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KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

New St. George Police Chief Wants Department To Be 'Advocate' For All

St. George Police
Lexi Peery/ KUER News
Chief Kyle Whitehead (third from left) and his captains at a St. George City Council meeting. Whitehead was appointed to the position Thursday night after serving five months as the interim chief.

St. George has named a new chief of police — Kyle Whitehead. He’s held the interim spot since the beginning of March but a lot has changed since then with the nationwide movement following the death of George Floyd.

At a Black Lives Matter event in St. George at the beginning of June hundreds of people showed up to protest. That night, Whitehead took a knee with protesters.

Now, over two months later, he isn’t interested in rehashing it publicly. He’s already received backlash online from some residents and the local police union

But he said his time as interim chief has taught him the importance of communication, especially listening. 

“You know there are probably some perceived issues, or there are issues,” Whitehead said. “And the only way we’re going to root those out is to talk about it.” 

But the way police reform is talked about is different in St. George and smaller towns in Utah compared to other places, according to Laney Smith, an associate professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Southern Utah University. 

For starters, the demographics of some of the larger cities across the country that have sustained protests are more diverse than Utah, especially its southwest corner. The state as a whole is predominately white, according to census data, but it’s even more pronounced in rural areas.

Over the past few months, there has been strong support shown for police in the region. Many residents have dropped off treats and cards at local departments — and “Back the Blue” signs are a frequent sight.

We don’t feel the same immediate push, we’re not dealing with protests night after night,” Smith, a former police officer, said. “But at the same time what’s going to happen at the national level we’ll have to adjust to and make those reforms.”

Even though there’s strong community support for law enforcement, Smith said that doesn’t give rural and small town officers a free pass. Per capita, rural areas are seeing the similar rates of fatal police shootings as urban centers. 

Smith said small town departments can take the time now to make reform. 

Because there’s not this instant pressure, and there’s not these current communities, they have the benefit of sitting back and taking notes and learning from the good examples and avoiding the bad examples,” she said. “They can figure out what will work in their communities, since policing is a community-oriented service.”

There are people working in the area now with police departments to talk about reform. In the last year, a Southern Utah Black Lives Matter group formed and members of the group have been meeting with local departments to talk about their concerns. 

Chapter founder Troy Anderson said he’s had promising conversations with Whitehead. 

“We’re not asking for nothing unreasonable,” Anderson said. “We’re just asking that they look at profiling and different things like that and building a relationship with marginalized communities.”

But he said that many people in Southern Utah had a “knee-jerk” reaction and rallied behind “Back the Blue.” He said it’s shown him some residents don’t understand the goal of the group in the area. 

“They’re not understanding we’re concerned with bad policing,” Anderson said. “We don’t hate cops, we're more interested in policing methods that are being used.”

The St. George City Council unanimously confirmed Whitehead to the position Thursday night and he said he plans to find ways for the department to better connect with all residents. 

“I hope that everyone in the community can look to us as an advocate,” Whitehead said. “I want everyone to be able to look at the St. George [Police Department] and say, ‘They’ll treat me fairly and they treat me with respect.’”

Lexi Peery is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow Lexi on Twitter @LexiFP

Corrected: August 21, 2020 at 11:00 AM MDT
A previous version of this story misstated Laney Smith’s title.
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