Ex-Salt Lake City spokesman apologizes for not ‘speaking up’ against police violence

Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, holds Topaz, a 14-week-old Siamese kitten at the Salt Lake City-County Building on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Biskupski welcomed several rescue animals from the Humane Society of Utah during an event to promote a proposed ordinance that would prohibit pet stores from selling dogs, cats and rabbits unless the animals were obtained from an animal shelter, control agency, humane society, or nonprofit rescue organization. Rojas decided to adopt Topaz on the spot.

Matthew Rojas, former spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, pictured in this file photo at the Salt Lake City-County Building on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Rojas recently spoke out against police violence in Salt Lake City. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Biskupski’s former spokesman says not to ‘trust’ Salt Lake City police, calls culture ‘rotten’

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid continued nationwide unrest over systemic racism and police brutality, a past public face of former Salt Lake City Jackie Biskupski’s administration posted a public apology on Sunday.

Matthew Rojas, Biskupski’s communications director before the mayor left office this year, posted on Facebook about how he was for four years “in a position of power to affect change in the community I grew up in,” but he didn’t “speak up” when he saw injustices against minority populations from police.

Rojas, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, also leveled accusations against Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown, Biskupski’s own appointed police chief, and the police department’s leadership, saying the “culture is rotten.”

“I was proud as a Latino man to walk into City Hall knowing my dad never had faith in this system that held him back,” Rojas wrote. “‘If he could see his son now,’ is what I thought when I opened those doors every day. I was proud to serve in an administration that I still believe was the most equity focused in Salt Lake City history. But I think I failed my dad to dire consequences.

“I failed to object in the most outright sense possible when I watched video of (at least) two men being murdered by our police — even when I knew it was wrong,” Rojas continued. “I wrote ‘balanced’ words, though my heart and mind were raging. I allowed myself to be tricked by the most politically engaged police officials — even when I knew they didn’t share our values.”

Rojas in his post did not specify which officer-involved killings he was referring to. He did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Rojas also wrote he was “incredibly proud” of Biskupski and that “she did all she could” but was “stoned walled by the DA, Chief, Council, and others.”

“I got scared to speak up when I should have,” Rojas wrote. “And for that I am sorry.”

Requests to Brown and current Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall for comment about Rojas’ statement weren’t returned Monday. Mendenhall, who served on the City Council before winning election for mayor last year, was a vocal critic of Biskupski, particularly on issues surrounding the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority.

Mendenhall, who was backed by a City Council that clashed oftentimes with Biskupski, won the election against Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Latina who was endorsed by Biskupski as a “champion” for underrepresented communities.

Rojas, in his post, also wrote, “Don’t trust anything SLCPD or its leadership says.”

“Stay in the streets,” he wrote. “I’ve watched the chief manufacture emotions for families and the community as a way to move forward. I’ve seen him lie to his boss. Definitely don’t fall for him kneeling in the streets. Don’t fall for the ‘few bad apples line, the culture is rotten.”

Rojas said change starts with “ending the police unions and the civil service commission.”

Rojas also had scathing words for certain Salt Lake residents.

“Also, stop calling cops when you see someone who doesn’t look like you in the neighborhood you decided to settle because you couldn’t afford anything — (looking at you ‘Sugarhood,’” he wrote.

As Salt Lake City, along with other cities across the U.S., have faced public outrage and calls for systemic changes in policing after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, city leaders including Mendenhall, Brown and the City Council have publicly welcomed dialogue to reform the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Mendenhall and Brown have denounced what happened to Floyd, but have also defended the department as one that has won national awards for de-escalation training. They’ve also said they don’t believe Salt Lake police are racist, but have opened their arms to solutions to addressing systemic racism in Utah’s capital. Mendenhall is now working to create a commission for racial equity and policing for Salt Lake City.

Mendenhall has been mayor less than six months.

City leaders have been under fire from all directions, including from attorneys representing the police officers who shot and killed Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal on May 23, calling the mayor and council members’ public remarks expressing outrage and dismay about the shooting “disturbing, irresponsible and unfair to everyone involved” because the investigation has not been completed.

Salt Lake City leaders were being criticized from another direction on Monday.

The Salt Lake Police Association, a police union, posted on Facebook a lengthy statement about how 18 months of negotiation for changes to the police department’s internal affairs process have stalled over “two minor concessions” — one to allow notice to be provided to an officer’s union representative and one to allow an officer under investigation to have up to a five-day extension if the city’s administration is given an extension in their investigation.

“This offer will not get any better because I am being told that the City does not have an ‘appetite’ to give us anything” in the current climate “to defund or abolish the SLCPD,” the post says.

“While there may be a perception that conceding anything to the SLCPA will upset their constituents, this is the wrong way to think about the issue,” a union representative wrote. “Internal Affairs is the department within the police department that investigates alleged officer wrongdoing. It is more important than ever that we get this right.”

The current process, the post states, “leaves notice, due process and most importantly punishment open to interpretation, bias and abuse.”

“It allows the administration to save who they like and arbitrarily punish those they don’t. If there is a bad apple among us, we don’t want them saved because they happen to be well liked by the administration and/or others,” the union representative wrote. “We MUST do a better job of policing ourselves and provide a process that ensures transparency, justice and helps earn back public trust.”

Mendenhall’s office, in response, issued a lengthy statement to the Deseret News later Monday, saying the police union “appears to have shifted their priorities for the memorandum of understanding negotiations based on the current climate in our city.

“Since this administration took office in January 2020 and began negotiating with the SLPA, the union’s major request was not on modifications to the internal affairs process as they now claim, but on significant salary raises and demands that the SLPA president be allowed to spend up to 50 percent of his workweek exclusively conducting union business while being paid solely by the taxpayer.”

The mayor’s office stated, “We wholeheartedly believe that all employees, including police officers, should be paid fair wages,” but “unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 epidemic and resulting revenue projections, the city is not offering cost of living raises to employees this year.” But eligible officers will still receive contractually obligated salary pay raises this coming year if the current contract is extended as is.

“Notably, the city reached agreement with its other two unions (AFSCME and International Association of Firefighters Local 81) to re-open their MOUs in December 2020 for the purpose of discussing possible wage increases if the city’s fiscal health has improved by that time,” the mayor’s office statement said. “The city made this same offer to the SLPA and, instead the SLPA declined it and declared impasse on May 26, 2020.”

Additionally, the mayor’s office statement said city officials “agree” that the internal affairs process is “critical to the police department’s ability to be transparent, accountable and well-functioning,” but they disagreed with the association that its requested changes “will achieve (or are even intended to achieve) these critical goals.”

“In fact, while the city believes that labor unions serve an important function, the SLPA has a long history of defending the same so-called ‘bad officers’ that it now conveniently claims should be removed from the police department,” the mayor’s office said. “While the city offered to revise the MOU and modify two aspects of the internal affairs process per the SLPA’s request, that offer was also rejected.”

Mendenhall’s office said the administration is committed to examining the internal affairs process to make sure it is fair to police officers accused of misconduct and provides department accountability and transparency to city residents.

Meanwhile, South Salt Lake leaders issued a news release committing to review its police department policies and practices. They also committed to signing the Obama Foundation’s mayor pledge to commit to action, to review police use-of-force policies, engage the community in the review, report the findings of the review to the community and seek feedback, and ultimately reform use-of-force policies. They also committed to creating a South Salt Lake Citizen Review Board.

Katie McKellar

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