Did anything change? And where do we go from here?
A year ago, the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked protests and outrage across the nation. In Utah, protesters marched against racism and police violence through the capital city and in smaller towns and suburbs for much of the summer.
There was a flurry of activity: Police chiefs kneeled with activists. Lawmakers banned chokeholds. Artists painted Floyd’s face on a building in downtown Salt Lake City, a project that would expand to include more than a dozen faces of people Utah police officers have killed.
But then what?
One year after Floyd’s death, The Salt Lake Tribune asked six leaders and activists to reflect on what happened and what change is still needed.
Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City mayor
When Mayor Erin Mendenhall took office in 2020, she arguably faced one of the most difficult years in Salt Lake City history. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the city in March and was swiftly followed by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake. Weeks later, the city was shook again — this time by Floyd’s murder.
A summer of discontent followed. Thousands turned out to protest police violence and racial injustice. The rallies sometimes turned destructive. Officers pushed an elderly man to the ground, used chemical irritants and struck protesters. City residents responded with impassioned demands that Mendenhall and the City Council take action.
For the new mayor, it was a “reckoning.”
“The days and the weeks that followed [Floyd’s death] were tough on our city,” Mendenhall said, “but they were really nothing compared to the injustice people across our state and country have experienced throughout history.”
It also gave the city a mandate, the mayor said, “to move forward with equity.”
Although the mayor quickly enacted new policing requirements and formed a commission dedicated to racial equity in policing, she said the city’s transformation has just begun. And the changes will stretch beyond law enforcement. Mendenhall has started work on a citywide equity master plan to examine all city policies, plans and priorities.
“The work of reform is as much cultural as it is policy, and that takes time,” Mendenhall said. “The evolution of our entire nation as we unpack centuries of oppression and racism is not done. We still have a lot of work to do in healing and building anew.”
Rae Duckworth, activist
Rae Duckworth spent much of last summer protesting in Salt Lake City.
The experience, she said, was exhausting. At times, she felt a tiny warm feeling as she looked around at the crowd — a feeling of hope that the city finally realized there was a problem with police violence.
But frustration also bubbled up. She felt like elected officials nodded in agreement when they met with activists but never pushed hard enough for systemic change. They formed committees and passed incremental legislation, but it wasn’t the big change Duckworth felt was needed.
Duckworth, whose cousin Bobby Duckworth was shot and killed by police in 2019, said she supports those measures, like a law change that prohibits police from shooting suicidal people who are only a threat to themselves.
“If these baby steps save one person’s life, that’s one person’s name I don’t have to shout out [at a protest],” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Duckworth said one of the biggest changes she’d like to see going forward is ending the legal principle of qualified immunity, which makes it difficult to sue police for what they do on the job. Until then, she said, there’s little accountability for police.
“It’s unfair to my family. To Bernardo [Palacio-Carbajal’s] family. To Cody Belgard’s family,” she said, reciting the names of Utahns killed by police. “These were our loved ones, and they were taken from us.”
Rich Ferguson, Provo police chief
Provo Police Chief Rich Ferguson speaks at a candlelight vigil in Provo on Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019 for Officer Joseph Shinners, who was killed in 2019 while trying to arrest a fugitive. (Trent Nelson/)
For Provo Police Chief Rich Ferguson, ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for Floyd’s murder served as a reminder to officers around the country that they will be held accountable.
It was also a strong reminder of all officers’ duty to step in if they see another officer using excessive force.
That’s already part of the department’s policy and procedures, he said, but it’s something the police force constantly will remind officers about and will focus on in future training.
Last summer, Provo’s streets were the site of protests against police violence. The demonstrations often attracted counterprotesters, who displayed handguns and carried pro-Donald Trump signs.
The Provo chief said the department has seen support from city residents, even as trust in police has been eroded in some communities across the country.
“We’re grateful for that,” he said. “That’s something we have to strive to keep.”
He said the department needs to continue to build relationships with the community moving forward.
“Our officers are willing to do that,” he said, “to show the good things that we’re doing and to be accountable for the things that need correction or are wrong.”
Angela Romero, Utah legislator
Police reform was on the top of Rep. Angela Romero’s agenda this legislative season.
The Salt Lake City Democrat sponsored successful legislation that will require law enforcement agencies to submit use-of-force data to state officials, and departments are now required to have de-escalation training and training on helping people having a mental health crisis. She said she believes the training is a step forward, even if it won’t solve everything.
The minority lawmaker said she often works closely with the police but at the same time wants to ensure she is representing people who don’t feel safe around law enforcement. She said the historical relationship between law enforcement and communities of color has not always been positive.
“The majority of [law enforcement officials] I work with are there for the right reasons,” she said. “But I am also going to hold their feet to the fire when I feel like communities are having negative experiences with law enforcement because I’ve had those experiences myself growing up in this state.”
She is optimistic that conversations about police reform are not going away. She said many people have come together to address police reform this year.
“In the past, when I’ve seen particular issues come up at a national or state level, a lot of times it’s a trend, and it goes away,” she said. “I feel like law enforcement is ready to sit with many of us at the table, as well as the community, to talk about the legislation we passed last year and what things we need to do as we move forward to change and shift culture.”
Sim Gill, Salt Lake County district attorney
Prosecuting police officers is tough. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has tried prosecuting a police officer in three police shootings, but it’s never ended in a conviction.
Gill said that when he saw jurors find Chauvin guilty, he felt hopeful. But it also showed how improbable a conviction is.
Minnesota prosecutors had video of Floyd’s death, multiple witnesses who saw it happen and a police department that was willing to say that what Chauvin did was wrong.
“While police accountability is important, it is improbable under the current system,” Gill said. “It’s a really, really high bar. [The verdict] demonstrates all the things that have to go right.”
Floyd’s death, Gill said, also led to important conversations that were overdue, done in a “much more visible and vocal way.” But the district attorney said those conversations aren’t new — and if there isn’t more systemic change, we will be having the same conversations in a few decades.
“If we want different outcomes, we need to change the law,” he said. “We need to make a distinction between defunding the police and reimagining the police. How can we create long-term, systemic, sustainable change — not episodic wins that have no impact going forward?”
Lex Scott, leader of Black Lives Matter Utah
For Lex Scott, the founder of the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, the energy and enthusiasm from last summer have started to wane, with little accomplished. She said it’s a predictable pattern.
“I’ve been here for eight years,” Scott said. “Every time there is a high-profile shooting or death, we see massive crowds come out. Then, when the headlines die down, they go back.”
But she said activists like her will continue the work of police reform over the long haul.
“We just need to keep pushing for change,” she said.
She’ll continue fighting, Scott said, for independent oversight and review of police shootings. And she wants cuts to law enforcement budgets so cities can direct more public funds to programs like housing, drug rehabilitation and job creation — investments she says will help reduce crime and the need for more policing.
To her, the only positive change in Utah that came from Floyd’s murder is that police reform has become a more acceptable talking point.
“Am I impressed? No, I’m not impressed at all,” Scott said. “I’m highly discouraged.”