riots, COVID. It’s just not out there. I’ve talked to law enforcement experts across the country that have been doing this for 50 years, they don’t have the answer. But what I’m going to do as a chief, I’m going to keep trying and keep supporting these officers and I’m going to have their back. Because they deserve that.
DN: For 2021, will you be addressing crowd control differently? For example, last year protesters blocked off streets while protesting, but also obstructed traffic. Will you allow that to take place?
Brown: Protests are a little bit fluid and dynamic and have a mind of their own. There’s three things that we learned in those 290 events, and we’ve become very good at it. We’re not going to allow vandalism. We’re not going to allow people to destroy property. We’re not going to allow violence of any type. And we’re not going to allow vehicles to block roadways because nothing happens when we can’t respond and help out. And so with that in mind, we have our motors who can block off traffic.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, a march grows in size, 500 to 1,000 people. You can’t expect everyone to be on the sidewalk. We’ll provide the safety and we’ll block the intersections for them in the road to make sure that they can express their First Amendment rights in a safe, safe way. But if we see a situation growing or escalating, we will have a plan. And make no mistake, you may not see all the assets we have. But we will follow the intelligence, we will know exactly who and what may be going on. We’ll have our public order (unit) staged if we need. We’ll have our mobile field force staged if we need. We’re not going to let things escalate like we saw last year.
DN: Finally, what is your plan for addressing police shootings in 2021? Specifically, there seems like there is a growing problem of the people you come in contact with who are either suffering from mental illness or drug addiction or they’re using drug addiction to self-medicate their mental illness. And some of those people want to commit “suicide by cop.” So how do you balance getting these people the help they need vs. protecting your officers?
Brown: That’s the $1 million question right there. What we’re going to do is do everything we can possibly do to prevent our officers from ever being in a situation where they have to use deadly force.
As you know, we have our social worker program. We have 10 social workers. We use them and we go out and use what we call a co-responder model. What we try to do is maybe help individuals that are suffering from mental illness or addiction issues because that is really the underlying issue to a lot of the homeless issues that we deal with, and a lot of the crime we see on the streets. So if we can help people into resources or into treatment, that will help down the road.
I’ll say Salt Lake City is a very forward leaning thinking organization. We recently took one of our social workers and trained her up as a hostage negotiator. We had a barricaded subject just a week ago. We talked to this individual for hours to get him to come out and surrender. We called up our social worker and brought her in, and within 45 minutes of being able to talk with this individual, he came out and surrendered. No force was used and we were able to safely handle the situation.
Salt Lake City is always looking for ways to prevent the use of force and deadly force. We just purchased and trained (250 officers) with less-lethal shotguns, which is another tool we haven’t had. We have, I believe, 75 less-lethal shotguns, and we’re putting those back out into patrol. And so, when we respond on those calls, hopefully we’ll have the tools we need to either de-escalate or intervene through negotiations, de-escalation, but we have less-lethal options as well. So we’re trying everything we can.
I wish I could say we would de-escalate and not have to use deadly force every again. I don’t think that’s the world we live in. But, as a chief to the communities we serve, our officers will employ every tactic we have — time, distance, numbers, concealment, cover — anything we can do to reduce the chance of the fact that we may have to use deadly force. We’re trying to do everything we can.
Editor’s note: After the interview, Brown corrected that the department currently has 47 less-lethal shotguns with the goal of having 75 in the near future.