SALT LAKE CITY — A political cartoon depicting the issue of white supremacy in U.S. law enforcement has sparked a fierce debate from some, including two Utah law enforcement groups and a Utah representative who say it goes too far, and those who say it shines a light on a serious problem in society today.
The cartoon, titled "The Deep Hate" by cartoonist Pat Bagley, appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday. In it, a doctor is showing a law enforcement officer an X-ray in which a Ku Klux Klan hood is seen within the skeleton. The doctor tells the law enforcement officer "well, there’s your problem ... ." The Tribune said Thursday it stands by the cartoon and hopes viewers "resolve to take appropriate action."
Some saw the cartoon as saying law enforcement has white supremacy intertwined within its structure, while others saw it calling all law enforcement officers racist.
Both the Utah Sheriffs' Association and the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, which is the state’s largest police organization, issued statements Wednesday blasting the cartoon. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, also called on the Tribune to retract the cartoon.
A public letter by the Utah Sheriffs' Association — signed by its president, Sevier County Sheriff Nate Curtis, and its executive director, Scott Burns, called the cartoon a "hand grenade" at a time when tensions between police and the public remain high.
"This is not the time for such a prejudicial piece of journalism as law enforcement officers across Utah and across the United States go to work every day to protect communities and do their best to help victims of crime and keep the peace … this is not the time for a cheap shot," the letter states, adding that members of law enforcement demand an apology from Bagley.
Today @sltrib’s @Patbagley published an editorial cartoon depicting law enforcement as members of or inspired by the Ku Klux Klan. The Utah Sheriff's Association has issued a rebuke of Bagley and his KKK cartoon. https://t.co/MxIx6kSmiIpic.twitter.com/VkUxdCz6SR— Utah County Sheriff (@UCSO) September 2, 2020
Members of the Fraternal Order of Police responded with a sarcastic critique of the cartoon, saying "the corporate-sponsored mob loves the cartoon, and we are sure he will be nominated for another award." The public letter also points out that it was published on the 7-year anniversary of Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson’s murder.
"He depicted our friend, a murdered officer, as a KKK member … you see, it is okay to kill a KKK member. Perhaps Mr. Bagley could sign the cartoon and give it to his widowed wife and child; we are sure they would love to meet someone as highly esteemed and insightful as Mr. Bagley," organization leaders wrote.
Rep. Stewart, who serves in the House intelligence committee, called the cartoon "disgusting" during an appearance on KSL NewsRadio’s "Dave and Dujanovic" Thursday morning.
"He’s either uninformed or he’s dishonest because there’s no way in the world you can interpret this other than one way: and that is that you’re equating law enforcement with absolute racism and with one of the worst symbols in American history," Stewart said.
Referencing the death of George Floyd while in police custody earlier this year, Stewart said he’s aware of specific incidents where an officer's actions crossed into the possibility of legal action against them. He argued those were individual instances and not representative of all officers.
KSL reached out to Bagley for comment but did not receive a response by publication time; however, Bagley defended the cartoon in a series of tweets Wednesday and Thursday.
"The cop in the cartoon is in for a check-up because he felt something was wrong. White supremacists have made it a point to infiltrate law enforcement. That’s a fact. That’s a problem," he tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
He added in another tweet Thursday morning that he "went to some pains to show that not all police are racist."
I went to some pains to show that not all police are racist. The @UCSO chose to take offense anyway. White supremacists make a point of infiltrating law enforcement. That’s a fact. That’s a problem pic.twitter.com/jiogUS5C67— Pat Bagley (@Patbagley) September 3, 2020
George Pyle, the editorial page editor for the Salt Lake Tribune, also defended the cartoon in a prepared statement to media outlets Thursday. In it, he noted that political cartoons are meant to shed light on important issues, and sometimes that happens in a "blunt way."
"The cartoon was not meant to say — and, in our view, does not say — that every law enforcement officer is a white supremacist. It does say that it is an issue that the law enforcement community should face and deal with," Pyle’s statement reads, in part.
"The law enforcement officer depicted in the cartoon has rightly gone for a checkup because he felt that something was wrong," he continued. "He is clearly not pleased with what he is seeing in the X-ray and, having seen it, may well resolve to take appropriate action. At least we can hope."
It’s worth noting there are FBI documents highlighting concerns about white supremacy groups infiltrating law enforcement agencies. In fact, the cartoon was published days after a nonpartisan Brennan Center for Public Justice report pointed out that some FBI documents have "warned agents assigned to domestic terrorism cases that the white supremacist and anti-government militia groups they investigate often have 'active links' to law enforcement officials.
"Obviously, only a tiny percentage of law enforcement officials are likely to be active members of white supremacist groups. But one doesn’t need access to secretive intelligence gathered in FBI terrorism investigations to find evidence of overt and explicit racism within law enforcement," the report continues, referring to documented cases across the U.S. since 2000.
The Utah police organizations' statements posted online also sparked mixed responses on social media, leading to debates if Bagley crossed the line or if he summed up the issue perfectly.
Darlene McDonald, chair of the Utah Black Round Table and member of Salt Lake City’s new Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, responded by tweeting Bagley was "historically correct." She attached photos from the Civil Rights Era, including the iconic 1963 image of Birmingham police using a police dog to attack a young demonstrator.
"It's an ugly part of our history, but it's fact. I'd be happy to sit down and discuss with you," she continued in the tweet. "I'll bring the books. You bring the Kleenex."
Darrin Bell, a freelance political cartoonist who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his work, also chimed in.
"Maybe instead of rebuking the messenger, you should issue a rebuke of #whitesupremacists who’ve infiltrated law enforcement," he tweeted.
Some responded that they believed the cartoon went too far — one calling it "dead wrong." Another asked if there were specific links to recent high-profile shootings and infiltration of white supremacy.
"Bad deputies will always give the Sheriff’s Dept a bad reputation. Get rid of the bad deputies and things will be better for everyone," another person tweeted.
Contributing: Dave Noriega, KSL NewsRadio; Amy Donaldson, Deseret News