SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands of protesters spent the past two weeks filling the streets of Utah’s capital city demanding change across the state — calling for police reform and de-escalation training.
“They have to hold the police accountable,” one protester told KSL TV.
“There’s generational trauma here,” another added.
Until the community and police get on the same page, protesters said their message will remain the same: “This can’t happen anymore.”
The in-custody death of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked nationwide calls for police reform. The push for change has reached lawmakers with this question in mind: “Is there enough oversight of law enforcement?”
That’s where the debate over civilian review boards comes in.
Although the Salt Lake City Police Department officially banned chokeholds and tear gas on crowds in its policy manual on Wednesday, many local and national advocates alike believe real, substantial reform can only come through community oversight, review and engagement.
“I think so many people are out protesting because they’re saying, you know, we saw the camera footage, but is it enough,” said Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah.
Williams is also a former member of the NAACP National Board of Directors.
The NAACP is demanding the “implementation of Citizen’s Review Boards in municipalities to hold police departments accountable and build public confidence.”
Williams served 20 years on the West Valley City police professional standards review board. She says civilian review boards like these keep officers accountable in the field.
“They were being very careful in how they were doing things because they were saying we don’t want to have this reported to the review board,” Williams said.
What is a civilian review board?
The idea is to get a panel of citizen (non-law enforcement) representatives together to make sure a department’s officers are investigated and disciplined appropriately. The bottom line? Civilian review boards analyze complaints of police officer misconduct.
However, the KSL investigators revealed the most these boards can do right now — at least in Utah — is make recommendations to the police chief.
The Utah Department of Public Safety does not track civilian review boards. But after the KSL Investigators reached out to Utah’s largest law enforcement agencies, we found our state has two fully independent civilian review boards: those reviewing the West Valley and Salt Lake City police departments.
The Salt Lake City Police Department is made up of 591 sworn law enforcement officers and the West Valley City Police Department has 216.
Do civilian review boards in Utah have enough power to create change?
In Utah, neither department’s existing civilian review board has subpoena power, meaning board members cannot launch their own investigation into an officer.
Also, police chiefs are not required to follow the board’s recommendations.
Jessica Andrew, an attorney, sits on Salt Lake City’s civilian review board and has for more than two years.
“Does there need to be more teeth in the civilian review board? I could see a circumstance where there would need to be,” Andrew explained.
She acknowledged the fact that Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown does not have to accept or adapt the board’s recommendations.
“If you have a police chief or a police agency that’s just not interested in what the civilian review board has to say, you’re exactly right. It’s a real concern,” Andrew said.
Lex Scott is the founder of Black Lives Matter — Utah. The organization is calling for a complete overhaul of Salt Lake’s civilian review board.
“The [civilian review] board needs power or the board is just symbolic,” Scott said. “It’s time to clean house.”
With no current black members, Scott’s organization said the makeup of the city’s board needs to change.
“In an ideal world, you would have Pacific Islander representation, black representation, Latin representation, Asian representation, members from the indigenous community, the gay community, the disabled community,” Scott said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall agreed.
I am looking to increase the diversity to a more equitable representation of who our community is and have that better reflected in the board itself.
–Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City mayor
“I am looking to increase the diversity to a more equitable representation of who our community is and have that better reflected in the board itself,” Mendenhall said.
The mayor vowed to also form another review board that she plans to announce soon. It will be known as the commission on racial equity in policing.
“We will be doing an unpacking of our policing policies,” Mendenhall added.
“Look at those policies in-depth and recommend changes to the City Council who ultimately will have that authority to make changes to our city laws,” she said.
By the numbers
The civilian review board for the Salt Lake City Police Department is made up of 14 members – two from each of the city’s seven districts.
There is currently one vacancy in District 1 and there are two in District 3.
The civilian review board is completely independent of the law enforcement agency. The board is a function of city government and does not fall under the police department. In fact, the department has no control over who serves on the board.
