For this Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown. Chief Brown discussed local demonstrations that lasted for weeks and sometimes turned violent, as well as reforms the department is making to its use-of-force policy.

Chuck Wexler: How long have you been with the Salt Lake City Police Department?

Chief Mike Brown: 29 years. I grew up in Salt Lake City. My father was a Salt Lake County deputy. Like many, I followed in the footsteps of a parent and became a Salt Lake City police officer, and my brother become a Salt Lake County deputy. I was thinking about going to medical school until I ran into organic chemistry.

Wexler: When did you become chief?

Chief Brown: June 11, 2015.

Wexler:  How have the national discussions about policing impacted you in Salt Lake City?

Chief Brown: The incident in Minneapolis was a very sad and unfortunate situation. All of us in law enforcement had worked so hard following Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and some of these other incidents to be more open, transparent, and follow President Obama’s Policing in the 21st Century work. We had worked so hard to build community trust, because those relationships are what you need to do this job. It felt like that was all gone in one fell swoop.

Here in Salt Lake City, we had riots on May 30. We had a lot of people show up downtown. Things escalated to the point where they attacked our police building and breached some of our windows. The estimate was about $250,000 worth of damage to our building. Then we saw something we have never seen in Salt Lake City: police cars being overturned and set on fire. We responded with our public order and mobile field forces and took control of the streets. Those situations continued day after day, and many of us are still dealing with nightly and weekend protests.

We’ve always been very open and forward-thinking about First Amendment rights. We’ve hosted major events, like the Winter Olympics, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its headquarters here. Whenever there have been demonstrations, we could manage them and facilitate people’s First Amendment rights. It’s never turned into the violence that we saw on May 30.

Wexler:  How did you deal with that level of violence?

Chief Brown: We don’t use tear gas, but we have a well-trained and well-equipped public order unit. We had to deploy them. We brought a number of mobile field forces and called for help from the surrounding agencies.

Wexler:  How much have the demonstrations subsided?

Chief Brown: They have subsided, but we still consistently have demonstrations and marches on the weekends. We’ve had about 50 days of continual protests and marches, so it’s been exhausting.

Wexler:  And how is your department dealing with COVID-19?

Chief Brown: We’ve had a good plan from the start. I’ve followed PERF’s COVID-19 reports and listened to best practices from other chiefs around the country. We separated into two teams and brought in different teams on different days so we didn’t get COVID cross-contamination. We let some of our records and data teams work from home. That’s something we always said couldn’t be done, but it can be done. We allowed our detectives to work from home two days a week, and we found that they were more effective in that model. We treated this very seriously and did what we needed to do to protect our workforce.

We have had some positive tests, but it hasn’t had a huge impact on our agency.

Wexler:  What reforms have you been working on in the Salt Lake City Police Department?

Chief Brown: We’ve been working towards CALEA accreditation for two years, and we just passed that. We’ve been looking at our policies and seeing if there are better ways to do things. For the last six weeks, we’ve been looking at ways that we can provide better guidance to our officers, policies that will reassure our community that we’re doing the right thing to protect the sanctity of life, protect our officers, and protect everybody.

That’s not to say that we didn’t have good policies, but it’s important to always be looking for better ways to do things and serve your community. Because if you’re coasting in police work, you’re going downhill. Policing is not a static profession. You always have to be pushing to do better and more.

One example is the chokehold. I’ve been here 29 years, and I’ve never been taught a chokehold procedure. We don’t have that in policy. But we put into policy that they wouldn’t be used, we wouldn’t kneel on necks, and we wouldn’t use those type of control holds. I think that’s the right thing to do, because that assures your community that those things are important to you and you won’t do that.

Another example is de-escalation. We had de-escalation in our policy before, but now we’ve really spelled it out. De-escalation is everybody’s responsibility and, when feasible, we should be doing de-escalation. That’s not to say that officers will be able to de-escalate every situation. But they should at least try, and document what they’ve done. Part of de-escalation is CIT training. We require every new recruit to go through 40 hours of CIT training so that they’re certified from the minute they come out of the gate. Because we can’t pick and choose the calls they go on, and right now mental health calls are a lot of the calls we’re going on.

These are policies we put into place. We talk about a duty to intercede. We had a policy on that, but we’ve expanded it. We started looking at shooting from or at a moving vehicle. We looked at a policy called “Tactics Preceding the Use of Force” so that we don’t contribute to the problem. We slow down. We disengage. We find cover. We expand the time we have to operate.

We looked at policies about not using deadly force in cases of self-harm. We looked into consent searches. And we looked at polices about reporting force and the expectation that sergeants review those reports. We’re going to review all uses of force at the level of both the sergeant and the lieutenant. Then that information will be passed to internal affairs and up through the captain, so everyone knows what’s going on.

Wexler:  What are the challenges when you’re putting forward these reforms?

Chief Brown: I think it’s almost a perfect storm. Law enforcement has been criticized from every side. It’s very difficult for the officers on the street to try to protect people’s First Amendment rights, then be screamed at and called every name in the book. And these are good officers. We’re not what people saw in Minneapolis. When we’re trying to effect change, I think they sometimes take it personally. So it’s been met with some resistance, some concern, and some questions. Some ask, “Why are we doing this, chief? We’re a great organization and we don’t have those problems.” But I think it goes back to it being the right thing to do. It’s where we as police leaders should be going. And the right thing is seldom the easy thing to do.

It can be hard to push these changes with the officers. For one thing, they feel like they’re being attacked. They really only want to protect and serve and do a great job. And when we look at different policies, they may feel like they’re now being attacked by the administration. We’ve had about 15-20 officers resign over the last three months. It’s hard for them to understand what we’re trying to do, and why we’re doing it.

It’s a difficult time for police chiefs and police leaders, but it’s what we should be doing to push forward and further our profession.

Wexler: Are there any discussions about defunding police in Salt Lake City?

Chief Brown: We’ve had those conversations. Our city council has heard that from many of the people who have called in to their meetings. They allocated $5 million to our Community Connections Center, who are our social workers, to make sure that we use those workers in the way that we should.

We needed more body-worn cameras. We had about $500,000 set aside in our budget annually for body-worn cameras, and they gave us another $700,000 to outfit the entire police department with the latest body-worn camera system.

They allocated another $300,000 for training. I’m not sure what the training will be, but one of the hardest things with training is to accomplish it in a timely manner. Sometimes it takes six months or a year to get through these different programs that we’ve implemented. That $300,000 will let us backfill on overtime to cover patrol shifts while officers are in training.

So we weren’t defunded. We actually got more money than was in our budget, but it was earmarked for specific things.

Wexler:  How do you see your role as police chief now?

Chief Brown: Like many other chiefs across the country, I’m trying to do the right thing for my community. This is a national, if not a global, issue. It’s going to take strong leadership in these positions to do the things that we need to do. We’re going to effect change, but it’s not going to be easy.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.