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FOX 13 Investigates: New body camera ordinance has stopped SLCPD from showing incidents that end peacefully

Posted at 9:46 PM, Apr 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 01:09:52-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated officers throughout the Salt Lake City Police Department tell FOX 13 they believe a new city ordinance regulating the release of body camera video may have been designed to prevent Utah citizens from trusting police.

Salt Lake City Ordinance No. 54 was passed on December 1, 2020 in the name of “increased transparency.”

The law requires SLCPD to show body camera videos to the Salt Lake City Council within five days of an officer-involved critical incident. The ordinance expanded the definition of an officer-involved critical incident to include K-9 bites, not just shootings.

The law prohibits SLCPD from releasing any other body camera videos to the public without “valid law enforcement purposes” as defined by the chief, or “pursuant to a valid GRAMA request.”

The department has not published a single body camera video since the ordinance was passed, potentially due in part to a lack of officer-involved critical incidents.

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SLCPD used to publish body camera videos online showcasing “positive” interactions with police. A FOX 13 review of the SLCPD YouTube page shows this has not happened in more than seven months.

Each of the last 24 body camera videos published by SLCPD depict K-9 bites or police shootings.

FOX 13 Investigates has obtained and reviewed multiple body camera videos showing officers using de-escalation tactics in incidents that ultimately end peacefully.

For example, officers were called out to Redwood Road on October 8, 2020 after the suspect’s father reported that his son was violent and armed with multiple knives.

The media and public were never alerted to the existence of this body camera video.

“Shoot me!” the suspect repeatedly yelled. “Come on! Come on! Shoot me!”

“He is begging us to shoot him,” an officer said via radio. “Everybody be aware.”

Officers eventually arrested the suspect safely after deploying multiple non-lethal rounds made of foam. They recovered three large kitchen knives.

“You guys were supposed to shoot me!” the suspect yelled.

“We don’t want to shoot you,” an officer responded.

“But I wanted you to shoot me!” the suspect said.

Jon Fitisemanu is a member of the Salt Lake City Police Association, the union representing SLCPD officers. The incident took place during his shift, on his day off.

“If officers were to have shot him, in my opinion, it would have been justified,” Fitisemanu said. “They did everything right and the outcome was exactly what we want, every time... Our officers receive a high level of training, and we’re actually utilizing it in the field.”

Fitisemanu said he believes the public needs to be able to see more body camera videos to contradict a false narrative that SLCPD officers are trigger happy.

“If you start (only) putting out deadly shootings all the time, it’s going to get in people’s heads that, well, the police are just out there shooting people. Because that’s what they’re being conditioned to think,” Fitisemanu said. “You know the first thing (suspects) do is they put their hands up and say, ‘Hey don’t shoot me! I don’t have anything in my hands.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m just here on a noise complaint. Your neighbors say your radio’s too loud!’”

Chris Burbank, the former SLCPD chief of police, said he has serious concerns about the city’s interpretation of the word “transparency” in passing this ordinance.

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He wanted to know why the video of officers on Redwood Road sat on a server outside of the public view for nearly six months.

“Nobody should get to pick and choose what I get to see as the citizen,” Burbank said. “If all that is kept secret, that brings us to the point in history where we are today… When you use the buzz word ‘transparency' — which I’m not fond of because I think it’s just thrown out there — the idea is, ‘Here’s everything that goes on."

"In (my) opinion, the use of the word 'transparency' means 'We have no plan or forethought into what we’re going to do, so we’re just going to be transparent and say the word several times and that appeases the public,'" Burbank continued, "and that is wrong!"

“If we’re being transparent, like we claim we are, then we need to let the public know this is what happened,” Fitisemanu said. “One of the first problems that came out of the turn of the new year, was this new ordinance… The city administrators did not want positive stories going out to the public.”

The ordinance raises questions about what should be considered a “valid law enforcement purpose” and therefore suitable for public release.

“If all you see are the good moments, then it’s propaganda. If all you see are the bad moments… who loses?” Burbank asked. “Who gets lost in this is the public.”

“I absolutely think it’s a double standard,” Fitisemanu said. “We’ve had a lot of negative pushed out and not enough positive.”

Detective Michael Ruff is a public-information officer for SLCPD. His job description is exactly as it sounds — to inform the public and communicate with the media.

“Very rarely do people have any idea what goes on,” Ruff said. “We don’t usually put these (videos) out… oftentimes that is out of respect for the victims or families.”