Any complaint to the Salt Lake City Police Department goes through the department’s administrative process. However, anyone can request their complaint be heard by the civilian review board.
Andrew said you can do that after first submitting your complaint with the department.
Because of the board’s lack of subpoena power, an independent investigator presents a summary of evidence to the Salt Lake City board for their review.
“In my two and a half years on the board, there’s never been a time where I felt that we were not given the full facts – that we weren’t given the truth,” Andrew said.
If I’m going to be a responsible citizen, but especially a responsible board member, I need to look at the facts.
–Jessica Andrew, civilian review board member
It is important to note, however, that in nearly every decision the past year, the Salt Lake City civilian review board agreed with what police had determined.
“If I’m going to be a responsible citizen, but especially a responsible board member, I need to look at the facts,” she added.
Although initially skeptical of police because of her line of work, Andrew said her experience on the board has, overall, been a positive one.
“I wish every police agency had one,” she added. “We can never make a perfect police department. We just can’t. It’s made up of imperfect people, right. But, what we can do is have input from the citizens that create a culture of really responsible, really respectful police, law enforcement. And, if we have an agency that’s listening to the civilians, then yeah, I think it’s a super-effective way to do that.”
Both Salt Lake City and West Valley City police departments’ civilian review boards operate similarly. Board members first apply to be chosen, are vetted, then appointed by city leaders and approved by the city council.
Once selected, board members are trained, meet regularly and give their recommendation to the police chief, who must consider their decision with final disciplinary measures. Again, however, neither chief is required to make his or her decision to match the board’s.
Reviewing use of force cases
The Salt Lake City Police Department saw 365 Internal Affairs cases in 2019, nine of which involved “use of force.”
All excessive use of force complaints are automatically referred to the city’s civilian review board.
The Salt Lake City civilian review board will also hear the latest officer-involved critical incident involving Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, 22, who was killed on May 23, by Salt Lake City police officers.
According to graphic body camera footage released by the department, police appear to shoot Carbajal in the back. Officers fired at least 20 shots at him.
The video showed Palacios-Carbajal running away from the officers at the Utah Village Motel. Police were responding to a call of a gun threat when the man ran away.
Officers said a weapon was found near his body.
A law enforcement perspective
Retired Utah Highway Patrol trooper and Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said it would in theory be great if every law enforcement agency in Utah had a civilian review board. But, in practice, Perry said it would need finessing.
“Setting up civilian review boards, I think wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s going to cost you some money because you’re gonna have to do it right, you got to make sure they’re trained, and there’s repercussions if they don’t do it right,” Perry said.
Not doing things right, said Perry, like not having citizen members who take the job seriously and show up to every meeting, or exposing what is considered private information and jeopardizing a person’s right to a fair trial.
“If I share too much information, I’ve tainted the justice system. I mess things up for that person. And, if that person gets off because of it, that’s even worse,” he said. “Because if the person was guilty of it, and because of what we did, they get a lesser penalty, a lesser punishment, is that fair to society?”
Perry echoed a common concern, too: Can a citizen fairly judge police action if he or she has never been on the force?
“I don’t have a problem with civilian or citizen review panels, as long as they’re educated,” he said.
Law enforcement agency practices & policies
According to the Deseret News, the South Salt Lake mayor wants to create a civilian review board for her city’s police department in the wake of recent protests.
“It will absolutely happen,” Mayor Cherie Wood told the Deseret News.
Park City has a “Police Complaint Review Committee,” but it is made up of two appointed city staff members, as well as the police chief who serves as an “ex-officio member.”
Utah code does allow counties of a certain size to operate a Merit Board, but this body is principally involved in hiring and promotions rather than discipline. It acts as an option for law enforcement officers who feel they’ve been wrongly disciplined to receive further review. The decision of these boards is final.
KSL TV found these are used in Salt Lake, Box Elder and Cache county sheriff’s offices.
For more information about Salt Lake’s civilian review board, click here.
For more information about West Valley City’s civilian review board, visit this website.