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Campus Safety response to April 29 rally was strategic, multi-layered

When a crowd of protesters started to gather in front of the Park Building on the afternoon of Monday, April 29, it wasn’t a surprise.

Throughout the school year, free speech rallies had occurred at the U — in buildings, on the walkways, and at the top of President’s Circle — and they were mostly peaceful. Some of the events ended with citations. None of the events required the presence of police wearing helmets and shields.

On Sunday night, April 28, University of Utah Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires expected the next day to be peaceful, standard operating procedure. He instructed his officers to be on hand, wearing their customary uniforms with the highlighter-yellow safety vests. By Monday night, circumstances changed.

The university’s response to the rally on April 29, which included help from neighboring police departments and members of the Utah Department of Public Safety Public Protection Unit, has drawn both praise and criticism. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he was “proud” of the way the rally was handled, while approximately 240 faculty submitted a petition against the university’s response.

As the university has navigated campus safety while handling free speech events throughout the year, key moments have shaped each outcome. When the protest on April 29 intensified with a crowd of hundreds, those key moments included a tent encampment constructed in minutes, a barricade being built and pallets of food and water getting dropped off for a long stay. Critical decisions were the result of input from multiple stakeholders, tactical response trainings and a sequence of events that started months before. In what could have ended with a scene similar to those that played out at university campuses across the country — with tear gas, property damage and full-blown rioting — the protest at the U ended with misdemeanor arrests and three reports of minor injuries, including two police officers who were not wearing protective gear.

Free speech events

From August to April, University Police were present at 11 different free speech events at the U: Oct. 20, Nov. 1, Nov. 9, Nov. 15, Nov. 17, Nov. 28, Nov. 30, Feb. 29, March 14, April 8, and April 21. Officers staffed the events to ensure the safety of participants and bystanders. Three of the events took place with no protests. Four of the events were protested, and four of the events were protests themselves. These events provided a launch point that informed tactical decisions later on.

“I want to be clear that our job is not to take sides on the issues being protested. Our job is to keep everyone safe and keep the peace here at the U, regardless of the group or topic,” Squires said. “Everything is situational. You could have 300 protestors, and if they are peacefully and lawfully protesting, you may only see a couple of officers present. I have to make sure that we have enough officers available to effectively manage safety for all events held on campus. Many sporting and other events require us to employ officers from other police agencies because of the expected crowd size. It’s much more difficult with unplanned events that develop into unlawful behavior.”

On Nov. 1, nine university officers were assigned to an event sponsored by conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom, or YAF, which was disrupted by a protest staged by liberal student group MEChA. About 50-70 people participated in the protest, which ended with officers issuing nine citations for unlawful conduct, marking the first time since 2017 that students were charged after demonstrating on campus. Previous to that, charges related to protesting hadn’t been issued since the 1970s.

MEChA did not communicate their plans to University Police or coordinate security with student services, and their actions highlighted behavior that appeared to be pre-planned, including interlocking arms and blocking officers from exiting the room. Someone put their hands on an officer, requiring officers to physically move the protesters to exit. To de-escalate the situation, the event was cancelled, and the YAF students were escorted from the area by police for their safety, creating another issue because their First Amendment-protected event was interrupted. The lack of communication, combined with a display of criminal behavior, were significant signs. Not wanting a repeat of the incident, for subsequent protests involving MEChA, the University of Utah Department of Public Safety increased its presence.

“The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior,” said U Police Captain Jason Hinojosa. “Once we had that past behavior, it set the stage for everything we had to be responsible for.”

Given that history of protests at the U, and after watching a wave of tent encampments take shape at college campuses across the country, Squires requested assistance under mutual aid the morning of April 28.

Mutual aid

As the protests throughout the year grew in size and intensity, Squires drew on the U’s agreements with neighboring agencies to provide mutual aid, which can be used any time an agency doesn’t have the resources to manage a situation alone. Two particular units in the Utah Department of Public Safety and Salt Lake City Police Department were at the top of his mind.

