Editor’s note: In a series running through Dec. 31, the Daily Herald is sharing its picks for “Utah County’s Top 10 News Stories for 2020.” We will be running recaps of those stories, two per day, through New Year’s Eve. This story is ranked No. 2.
Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide economic recession, activism and civil unrest played a key role in 2020.
Utah County was not left untouched from the Black Lives Matter movement that spread like fire throughout the U.S. and into other countries.
This year’s protests were largely sparked by the violent and inhumane treatment of people of color by law enforcement officers, which came to a climax after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; and Bernardo Palacios in Salt Lake City.
Unrest begins to bubble
Provo police received several reports of graffiti around the city on the morning of June 2.
Pedestrians and employees of the Esplin and Weight law firm discovered graffiti near the entrance and backside of the firm’s building in the early morning. Similar graffiti was left on the windows and sidewalks of the Salt Lake City Police Department offices as well as the Utah State Capitol building.
The acronym “ACAB,” which stands for “All Cops Are B------s,” was scrawled across the brick walls several times with red spray paint, Provo City Police Department Sgt. Nisha King said.
At the time, Provo officials estimated the graffiti was left on the buildings during the night before or the morning of its discovery. King said she traveled past the building when leaving the office yesterday evening, and the graffiti was not there.
King said it was believed to be in connection with nationwide protests against perceived racial injustices within the legal system.
“In Provo City, we are committed to protecting the civil liberties of every citizen,” a joint statement from Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi and Provo City Police Chief Rich Ferguson read. “This is not conveniently timed rhetoric, it is actually written in our Provo Police Department mission statement because they are not just words, they are our culture.”
Protest caravans in Provo remained peaceful. Not even an hour away, in Salt Lake City, a week-long curfew — from June 1 until June 8 — was instated after protesters flipped and burned multiple vehicles, including a Salt Lake City Police Department patrol car, looted local convenience stores and assaulted a police officer on Saturday.
Gov. Gary Herbert activated the Utah National Guard to keep the peace and help enforce curfew, which Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall initially set from 8 p.m. on May 30 to 6 a.m. on June 1.
The Provo graffiti was cleaned up by the end of the day Tuesday.
Protesters take to the Provo streets
On June 29, about 100 protesters took to the streets of Provo in the late evening, blocking traffic at the intersection of University and Center streets. The demonstration was sponsored by groups out of Salt Lake City, including Solidarity for Justice, Salt Lake Equal Rights Movement, Salt Lake City Antifascist Coalition, and Insurgence.
Event organizers invited Utah residents to stand with protesters in an effort to raise awareness for “blatant acts of discrimination, racism and unethical acts towards people of color” and to “crush this suppression.”
The event also was meant to counter a “Back the Blue” event also held in downtown Provo scheduled for the same evening.
“Peaceful protests are a fundamental right and often can become an important catalyst for positive change,” Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said in the Council Chambers at the City Center on Tuesday morning. “Criminal acts of violence such as we saw last night in Provo were anything but peaceful, and unacceptable. The public safety of our community is a top priority.”
As the event continued, it took a violent turn as multiple cars attempted to ram through the line of protesters and gunshots were reported.
Police reported that both groups of protesters coexisted without incident until just after 8:30 p.m. when Provo City police received a call regarding gunshots and a potential hit-and-run. Not long after, authorities received another call about a possible shooting victim that had been checked into Utah Valley Hospital.
Video footage allegedly captured a white SUV was driving south on University Avenue before it pulled into the right lane in an attempt to turn onto Center Street, Deputy Chief of Police John Geyerman said during a June press conference.
Protesters began approaching the vehicle as it attempted to drive through, and a male protester reportedly approached the SUV on the passenger side, pointed a handgun at the driver, and shot one round through the window, striking the driver. The driver accelerated in an attempt to get to safety.
The male protester seen shooting into the vehicle allegedly ran after the SUV, shooting a second round through the rear passenger window. Video footage then showed the protester concealing the firearm and continuing to protest.
The driver who had been hit by one of the bullets, who was in his 60s, was admitted to the emergency room at the Utah Valley Hospital with injuries consistent to a gunshot wound to the arm and shrapnel in his eye and stomach, according to arrest documents.
That same male protester allegedly later approached another vehicle at 500 North and University Avenue, striking and breaking the window with the same handgun.
As the night continued, video showed cars continuing to drive through protesters and demonstrators beginning to jump on cars and hit drivers’ windows.
After sunset, protesters marched to the Provo Police Department, where they came face-to-face with officers in riot gear. Police approached demonstrators and commanded them to disperse, and one of the protest’s organizers urged protesters to leave.
“If you support our movement, you will peacefully go,” she said into a megaphone.
The demonstration had all but dissolved by 10 p.m.
Several residents from around Utah were arrested for their alleged involvement in the events that transpired on June 29.
According to a statement by the Provo City Police Department, 33-year-old Jesse Taggart of Salt Lake City was identified as the alleged suspect who fired shots at the Utah County driver who attempted to drive through protesters.
