Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera Says Police Need To Be Held Accountable

Photo of police in riot gear in Salt Lake City.
Brian Albers
After protests against police brutality in Utah and across the U.S., communities and law enforcement are talking about change. Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera says people need to acknowledge that racism exists and police need to be held accountable.

More than 40 people were arrested in Salt Lake City over the weekend when peaceful protests against police brutality and racial injustice turned violent and destructive. Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera spoke to KUER’s Diane Maggipinto about what she’s doing to take on racial bias and police reform.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Diane Maggipinto: The protests this weekend and across the nation really stemmed from frustration over racial biases and police violence. And you're a person of color, and the head of a law enforcement organization. What do you say to protesters and members of the public who are concerned about police treatment of black people? 

Sheriff Rosie Rivera: We all need to come to the table and have more conversation. There still is racism here, even in Salt Lake. And once we all agree that it exists, then we can start moving forward on trying to figure out a way to stop it. You know, what happened in Minneapolis was tragic. It shouldn't have happened. George Floyd was murdered by officers and we all saw on video. And they need to be held accountable. We need to hold our officers accountable when something like that happens. What we have been doing is trying to bring our communities together and find out what the issues are for our individual communities. 

I, as a person of color, do know that there's still racism. I've experienced it myself throughout my lifetime. And I have a granddaughter who is half black and half Hispanic and she experiences it every day. She works at a coffee shop and I hear her stories. And so I know that it still exists. And we need to — because we're law enforcement, because we're the ones that have to keep the peace — we need to be at the table and leading those conversations.

DM: When you were sworn in and made a commitment to hiring a more diverse police force, you also mentioned community policing. I'm wondering if you've had any success in either of those areas. And can you explain what community policing is?

RR: We have increased our diversity in both the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office and the Unified Police Department. We changed our recruiting methods, and we're not only hiring more people of color, but we're also hiring more females. It is great when you see that you look like your communities and you know that those people understand the community because that's where they came from. 

And community policing means for us that we get out into our communities and we understand them. So with the Unified Police Department, they are out in their precincts and they are getting to know all of their different communities there. But I also have a community in the jail. The jailers have to understand the community that they're dealing with in our facility in order to make sure that we keep them safe and we treat them with compassion and empathy.

DM: So that's a great segue, because I wanted to ask about what law enforcement is doing to prevent the use of deadly force or even brutality. I mean, some of these police officers had to resort to some pretty brutal means to get people to comply. And I'm wondering if there are conversations about reducing lethal force.

RR: We have those conversations all the time. We try to use the least amount of force necessary for the action that we are involved in. So we continue to train, trying to teach the officers how to communicate, but also how to de-escalate situations. And we train on any new tools that we can get that are not lethal, and we make sure those officers are provided those tools. 

And, you know, I get what you say and what your question is, but I also have to say that right now, law enforcement in this nation, for probably the last 10 years, has taken a different direction. The lack of trust that the community has for law enforcement — we have to earn that trust back for us to be able to change things. 

I was very impressed with how the officers handled the situation in Salt Lake City. I saw what was occurring. I saw officers getting hit, assaulted, spit at — even with COVID — that's a concern. And I think that they held back as much as they could. We're always going to get officers that cannot do that. And those are the ones that we need to take a look at, investigate those cases. But what I saw [Saturday] was impressive to me. The fact that they held their tempers and they did everything they could, being under fire like that.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.