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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Attorney General’s Office presents final report on investigation into the Mill Hollow protest last year

May 24, 2021 01:59PM ● By Cassie Goff

Over 42 hours of video were provided to the Attorney General’s Office for review. (Matt Thompson/Cottonwood Heights)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

Last summer, the police response to a local protest drew national attention. A Dance Dance for Revolution protest met at Mill Hollow Park in Cottonwood Heights (2900 Hollow Mill Dr.) and traveled through neighborhood streets on Aug. 2, 2020. The Cottonwood Heights Police Department (CHPD) responded to calls from residents concerned about traffic and safety. Multiple protestors and officers were hurt when the encounter turned violent. An investigation into the incident was mounted by the Utah Attorney General’s Office (AG) by September. 

Over nine months later, on May 11, Special Agent Matthew Thompson presented the AG’s report to the Cottonwood Heights City Council without interruption. Councilmembers and other attendees were not able to make comments or ask questions. 

The investigation paid special attention to the following questions: Did the police have a need or a duty to respond (and was that response appropriate)?; Were the response and actions of the police commensurate with the actions of the protesters?; Did the protesters violate any laws or ordinances (specifically related to event permitting and public use of streets)?; and What role(s) did Councilmember Tali Bruce and Police Chief Robby Russo have in the incident? 

The AG’s Office found that the police response to the Aug. 2 incident was measured and appropriate. Even though there were certain aspects of the police response that could have been improved, the AG’s Office reported that a police response was necessary.  

“We did not see excessive force,” Thompson reported. “The uses of force in this sense were found to be necessary and justified to stop criminal violations of law, prevent escape from and interference with lawful arrests, and to protect the safety of other officers.” 

“In this case, we did not observe police officers act in any obviously excessive or punitive manner. Specific allegations against police…such as arrestees being needlessly slammed to the ground are unfounded. Allegations of officers beating a restrained prisoner are untrue. Allegations that an officer throat-punched a protester were found to be patently false,” Thompson said. 

Thompson shared the observed and documented effects of the violence. Both officers and arrestees (protestors) had scrapes, abrasions, muscle strain and eye irritation. Officers had objects thrown at them and took closed-fist strikes to the head and face; one officer reported a deviated septum and another reported a near loss of consciousness. Arrestees had puncture wounds from taser probes. This all occurred in 8 minutes and 27 seconds. 

“We found about 50 substantial and noticeable actions…including several assaults, a number of incidents of interference and a theft. There is evidence for more charges. We’ve seen it,” Thompson reported. 

In total, eight arrests were made, nine protesters were charged, and some are still under investigation. 

“There should have been more arrests…The police could have, and perhaps in some circumstances should have, made more arrests. They did not. They did not try to shut down the event altogether. They offered an alternative for the event to continue,” Thompson reported. 

One of the main misunderstandings which escalated this incident was the public use of sidewalks. As protestors walked on public roads from Mill Hollow Park up through the adjoining neighborhood, they began to block traffic. Event organizers believed they could take up the road for a protest of their size. However, the CHPD officers told all protestors to remain on the sidewalks. 

The AG’s Office researched the State Statute in Utah Code 76-9-102, finding it is illegal to walk in the roadway where there is a sidewalk available. In the absence of a sidewalk, it is illegal for two people to walk side by side in the road. 

While the majority of protestors, around 150 individuals, migrated from the public road and onto the sidewalks, a handful of protestors continued to argue with police officers and did not leave the road. 

“It seemed as event organizers were prepared to deal with counter protesters and police,” Thompson reported. “Police made reasonable attempts to deescalate tense interactions. They made clear repeated attempts before taking arrest actions.” 

After arrests were made, officers provided protestors with aftercare. “Officers were observed making efforts to protect arrestees from the extreme heat of the day—placing them in shade and allowing other members to give them water. Officers were observed gathering arrestees personal property, such as sunglasses,” Thompson reported. 

In response to investigating the roles of CHPD Chief Russo and Councilmember Bruce, the AG’s Office found that both individuals had likely known about the event beforehand. 

Councilmember Bruce “was aware the group would take to the streets for this event but she did not communicate it to anyone at the city,” Thompson reported. 

Russo was aware of the event and that Lieutenant Dan Bartlett had a plan to handle the event. “It seems reasonable that Chief Russo should bear responsibility for the success or potential failures with this incident,” Thompson reported. 

During the event, Russo was observed acting as overwatch for arresting officers, escorting arrestees from the area and interacting with protestors. “Chief Russo’s actions while on scene with this incident were appropriate. He acted in accordance with his assigned duties as police chief and within his authority as a peace officer.” 

Even though Bruce was physically repelled several times by two police officers, “the officer who deals with Bruce was busy providing overwatch for an arresting officer.”

“We hope it was helpful to those who marched that day to see it from another perspective,” Thompson concluded. “To residents, we hope it was helpful. We hope we can find common ground and return to peaceful and meaningful discourse.” 

Moving forward, the AG’s Office has recommended some improvements for the CHPD to consider and some policy updates for the Cottonwood Heights City Council to consider. The Cottonwood Heights City Council has submitted follow-up questions to the AG’s Office and intends to discuss the report in future business meetings. An independent investigation will likely be discussed in a closed meeting. 

As previously mentioned, some of the criminal charges are still ongoing. Residents began petitions to drop all charges from this event last year and are ongoing.  

The full presentation of the AG’s report is available through the Cottonwood Heights website (and on their YouTube channel). A downloadable pdf version of the PowerPoint slides is available through the public access website. The full print version of the AG’s report will be available publicly on the city’s website as well.