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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Fallout from Mill Hollow Protest Continues

Sep 01, 2020 09:31PM ● By Cassie Goff

Cottonwood Heights awaits results from three different investigations concerned the Mill Hollow event in early August. (City Journals/Cassie Goff)

By Josh Wood | [email protected] & Cassie Goff | [email protected]

Tumultuous protests for racial justice and against police brutality have swept across the nation this summer and emerged in Cottonwood Heights on Aug. 2. The fallout from the march that began at Mill Hollow Park (2900 Hollow Mill Dr.) and turned violent in neighborhood streets continues, as do questions about where the city, police, and community go from here.

On Aug. 2, Our Streets organized a dance protest as part of the many Dance Dance for Revolution protests beginning at Mill Hollow Park. Similar to many of the Dance Dance for Revolution events around the valley, the attendees planned to meet at Mill Hollow Park for dancing and food, then walk up a neighborhood street in dance protest. For this specific dance protest, the dancers planned to walk up the neighborhood where the son of a local family (Zane James) was shot and killed by a Cottonwood Heights police officer in 2018. 

Attendees, consisting of friends and family members of Zane James, residents outspoken against the Cottonwood Heights Police Department (CHPD), dance protestors against police brutality, and supporters of the Black Lives Matters movement, began walking and dancing up Hollow Mill Dr. around 5p.m. 

As a stark contrast to the generally quiet neighborhood, residents called the police with concerns of vulgar language, threats, and property damage. 

“I was concerned about the safety of my family,” resident Brian Kasteler told the city council on Aug. 4. Resident Billy Bowthorpe echoed the sentiment, “I heard nothing but hate and foul language from the group that showed up.”

CHPD officers responded to the calls and blocked the street which the dance protest was heading towards. Officers requested that the protestors continue along the sidewalk, but not in the street. Protestors told the officers that per state law, they were allowed to be on the public street with such a large gathering. About 20 minutes later, violence began to unfold as protestors, officers, and a city councilwoman became victims. At least four protestors were assaulted and arrested with pending (felony and misdemeanor charges) charges. 

“CHPD strongly reinforced why we were marching,” said dancer Weston Hall. “They came looking for a fight and they got one.”

“The march is what community looked like,” said resident Emma Roberts. “We were exercising our rights. Your community was out there. (CHPD) are the ones that caused fear, I am disgusted by (their) actions.”

Police response

The CHPD response to the peaceful protest has been scrutinized and will be the focus of multiple investigations. Some residents have been calling for all the charges against the protestors to be dropped. 

“I want to request that you take the following actions to remedy the atrocities that were committed,” resident Raven James told the city council on Aug. 4. She called for all charges against every protestor be dismissed, a third-party investigation be completed within 90 days, and for a full suspension of Russo and any other officer involved. 

However, CHPD maintain that they were not aware the event and were responding to information provided by resident calls. “We were not notified about the event,” CHPD Lieutenant Dan Bartlett said during the Aug. 18 city council meeting. “We were contacted by residents of the neighborhood and told about it.” 

During the violent incident, officers report having body cameras, keys, tools, ammunition magazines, and other items ripped from their belts. “Every officer that was in a physical confrontation had their body camera pulled from them at one point,” said Bartlett. “They tried to rip the cameras off of every one of the uniformed officers that were there.”

“Many neighbors called the police in fear of their homes,” said resident Larry Turner. “They brutally attacked police. One officer was choked, and one got a bloody nose.” 

“People are going back and forth on what did or did not happen,” said Justin Stiers. “We need an independent investigation, even that will change our community forever.” 

Ongoing Protests

The week following Aug. 4, protests occurred every evening on the Cottonwood Heights City Hall plaza (2277 Bengal Blvd). During those protests, members of the Black Lives Matter movement gathered to protest the police response to the Mill Hollow protest. Meanwhile, armed residents gathered in support of the CHPD. 

Investigations mounted

Many different retellings of the events of Aug. 4 have been voiced. In order to get the truth, three different proceedings are taking place. Criminal investigations are being sorted out by Salt Lake County District Attorney’s (DA) office. (Cottonwood Heights has received a handful of GRAMA requests for the officer’s bodycams footage. That cannot be released until after the criminal investigations have concluded as the footage is considered evidence.) Cottonwood Heights is conducting an internal investigation concurrently by the city’s administrative staff. Lastly, the Salt Lake County Attorney General’s (AG) office is conducting an outside investigation. While their investigation has begun, it will be the last to conclude as they will evaluate the information provided by the criminal and internal investigations as well. 

Russo declined to offer further detail during the Aug. 4 City Council meeting. “We’re not going to adjudicate the criminal process in a municipal council meeting, we have to let that process evolve in the court.” 

Residents and councilmembers have voiced concern over the AG’s office conducting the outside investigation as Attorney General Sean Reyes resides within Cottonwood Heights, in the surrounding neighborhood. However, the city has been assured that Sean Reyes has recused himself from the investigation as the Chief Investigator will be Chief of Investigations for the Utah Attorney General’s office Leo Lucy.

“I felt comfortable that this [AG’s office] was the entity that would be best equipped to do this investigation,” said Cottonwood Heights City Manager, Tim Tingey. 

A city on edge

These events have the city between the canyons on edge. Ongoing division within city government, primarily between Councilmember Tali Bruce and Police Chief Robby Russo, adds to the tension. The two have each filed lawsuits against the other for varying reasons. In addition, charges were filed, and then dropped, against Bruce regarding her actions on Aug. 4.  Both have opted to provide no additional comment. 

“This seems to be a personal vendetta that is spilling over into public service,” said resident Shawn Ferre on Aug. 4. “It is causing problems for all of us, and the work of our city.” 

Meanwhile, the city has issued statements attempting to clarify events, the police response, and the city’s policy regarding protests and freedom of speech. “The situation at Mill Hollow is regrettable,” Mayor Mike Peterson said in a statement issued by the city. “We never want to see things escalate as the one did Sunday evening. We will investigate this situation, both the protest event which elicited neighbors’ concerns and the response of our police force.”

Councilmember Scott Bracken suggested “if there was communication with the groups beforehand with the police department would have changed the outcome radically. If there was a group that said ‘we want to do this’ and [Lt.] Bartlett could have said ‘let’s make it work this way’, that would have changed it.”

“We weren’t notified that the street was going to be used,” said City Attorney Shane Topham. “That would be the main process for using public streets. Some use of streets can be used as forums, but the Supreme Court says streets can’t be blocked. It’s a complicated topic.”  

Cottonwood Heights anxiously awaits the truth and continues to look for answers. Officials hope the Attorney General’s office will shed some light.  “We all want the facts and someone to be objective when reviewing those facts,” said Councilmember Christine Mikell, “All of us want an unbiased investigation with no potential conflicts of interest.”