Taggart was booked into the Utah County Jail under the suspicion of attempted aggravated murder, aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, rioting, threatening use of a weapon in a fight or quarrel, criminal mischief, and firing a weapon near a highway.
Authorities also arrested 27-year-old Samantha Darling of Ogden under the suspicion of obstruction of justice and rioting in connection with Monday’s protests after she allegedly attempted to conceal Taggart.
A second man was also taken into custody for allegedly brandishing a firearm during the protest.
According to arrest documents, 29-year-old Bradley Glenn Walters of Ogden attended protests in Provo earlier in the week armed with a revolver handgun. Walters was recorded by witnesses allegedly pulling out a revolver in the middle of the intersection and pointing it at the driver of the vehicle.
“Bradley simultaneously with two or more other persons engaged in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby knowingly or recklessly created a substantial risk of causing public alarm,” the arrest officer wrote in the probable cause statement.
Walters was taken into custody under the suspicion of second-degree felony aggravated assault and third-degree felony rioting.
One of the organizers of the event, 25-year-old John Earle Sullivan of Sandy, was also taken into custody for his involvement in the unlawful assembly. The protest was considered unlawful because organizers had not received a permit for the event, according to arrest documents.
Sullivan and his organization, Insurgence USA, reportedly promoted the event online and made social media postings that advocated for other protesters to join.
Authorities alleged that Sullivan committed riotous acts as a protest organizer, and he was arrested under the suspicion of third-degree felony rioting, class A misdemeanor criminal mischief and class B misdemeanor threat of violence.
Law enforcement reflection
After the first incident of vandalism in June, Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith outlined county law enforcement reformation policies and procedures while civil unrest marched on nationwide.
“Our goal or our mission is to work hand-in-hand with our community to provide public safety as well as to protect and preserve the constitutional rights of all who reside in or visit our beautiful county,” he said in the statement released on June 4.
Smith also outlined five points of contention to illustrate how his office is not only adapting to meet standards but also how the deputies have been proactive in their duties to serve and protect all Utah County residents.
In April, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office adopted a policy and procedures manual that allows Utah County Sheriff’s Office administrators to work with a company to prepare policies that reflect the best procedures and standards from across the nation, giving clear direction to deputies.
Additionally, the sheriff’s office voluntarily elected to evaluate its use of force standards and follow through with findings to adapt training and policy.
The Utah County Sheriff’s Office has done this for quite some time, developing a Use of Force Review Board to evaluate incidents resulting in serious injury or death, or that involve the use of a firearm. After reviewing each case, the board makes recommendations that determine if the deputy’s actions align with already-existing policy and procedure.
If the board finds that the actions were outside the office’s policy, an internal affairs investigation or criminal investigation can be ordered. Discipline, termination and training can also be required in these instances.
Utah County Sheriff’s deputies also undergo training that provides professional development that officials can use in the office and in the field in an effort to limit instances where use of force is necessary. Authorities are trained in Crisis Intervention Training, which focuses largely on de-escalation skills.
Additionally, he said the training officials participate in, as well as the department’s policies and procedures, directly prohibit “oppressing or providing favoritism to any person” based on race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical or mental disability, and more.
Smith also stated he was working to instate the use of body cameras for Utah County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
“As your sheriff, it is my commitment to you that we will continue to work towards providing public safety in a fair and ethical manner for all people,” Smith said. “We will continue to seek out training, equipment, community programs, and policies and procedures that promote transparency, safety, and fairness for all.”
After the June 29 protest, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, in conjunction with the Ogden Police Department, released a statement outlining lawful protest practices as well as illustrating “unacceptable activities” that occurred at previous protests.
These activities involved blocking traffic, making excessive noise, assaulting people, and threatening violence against people and property.
“There is no legally authorized method of obstructing traffic or stopping the flow of traffic,” according to the press release. “Blocking a vehicle from free and lawful movement may, in some cases, constitute unlawful detention of the vehicle’s occupants. In the cases where any of these violations happens, the pedestrians will be the ones held accountable for the violations of the law.”
Sheriff Mike Smith expressed his and his agency’s concern about the behaviors exhibited by demonstrators during protests throughout Utah County.
“We welcome our community members to gather lawfully in the interest of political and social discourse,” according to the press release. “When you gather in accordance with the law, we will protect and facilitate your right to do so.”
On Nov. 17, the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee approved a controversial bill that would create legal protections for drivers who injure or kill protesters while fleeing a riot.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove.
The legislation would make obstructing traffic during a riot a third-degree felony “and, under certain circumstances, absolves motor vehicle operators from criminal liability for injuries and death caused as a result of fleeing from a riot.”
Hawkins told the legislative committee in November that the bill’s inspiration came from “situations around the country that have happened where a person has been detained and pretty much immediately released and gone on to commit some other crimes during a riot.”
“As someone who protests a lot, we don’t want to get run over,” said Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah. “They already try to run over us. The minute you pass a law saying you can run over us, they’re really going to run over us.”
Utah lawmakers will consider the bill further during the 2021 general session, which begins on Jan. 19.
Connor Richards contributed to this story.