Police union members speak forcefully against mayor's reforms, but what's the impact?

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Board member and patrol officer Jon Fitisemanu spoke for the crowd, reading from a three-page script for a live TV audience. (Photo: KUTV)

They emerged from the public safety building by the dozen — uniformed and plain clothed members of Salt Lake City’s police union — ready to push back against Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s proposed changes.

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Board member and patrol officer Jon Fitisemanu spoke for the crowd, reading from a three-page script for a live TV audience.

Officers have been literally beaten in the streets, he said. They and their families have been threatened and called racists, murderers and pigs.

“We have pledged our life in exchange for yours, if necessary,” Fitisemanu said. “That is our charge. We have not, and will not turn away from it.”

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The speech was highly critical of Mendenhall, chastising her for claims that “disparage her own employees.”

But it was short on specific policy grievances, and the group did not take questions when it was over.

Union president Steven Winters, who was out of town, was reached by phone and said the group’s specific policy grievances are new rules governing the use of force they believe are vague.

It puts us in an awkward position to protect people in incidents where we’re not certain as to what we can and can’t do,” he said. “They’re going to measure your actions on a subjective level.”

The mayor’s desired reforms would change city policy — not criminal law.

If adopted, the union believes a Salt Lake City police officer could be terminated for a use of force that is considered legal by Utah law, but out of bounds for Salt Lake City.

Winters said last week policy changes are already forcing some officers to leave. He estimates there have been 20 departures in the last month.

2News spoke with one such officer last week, who cited a lack of support from city leadership as a reason for quitting.

2News on Monday called numerous leaders in other departments around the metro area asking them to gut check the idea there could be an exodus from Salt Lake City.

Is it political posturing or is there a real migration to the suburbs?

Police chiefs in Draper and Kaysville each said they’ve heard from at least one Salt Lake City officer looking to leave.

The Davis County Sheriff’s Office reported increased interest ever since widespread protests began in late May. They got three calls from Salt Lake City officers in the hours following Mendenhall’s speech last week about proposed reforms.

Several other department leaders indicated they wouldn’t be surprised to see officers leave, but had not specifically heard from any potential candidates.

Sandy Police Sgt. Clay Swensen said support from leadership weighs heavy on employment decisions.

“Having bosses that support you and validate your work — I think that’s important,” he said.

Important enough to make a career move?

“Depending on each individual’s situation, it could be worth their time, for sure,” he said.

Sandy has not heard from any Salt Lake City officers, but they are hiring.

“There is a good chance that we’ll get applications from other departments,” he said.

Some department leaders around the valley noted that pandemic-related hiring freezes may mask any potential interest from Salt Lake City officers, as some agencies are simply not posting job openings.