Ruff confirmed the SLCPD public-information office hasn’t released body camera video depicting anything other than a K-9 bite or police shooting since August 2020.

“We have all kinds of community engagement that we’re involved in. We do our social media. You name it, we’re involved in it,” Ruff said. “We want to be transparent. We want the public to understand what we do on a daily basis, whether that be the bad, which is a handful of things here and there, or all the good work our officers do… I think the public and people expect to be able to see both. I don’t think that transparency really has a limitation.”

Ruff said it was not his place to discuss the politics of the new ordinance.

Darin Mano, one of the SLC Councilmembers who voted unanimously to approve the ordinance, spoke to FOX 13 in order to give more context to his decision.

“I hope that if I’ve said anything in the past that has been misconstrued to sound like I just want police to look bad, I hope that can be cleared up, because that is not at all my intention,” Mano said. “I definitely do not want the ordinance to stand in the way of building that trust.”

FOX 13 showed Mano body camera video from the incident on Redwood Road. He agreed the video is an example of officers doing important work.

“I’m really happy to see it,” Mano said. “Thank you for showing it to me. I’m happy to know that these incidents don’t always end tragically.”

Still, Mano defended the part of the ordinance that prohibits SLCPD from releasing body camera video without a “valid law enforcement purpose."

His concerns centered around privacy.

"I wouldn't want a video like that to make it difficult for (the suspect) to get a job in the future," Mano said. “When someone’s interacting with a police officer, it’s probably not the best moment of their lives in a lot of cases. Maybe they’re committing a crime themselves, or maybe they’re a victim of a crime, and we don’t want that footage to be shown to the public and for that to be retraumatizing to somebody, or for that to be triggering for the public in some way."

“As long as that person’s identity was either blurred or that person specifically gave permission for that experience to be shown, then I’d be glad for people to see the good work that the police department’s doing," Mano continued.

The name of an arrestee is public under Utah law. The same is often true for body camera videos, police reports, and court documents.

For that reason, Burbank stated he had concerns about whether the new ordinance is in compliance with the First Amendment.

“There is no circumstance by which you can protect that,” Burbank said. “Public servants, on a public street, interacting with a member of the public, and the public doesn’t have access to it? That’s problematic... I rely on the media to access these things and provide that information to me. I shouldn’t have to go file this request. I know that your role is to do it on my behalf."

"If the effect is that the police are not able to release something that’s a valid public record, then obviously that would go against state law I think, so we’d have to review that. I don’t think it does, because it specifies that (public record requests) can be shared," Mano said. "If it's not legal, we better change it!"

“The purpose behind releasing the video is not to make the person out to be a victim or to punish them or make them look anything less than human,” Fitisemanu said. “It’s simply to point out that this is what police officers deal with, and this is how they handle it. We also would like to be looked at as human.”

Mano reiterated that he believes releasing “positive” body camera video often is a “valid law enforcement purpose,” but he thinks other SLC Councilmembers might disagree depending on the situation.

"By holding the decision to release footage to an additional standard, the ordinance allows people in the footage protection from additional trauma and emotional upheaval as the footage is shown over and over again after being publicly released," wrote Councilmember Amy Fowler in a message to FOX 13.

According to the latest draft of the ordinance, the SLC Chief of Police decides what is a “valid law enforcement purpose.”

Members of the union said they doubt whether Chief Mike Brown feels comfortable making his own decisions without guidance from the mayor and city council due to fear of losing his job.

"I can't speak for the chief or whether or not he feels that way," Mano said. "The mayor can fire the chief without the council... but I have a pretty good relationship with Mayor Mendenhall, and I've not heard her utter anything to that effect."

Fitisemanu told FOX 13 he has his doubts, pointing to the lack of “positive” videos being published by SLCPD. He urged Chief Brown to reverse course.

“I think he’s under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Fitisemanu said. “The pressure that our chief right now is facing is unfathomable. There’s a lot of lost trust. There’s a lot of trust faith in not only the chief, but the entire command staff… They’re more concerned about holding onto their own jobs than they are the well-being of the officers.”

When FOX 13 reached out to SLCPD, we were told Chief Brown would not be interested in addressing the ordinance.

“Why are we constantly worried about our jobs?!” asked Burbank. “The problem that we have with police chiefs across the country, with elected officials, is they are too busy trying to keep their job and not doing their job — and when holding onto my position for fear of controversy is more important than the public well-being? You’re not doing your job very well.”

“You have a lack of individuals leading and guiding what goes on, and very rarely does the buck stop with anybody.”

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