Utah deputy twirling lasso in search for Black man prompts calls for training, accountability
Oct 26, 2022, 11:26 PM | Updated: Nov 22, 2022, 11:33 pm
GRAND COUNTY, Utah – As a Grand County sheriff’s deputy searches for a shoplifting suspect in July, a rope repeatedly pops into view of her body camera, sometimes coiled in her hand and other times twirling in the air ahead of her.
The unusual sight draws questions from observers in Moab, and deputy Amanda Edwards answers them in an upbeat tone, telling them she’s looking for an African American man.
“Are you going to lasso him?” one observer asks.
“That was my plan, man,” the deputy responds in the video. “I mean, it’s better than running, right?”
Edwards later wrote in a report that she “replied to each individual in a joking manner” and did not actually expect to find the man on July 10, according to documents KSL obtained through a public records request.
Nonetheless, advocates within Utah’s Black community told KSL the video evokes the nation’s history of white law enforcers apprehending men and women who escaped slavery, using ropes and whips to do so. The video calls to mind the widespread lynchings of Black men named as suspects in crimes, they said, whether carried out by law enforcers or others.
‘This isn’t a rodeo’
The deputy was among several members of law enforcement looking for the homeless man suspected of stealing sunglasses from a gift shop on Moab’s Main Street in July. They never caught up to him, and that’s fortunate, said Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch.
Any black visitors or residents who came across the deputy “could literally have a heart attack, because they would flash back to the lynchings that went on,” Williams said. “This isn’t a rodeo, and this is no way to apprehend a human being.”
Rae Duckworth, operating chairperson of Black Lives Matter Utah, agreed.
“This triggers generational trauma for me,” Duckworth said through tears as she watched the video. “That’s what slave patrol does. And we’re in 2022. And that’s a comfortable slave patroller in my state.”
An inquiry from the Moab Sun News, which published a picture of Edwards carrying the rope — coupled with information from fellow sheriff’s employees — led to an internal investigation, Sheriff Steven White told KSL.
The deputy faced discipline as a result, White confirmed, but he declined to provide any details. The office hasn’t yet responded to KSL’s request for copies of the disciplinary records.
“I don’t take that as joking,” White said of his deputy’s behavior. “It’s about professionalism. You treat everybody the same. You treat everybody professionally. That’s the way it should be.”
White said his deputy took responsibility for her actions that day, which he believes were not racially motivated.
“That’s been part of the investigation,” he said, “and there’s no indications of any of that.”
Deputies in the rural county carry ropes in the event they need to round up stray livestock, tie down a load to their cars or rescue people in emergencies like floods, White said.
“That was not an approved apprehension tool,” the sheriff said. “It shouldn’t have been brought out.”
Edwards did not respond to requests for interviews.
Grand County is home to about 9,600 people. About 89% are white, 5% are American Indian and Alaska Native, and just 1% are Black, according to census figures.
White said he does not have any Black deputies and declined to talk further about the racial and ethnic makeup of his department.
‘Better than a Taser’
Edwards’ search on July 10 lasted about 35 minutes, with video showing her jumping atop trash cans to peer over a fence, pacing around a parking lot and whistling the harmony of “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega at times during her pursuit.
She comes across a fellow deputy in her search, who tells her, “That’s going to look really bad, if you use that.”
“Better than a Taser,” Edwards responds.
At one point, as she passes by a Utah Highway Patrol trooper, Edwards says, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for quite some time.”
“I will corner him so you can rope him,” the trooper responds.
“Appreciate it,” Edwards replies. “We just need to get him on the run, like, ‘run, now.’”
After Edwards concludes her search, she steps into a colleague’s truck, saying, “Dude, so many people took pictures of me with my rope. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, please don’t say bad things.’ What are they going to say? It’s not like I (expletive) anybody up with it.”
‘This is post-George Floyd’
Utah’s police academy teaches cadets to recognize the “history of the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement,” according to a copy of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) curriculum KSL obtained through a public records request.
Jim Crow laws are among the course topics, along with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required federal marshals to help return formerly enslaved people to plantation owners, even if they were living in free states.
The deputy’s body camera video, however, highlights a need for more training, Williams said, along with a reprimand.
“I can’t see anybody watching it and saying they don’t see a problem with it, especially when they know the history of, you know, the rope, the lynching of African Americans, all of that,” Williams said.
Duckworth and Mario Mathis, also an organizer with Black Lives Matter, said they believe stronger consequences are needed.
“If you don’t know that you, as a white woman, picking up a rope to go after a Black man, is the wrong damn thing to do, you should be fired,” Mathis said.
He said it’s troubling Edwards’ colleagues don’t tell her to put away the rope. And he believes the video signals a lack of progress after many believed 2020 to be a national reckoning on racial injustice.
“This is post-George Floyd,” Mathis said. “That’s when white people in America seemingly woke up and realized that there was a disconnect in the way that police officers treat Black people and people of color, versus white people.”
The scene captured by the deputy’s body camera is among other recent examples drawing criticism for their ties to troubling U.S. history.
In 2019, body camera footage captured white police on horseback in Galveston, Texas leading a Black man down city streets, while acknowledging the display would look bad.
Also in Texas, images of Border Patrol corralling Haitian migrants last year showed some agents on horseback waving reins, prompting an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security.
‘A huge learning moment’
The man police were searching for in Moab was elusive, frustrating police, said Sara Melnicoff, who helps the town’s homeless find shelter, food and other resources through her nonprofit, Moab Solutions. Officers fielded reports of him stealing small items from stores.
Melnicoff provided him a ticket for a July 14 bus ride to southern California, she said, and has not seen him since.
“My first impression of him was that he had very serious mental health issues,” Melnicoff said. “I thought he was pretty harmless.”
There are few services in the county for those who don’t have a place to stay, especially when it comes to substance abuse and mental health, Melnicoff said, so her group works closely with law enforcers, including Edwards, to help people get back on their feet.
“She treats people really well,” Melnicoff said.
Edwards grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, Melnicoff noted, and has won several awards for her service in the roughly three years she’s worked in law enforcement.
The Utah Chiefs of Police Association named her 2020 small agency officer of the year. Last year, while working for Moab police, she and other officers received an honor from the NAACP for rescuing of two female victims and negotiating with an armed domestic violence suspect in a standoff that ended peacefully.
“I love this community,” Edwards told KSL as she reflected on the awards last year.
Upon reflection, Melnicoff said she thinks differently about what happened in July.
“I can see how it could be perceived as a horrific act that’s very painful for some people,” Melnicoff said. “It’s a huge learning moment, because, just, I didn’t even think about that, and I should have. I mean, it just never occurred to me, because that’s not who she is.”
Williams, with the NAACP, said the video shows it’s important for law enforcers and everyone else to consider how their behavior will be perceived by others.
“I think the positive impact would be to show people that these type of things happen,” she said. “They happen even in the state of Utah.”
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