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State GOP supporting county party chairman's comments about district attorney

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 7:00 a.m. MDT

GOP Chairman James Evans (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) GOP Chairman James Evans (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Chad Bennion is getting support from the state party for comments he made about District Attorney Sim Gill's recent ruling on a controversial police shooting.

State GOP Chairman James Evans said the party is holding a news conference Wednesday to focus on the impact of Gill's decision that two West Valley City detectives were not justified in the shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard.

"The larger and far more important issue is, does law enforcement, at least in Salt Lake County, have a clear understanding of the use of force? There has been concern that somehow politics has crept into that," Evans said.

Bennion has been criticized for telling the Salt Lake Tribune last week that Gill's witnessing police brutality as a child in India may have "tainted his handling of force issues" and that "it might simply be that Sim is a cop hater."

On Monday, Bennion told the Deseret News he was not referring to the Democratic district attorney's race but to an experience Gill has publicly discussed, seeing an innocent man beaten by authorities in his native country.

"Race had nothing to do with it," Bennion said.

He said he did not intend to heed calls that he apologize for his comments.

"I'm sorry for the furor the misrepresentations have made, but that's not what I've said," Bennion said.

Gill told KSL-TV last week that he is "proud of being an Indian. But I am even more proud of being an American citizen. And as an American citizen, I don't have to defend my citizenship or my ethnicity or my culture."

Bennion said he was responding to a media question when he suggested Gill was "overprosecuting some of these matters and underprosecuting others" because "maybe he doesn't like law enforcement. Maybe he hates cops."

He dismissed suggestions his comments were motived by his position as an administrative representative for members of the Fraternal Order of Police or by a case filed against his wife.

Bennion, a former state lawmaker, acknowledged he used "strong language" to complain about Gill and said public officials have "a reasonable responsiblity to protect against our own personal experiences from influencing decisions."

A Utahpolicy.com and KSL political insiders poll found that more than 70 percent of Republicans responding believed Bennion should apologize for his comments. Less than 20 percent of the GOP respondents said Bennion had a valid point.

Fred Cox, a member of the state party's central committee, said Bennion's comments have been interpreted as "trying to use Sim's ethic background as one of the reasons he is a 'cop hater.'"

While Cox, a former West Valley City lawmaker, said there needs to be a discussion about whether Gill is trying to protect against a police state by leaning "too far in the other direction," Bennion's comments may be hurting the party.

"He's coming across as being angry," Cox said. "Instead of remaining on the attack, in my mind what he should have done is make sure people understood what his intent was."

Cox and other Salt Lake County Republicans said party members may discuss Bennion at next month's county central committee meeting, but it's not clear there's support for taking action against him.

"I'm sure people will talk about it," Salt Lake County GOP Treasurer Mel Nimer said. "Whether anything is going to come of it beyond that, I doubt very much. We'll just wait and see, I guess."

Nimer said Bennion did not make racist comments, but probably should have let someone else in the party criticize the district attorney because of Bennion's job representing police officers.

"If I was Chad, I would have had somebody else make the statements," Nimer said. "I probably would have handled it differently."

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