Petersen: Police Brutality in Utah Cannot Be Ignored


Justin Prather

(Photo by: Justin Prather | The Utah Chronicle).

By Josh Petersen, Digital Managing Editor

A few years ago, it seemed that every week a new disturbing video of police shootings went viral on social media. While police violence has always been a problem, especially in communities of color, the issue has received particular attention in the past several years. Police shootings of unarmed black men inspired the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The movement inspired significant backlash from Conservatives and news of police killings have continued at an alarming rate. Still, the work of #BlackLivesMatter activists inspired at least a little bit of hope. Discussions of police violence and racism in law enforcement were suddenly being considered in a very public way. Even though many police officers were never indicted for their actions, public pressure to address problems in the system suggested that incremental change is possible.

Yet, in just a short amount of time, the narrative has shifted. In the current news cycle, dozens of important stories are buried every day. Between the inescapable drama of the Trump administration, the action of a dysfunctional Congress and the constant allegations of sexual misconduct, it is simply impossible to keep up with every important issue.

While police violence has been mostly absent from the headlines in the past two years, the problem continues to fester in communities throughout the country. Police violence in Utah rarely makes national headlines and the issue can even be underreported by local news sources. The killings of Patrick Harmon and Elijah Smith did not galvanize national attention and widespread protests in the same way that the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner did. Still, police brutality remains a pressing issue in Utah especially.

Mapping Police Violence is an online project that publishes data about police killings in the United States. Their data compares police killings by state from January 2013 to December 2017. The statistics in Utah are appalling. The average annual police killings per one-million people of all ethnic backgrounds was 3.763, while the average rate for black people was 27.32. That means a black person is seven times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a non-black member of the state. The problem seems to be getting worse, not better. In the first four months of 2018 alone, Salt Lake County law enforcement killed seven people.

(Photo by: Justin Prather | The Utah Chronicle).

In an interview concerning police violence, District Attorney Sim Gill acknowledged that police killing “takes a toll on our community.” While this statement is a tiny step in the right direction, there still seems to be no concrete plan in place to make police shootings less frequent. Gill later claimed that there is “no magic number” of shootings that would require reform — which minimizes the existing issues and de-emphasizes the ways Gill could attempt to enact meaningful changes. Gill acknowledged the possibility that police violence could be linked with “broader issues of social justice and those systemic issues.” The problem is that few governmental officials seem committed to deeply examining these “systemic issues,” let alone proposing practical solutions to solve them. To address these issues head-on, we need to have an honest discussion about how racism and privilege operate in Utah and how state institutions often victimize the most vulnerable people in our state.

Many activist groups have called attention to this issue and some media organizations, especially The Salt Lake Tribune, have done excellent work in reporting police violence. Mainstream politicians rarely discuss police brutality, however, and many Utahans still do not know the prevalence of police killings in this state. It is easy to ignore this violence until it affects a family member, friend or community member.

Criticizing police violence does not make a person anti-police. In fact, I am concerned about police brutality because I respect the role police play in society and I want them to be held to a higher standard. Reducing police violence makes the entire community safer for everyone, including police, and allows law enforcement to build deeper relationships with the people they are obligated to protect.

Many local and national activists have proposed some practical solutions to address police violence. Local demonstrators are pushing for an elected citizen council to investigate police force. This would allow a greater check on police power; when police departments are allowed to investigate themselves, it is no wonder that few police officers are charged after a shooting. Campaign Zero, an activist group associated with Black Lives Matter, suggested a number of policy reforms, including ending “broken windows” policing, demilitarizing officers and racial bias training. It is clear that police violence is a complex issue without simple solutions. But as police brutality ends too many lives in Utah and the United States, we must not ignore the damaging role it plays in our society.

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