The What Do You Think, Utah? panel, held at Club 50 West in the heart of Downtown, is a new idea in the Beehive State. Pulling together a panel of experts in a certain topic from fields all over the state, this hour-long program allows frank, honest discussion that includes audience participation on subjects that matter to Utahns. Last month’s program featured a panel discussion of air quality in Utah, and this second installment was a powerful platform to talk about the relationship between our police force and the citizenry at large.
The show is hosted by local radio personality and Radio From Hell star Bill Allred, who led the panelists in precise and thought-provoking questions. The Police and The People panelists were Salt Lake City police Chief Chris Burbank, the Director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah, Dr. Rob Butters, as well as lawyer and political figure Bruce Baird and political consultant Dave Owen. Scheduled panelist Reverend France A. Davis was unable to attend due to some unforeseen circumstances. This left the panel completely white, male and middle-aged. However, unhindered audience questions throughout the discussion allowed open dialogue outside of this demographic and included members of the community of varying ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. Allred started out by stating the goals of the evening with the mission statement of What Do You Think, Utah?: “We promise that we won’t suck up to politicians, we won’t suck up to big business, we won’t suck up to the left or to the right and we won’t suck up to anybody. We promise to question everything, and we promise to ask the questions that you want us to ask of the people who make the decisions that affect your lives.” He made the observation that, growing up in Utah, he was trained to recognize that the local were “Officer Friendly,” but that this wasn’t the case with those who may have lived in different areas.
Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland—as well as the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—have sparked outrage and protests, resulting in violent clashes between the police and protesters. Thus, questions focused on how race relations affect justice. “The impression is that there is more going on,” Allred starts. Chief Burbank agreed that the problem is that people of color and the poor are policed at a much higher rate. He’s seen an over-policing of poor areas, where the reality is that the same level of crime really exists everywhere. Some issues brought up were that lower income individuals are imprisoned at a higher rate because they don’t have the means to defend themselves against the same crimes that the “haves” might be able to plead out or fight with access to lawyers. Not only do we see a disparity in how areas are policed based on perception of crime, but in those that are being arrested multiple times for minor crimes like possession, rather than offering them rehabilitation to fix the real underlying problems. All of this leaves minorities feeling, as Burbank put it, that the police aren’t a part of them or their community, which leads to distrust and clashes.
Proper training and a change in policing is something that Chief Burbank has implemented in Salt Lake City and he has visited some of these problematic areas in hopes to help educate other forces. “We never want to make an excuse for bad police work. Some of what you see on TV is ridiculous.” In regards to the militarization of police being part of the problem Burbank added, “When the police respond to crowds and we show up wearing riot gear, prepared for battle, it says throw rocks and bottles at us.” In some instances, law enforcement agencies are creating an image of inequity by having police bring in revenue by targeting areas where people can’t protect themselves against arrests or citations. Both Butters and Baird brought up the need for more sensitivity training on how to deal with people of color, people dealing with addiction and mental illness, and those with disabilities. Chief Burbank has had great ideas that the Salt Lake Police Department is attempting to implement to assure that we are aware of how certain communities are impacted—such as the Latino community—and how the police force can be expanded to include more people from that community. Dave Owens admits that the fear of the other is, unfortunately, deeply ingrained, but the important thing is to educate and concentrate on how to properly treat all people.
The audience members who bravely asked important questions threw out a few heavy-hitters, such as an inquiry on why police killings in the state are only surpassed by domestic violence. Chief Burbank discussed that the real key here is to train officers on how to de-escalate and learn how to deal with people who may be dealing with a mental illness or are intoxicated. Both crime and deadly force are at an all-time low, and huge strides have been made in the way modern policing is being carried out. However, body cams and accountability will only do so much, as officers need to learn how to deal with the people and the communities they serve. Sometimes it is simply just knowing when to walk away from a situation that doesn’t need escalation or immediate attention. My favorite question came when a woman asked the panel, “Who did you go to when you were in trouble growing up, Mom or Dad?” Unanimously the panel answered their Mothers. Chief Burbank indeed acknowledged that female officers are less likely to use force, and that they could always use more women on their team. So, you’ve got an open invitation, ladies.
What Do You Think Utah is produced with help from The Utah Foundation. The hour long discussion is free for adults 21+ (or 18 with an accompanying 21+ individual), it’s general admission that does not require a ticket or reservation, and is broadcast live on their website. You can check out the full What Do You Think, Utah? audio podcast or the video from the event on ThinkUtah.org, as well as information on the upcoming shows, suggestions for show topics, and details on the next panel slated for June 24, which will be on health care. They have a growing social media presence on Facebook and Twitter and you can tag them using #thinkutah. Club 50 West is located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City at 50 West Broadway (300 S.) and you can check out their website for more information on other upcoming events.