Prior to their regular meeting on June 16, the Grand County Council held a community conversation on race and justice, though some people in the public comment section commented the meeting felt more like “a celebration” of local law enforcement rather than a public accounting of policies.
“The call for conversation was 100% in response to the protests that were happening in the street,” said Councilmember Evan Clapper, who moderated the conversation. “As a local elected official, it felt like there was a big call to action and it would be irresponsible to ignore that.”
The council met in person in the county chambers, and several community members and representatives of community groups attended via Zoom.
County Attorney Christina Sloan and Grand County Sheriff Steven White attended in person with other representatives of the Grand County law enforcement.
For over 40 minutes, Sloan, Sheriff White and other law enforcement personnel gave a review of the sheriff department’s hiring process, policy review process, and police officer training, as well as a description of how complaints and reports of police officer misconduct are handled.
“There are issues now and then with an arrest, with a stop, with a case, with an investigation, and we certainly push on those officers,” said Sloan. “If there isn’t a proper basis for a stop or an arrest, we’re going to dismiss that case and we’re going to bring that officer in and talk about why.”
“Any time a firearm is discharged, any time a taser is discharged, any time there’s a use of force,” there’s a report required to be written, said White, describing a chain of review that report must go through if deemed “severe enough.”
“If there’s anything that remotely looks criminal, it’s handed off to an outside [agency], because that’s a conflict of interest for us to look at,” said White, adding that he prefers to send these reports to agencies far from the Moab Valley where he believes the group will “be very independent and take a good look.”
If there are complaints outside the scenario of use-of-force or discharge of a weapon, White said citizens can call or come to the sheriff’s office and fill out a form, which is available in English and Spanish.
“At that point, it’s brought in and it’s looked at the severity of the complaint,” said White. “If it’s severe enough, the officer will be placed on administrative leave, and then at that point, we’ll start the process, we’ll go to internal affairs.”
Questions of transparency, accountability
“I would like to try to transition and try to tap into some insight from the community of what it feels to kind of be on the other side of law and order and justice,” said Clapper, opening the floor to community groups and individuals.
Moab Valley Multicultural Center Director Rhiana Medina spoke about her role working with advocates who help people navigate the local legal system.
She said that the organization has noticed that there appears to be a disproportionately high number of Native Americans in the Grand County Jail. In reporting jail demographics earlier in the meeting, Sloan noted that about 18% of those in the Grand County Jail on any given day are Native American, while only 4% of Grand County’s population is Native American.
Four Corners Community Behavioral Health CEO Karen Dolan also spoke, recommending specialized training for responding to those with mental health issues for officers. Dolan noted that 25% of people shot and killed by law enforcement in the United States have a mental illness.
The conversation changed noticeably when community members were invited to speak. Many questioned the presentation by law enforcement and expressed concerns about the lack of transparency in current Grand County policies.
Prior to the meeting, local supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement issued a press release outlining specific questions, largely focusing on issues of law enforcement budget, policies and disciplinary procedures.
“I'm wondering why the law enforcement officers on this panel today and our attorney, have only seemed to address the ways in which they're excellent at their jobs and have not acknowledged any problems at a local or systemic level,” said Elaina Budris.
She questioned officers’ assertions that they don’t see race as a factor in stops and arrests, even though they also noted that they sometimes hear accusations that race was a factor in stops or arrests.
“This isn't a conversation. It's a celebration of our law enforcement,” community member Jessie Wilson wrote in a comment in the Zoom chat feature. She pointed out that all the review processes the officers described begin internally, and are only sent to a third party if the departments deem that step necessary.
“Who decides if it's valid or not?” Wilson asked. “Because I think we can all go through any amount of bias training but that doesn't actually take away the bias.”
She also asked if there are records open to the public on how complaints and incidents have been handled.
“We're just taking your word for it, that, you know, anytime you get a negative report, it’s treated perfectly every single time,” Wilson said.
Sloan confirmed that complaints are not made public.
Local Jayme May said that she asked for help from law enforcement after suffering a life-threatening event and was “bounced between agencies, so much so that the county attorney’s office does not have the investigative evidence to represent a victim's voice in this community.”
“I appreciate everything the law enforcement does—I never thought I'd be speaking like this, but I never thought I'd be terrified in my own community,” said May.
Sloan assured meeting participants that the Sheriff’s Department and the County Attorney’s Office are buckling down to review their policies, consider community input and make improvements. No timeline was given for that review.
The sheriff’s department policies pertaining to use-of-force and incident reviews are currently posted on the county website at www.grandcountyutah.net/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=247.
Meeting participants agreed that there is much more to be discussed, including topics such as education, mental illness, and substance abuse.
“This is the beginning,” said councilmember Mary McGann before closing the conversation to begin the regular council meeting.
No further meeting was scheduled.