SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The ousting of Salt Lake City’s police chief amid growing questions about the handling of female officers’ sexual harassment claims came abruptly. But activists and the police union were left wondering Friday why it didn’t happen sooner.
The union representing Salt Lake City police officers came out against former police Chief Chris Burbank’s handing of the claims against a deputy chief Friday, saying he bungled it and did the right thing by stepping down.
But the president of the police association said both Burbank and Mayor Ralph Becker failed to protect city employees, calling their actions “too little, too late.”
The mayor said Friday that he worked consistently behind the scenes and gave Burbank a chance to make changes, but the situation intensified when the allegations became public about three weeks ago.
Becker denied criticism that the ousting was a political move ahead of an election. “I would have taken this action in the way I took it, campaign year or not a campaign year. It doesn’t matter,” he said.
In a surprise move, Burbank resigned Thursday after clashing with the mayor over Burbank’s handling of a sexual harassment claim that was lodged 1½ years ago by three women in the agency against a deputy chief who resigned last year.
Officer Mike Millard, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, said Friday that it was unacceptable for Burbank to allow Deputy Chief Rick Findlay to remain on paid leave for six months after an internal investigation found Findlay violated the city’s sexual harassment policy.
Millard also criticized Becker for waiting a year to take action against Burbank, saying his comments about Burbank failing to take sufficient action against Findlay ring hollow because of Becker’s own inactions.
“Sexual harassment is just unacceptable,” Millard said. “You can’t tolerate it.”
Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, said she knows two of the women involved and the mishandling of the situation is part of a larger problem.
“The city has some serious work to do,” Mullen said. She also pointed to Burbank’s handling of a backlog in processing rape evidence that drew the attention of the city council last year. He pushed back strongly when the council questioned why no more than 21 percent of rape kits had been tested.
“I wish the mayor had stepped up sooner and taken action,” she said.
Two of Becker’s mayoral challengers, Luke Garrott and Jackie Biskupski, faulted the mayor for moving too slowly.
Burbank, chief for nine years, said Thursday he chose to resign after being told he would need to publicly read a prewritten apology about his handling of the harassment claim to avoid being fired.
Burbank defended his handling of the situation and accused the mayor of making the move to gain an edge in election-year politics. He said the matter was dealt with 1 1/2 years ago.
Becker, who is up for re-election against three challengers, said he sent Burbank a letter a year ago about steps that should be taken regarding allegations of harassment by Findlay against three female officers. Becker said Burbank only implemented part of his orders.
Becker and Burbank are believed to have enjoyed a good working relationship during the eight years they shared their respective top posts with the city, said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah adjunct political science professor. He is not related to Chris Burbank.
Only recently were there signs the two may be having disagreements, he said.
“I’m sure there were sources of conflict, but they were not showing up on front page of paper,” Matthew Burbank said. “It’s not as if this was a long building thing.”
Matthew Burbank said he thinks Becker decided to take decisive action to avoid the issue of becoming a problem for him in his re-election campaign. Becker has taken heat from his opponents for his appointment of Brian Dale as the city’s new fire chief due to accusations of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment against Dale. Becker has said the allegations are unfounded.
Deputy Chief Mike Brown has been named interim chief. A search for a full-time replacement will likely begin in earnest after the election, Becker said.