SALT LAKE CITY — Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said Wednesday that the party's Salt Lake County chairman should not have called the Democratic district attorney a "cop hater" or referred to his race.
"I think that was an unfortunate term," Evans said of Chad Bennion's reaction to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill's ruling that two West Valley City detectives were not justified in the shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard.
Bennion called Gill a "cop hater" in a Salt Lake Tribune story last week and said that Gill's experience witnessing police brutality as a child in his native India "may have tainted his handling of force issues."
The state party leader, who is black, said, "Any Republican, in particular any white Republican, knows not to do that. They're never going to win on that issue. They just don't get any slack there."
Evans said that "anytime there's any reference to race, it doesn't seem to work in our favor because we don't have that benefit of the doubt." He said he is careful not to bring up race.
"I don't think I would get a pass," Evans said, although later he described how growing up in the segregated South affected his view of police. "I will always have ambivalence toward law enforcement because of my upbringing."
Bennion did not appear as expected at the news conference called by Evans at state party headquarters. Later in the evening, the Salt Lake County GOP issued a single-sentence statement from Bennion.
“I fully support the prepared statement made by James today at the press conference,” Bennion said. He has previously stood by the comments he made about Gill.
Before answering questions about Bennion, Evans expressed support for law enforcement and called for discussions of police procedure to be left up to the agenices involved, the legal community and Utah residents.
Asked if Bennion should apologize for his comments, Evans said he would leave that decision up to county party leaders. A meeting of the county central committee is scheduled for next month.
Evans had said Monday he was holding the news conference to return the focus to whether Gill's ruling has left law enforcement without "a clear understanding of the use of force. There has been concern that somehow politics has crept into that."
But Wednesday, he told reporters that discussion should be left up to the law enforcement community and "stakeholders," at least until election time. Gill is up for re-election in 2014, but there is talk he may run for attorney general.
Evans said the party is taking nothing for granted in that race. Attorney General John Swallow, a Republican, is under investigation by federal, state and local authorities.
"(Gill) is welcome to run. And I feel that we will continue to hold that seat," Evans said. "We're concerned by every candidate that runs against our candidates. We're always going to be concerned about that."
The Utah State Fraternal Order of Police responded to Evans' news conference with a statement. Bennion represents members of the organization in administrative hearings.
"We're pleased to see that the state Republican Party is coming to the aid of the blue-collar line officers in Utah," said Brent Jex, the organization's president. "FOP is a nonpartisan organization that endorses candidates of both parties."
Jex echoed the words of the organization's national president, stating, "I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat. I'm a cop, and I support those who support me."
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