University of Utah Public Safety employees in a March 2024 training session.

In 2013, when Squires was serving as the commissioner over the Utah Department of Public Safety, he formed an elite team of officers, called the Public Protection Unit, who received special training to respond specifically to First Amendment-protected activities. Those officers complete a weeklong intensive training in civil disturbances, followed by ongoing monthly trainings in constitutional law, de-escalation tactics and strategies to use the least amount of force necessary to respond effectively to large group situations. After the Public Protection Unit was created, the Salt Lake City Police Department added a similar Public Order Unit.

The officers have special protective gear — helmets and shields — that they use when responding to an escalated situation in which they expect to receive physical contact. In the approximately 40 times the Public Protection Unit has been deployed in and out of the state since 2020, the unit has only needed to don its full protective gear three times, one of which was April 29.

“We are conscious about the image of what we are portraying and how we are doing our work,” said Utah Department of Public Safety Lt. Corey Nye, who oversees the Public Protection Unit. “The best defense we have learned is to talk with individuals and let them know we are here to provide an opportunity for them to express themselves in a safe and secure environment, under lawful boundaries. We have had a lot of success with this approach.”

But on April 29, as the officers started seeing protesters bringing in pallets and boards and water bottles — a sign that they could be used as projectiles — Nye had his squad change into gear that would protect the officers.

Key moments 

A few things changed Squires’ mind about what might happen on April 29, and how prepared he should be for the worst. For two weeks leading up to that day, pro-Palestinian protests roiled on college campuses across the country. The protests included occupying university buildings, vandalism, tear gas and violence to an extent that some elected leaders suggested using the National Guard to restore order. Social media posts about the April 29 protest suggested the same could happen at the U.

Multiple entities advertised the protest, including five other groups not affiliated with the U. The posts started generating thousands of likes, and the movement seemed to be growing by the minute. At 4:15 p.m., about 115 people were on the steps of the Park Building. The crowd grew to about 250 people before 5 p.m., and not long after, more than 300 people were in President’s Circle. They started setting up tents and bringing in wooden pallets, buckets, toilet paper, and food to fortify their position.

A team of administrators, including Dean of Students Jason Ramirez and Academic Senate leaders, distributed flyers to the crowd with pointers on the do’s and don’ts of lawful protest. While many of the protestors were not affiliated with the university, U administrators started conversations with student leaders to discuss ways to de-escalate the situation. The crowd could continue protesting if the tent encampment was dismantled by 9:15 p.m., they said. The students took the offer back to those gathered.

Minutes, then hours, ticked by and the tents remained. After dark fell, the crowd showed no signs of dispersing. At 9:25 p.m., the university made an announcement asking the crowd to take down the tents. Setting up structures without a permit and camping overnight without permission are not allowed under university policy and state law.

The announcement was repeated at 9:40 p.m., but the tents remained. At 9:55 p.m., a dispersal order was given, announcing that police would “make arrests as needed.” The order was repeated at 10:05 p.m. Police from neighboring units wearing standard uniforms and bright yellow vests stood on the steps of the Park Building for nearly an hour, holding their ground. The crowd did not move. At 10:53 p.m., the Public Protection Unit and Public Order Unit appeared on the scene, dressed in their full protective gear. Water bottles, buckets, cans of food, rocks and other debris started flying in their direction.

The officers moved slowly, walking forward, reforming ranks, and walking again. They identified protesters who were being unlawful, made arrests, and removed them. By the time the unit demobilized, it was 12:41 a.m. on Tuesday. Nineteen people were arrested, including four students and one university employee.  By Friday, after three days of protest, a total of 22 people, including five students and the employee had been arrested for unlawful behavior. While the events of the night have drawn praise and criticism, the ultimate safety of the campus was the result of strategic planning, training and cooperation.

“We are all in law enforcement for a similar reason, and that is to protect and serve our communities,” said Brent Weisberg, communications director for the Salt Lake City Police Department. “We all have the same common goals and are guided by the same common interests that we want to keep our communities safe.”