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Protests Bring To Mind Police Shootings In Utah

Photo of police standing outside at night
Brian Albers
A rally against policy brutality and racial injustice drew hundreds of protesters and several law enforcement agencies to downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis spurred protests against racial injustice in Salt Lake City and around the world. But the incident has some Utahns thinking about the state’s own relationship between police and civilians.

Ashley Finley is a poet, a community organizer and a Black woman. She moved to Salt Lake City about seven years ago from Los Angeles. When she arrived, she felt Utah was calm compared to the big city.

“I remember there was a thought that I kept having that it's really peaceful here,” Finley said. “There's not a lot of violence, and people are generally well-meaning. There can be some cultural and racial ignorance. But overall, I feel like I'm living a very peaceful life.”

But the deaths of Patrick Harmon and Elijah Smith — two Black men who were killed by police a few years ago in Salt Lake County — shook her.

“It really broke my heart, but it also incited a sense of rage in me,” she said. “Salt Lake City is becoming what it is, it's growing the way it is, because of the cultures of these [Black, indigenous, Pacific Islander and Latinx] communities. Yet they're so undervalued, and there's so much violence here in this city against these communities on a daily basis.”

Finley wants to meet with Salt Lake City’s mayor and is frustrated that local leaders haven’t addressed these and other cases in their response to the protests. 

“Just because Salt Lake City and Utah in general have become really good at kind of glossing over these issues and hiding these issues, it does not mean that they are not happening here,” she said.

In fact, just a few days before Floyd’s death, Salt Lake City Police shot and killed Bernardo Palacios. The Salt Lake Tribune reported officers were responding to calls of a man with a weapon. 

Since 2015, the Washington Post has noted 60 incidents of fatal police shootings in Utah. In Salt Lake County alone, there have been 32. Of those, almost 45% have been people of color, though they only make up about 30% of the county’s population. 

In the decade that Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has been in office, he estimated he’s investigated up to 100 cases of officers using deadly force.

But Gill guessed he’s only ruled a handful of incidents not justified, because he has to work within the use-of-force parameters set by the Legislature. 

“If we as a society want a different outcome, then we need to really go back and look at the statutes that we've created,” he said.

In the past week, Gill and prosecutors across the country pledged to address racially biased policing and use of excessive force. Gill said his office has already worked to make investigations into use of force more transparent, like by lobbying for an independent task force. 

Emily Means covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @Em_Means13

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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