Even before Tali Bruce was sworn in as a Cottonwood Heights City Council member in January 2018, she and police Chief Robby Russo were at odds on the issues.
According to Bruce, Russo endorsed her opponent in the fall 2017 election, an action she believes was inappropriate coming from a police officer.
Now, 15 months later, their differences remain — and the situation has escalated since the campaign ended and her time on the council began, Bruce said.
“I’ve felt harassed and bullied almost from Day 1,” she said. Russo has declined comment on Bruce’s allegations.
Bruce said she became a target early in 2018 after suggesting a cost analysis to determine if it would be more economical to contract with the Unified Police Department for law enforcement services. She alleges police officers tried to intimidate her for several months beginning in March 2018 by tailgating her, and in one instance, sitting outside her home in a patrol car as she was leaving to go to a council meeting. When she rolled down her car window to talk to him, the officer pretended to take a phone call, Bruce said.
“How many streets are going unpatrolled while they’re doing that?” she asked.
Another point of contention was a proposal from other council members in November 2018 to give Russo a raise and extend his contract, which expires in July 2019. Bruce wanted the city to conduct a performance review of the police department before voting, but the majority of council members wanted to go forward then.
Bruce was on the losing end of a 3-1 vote to extend the contract for two additional years and to increase Russo’s annual salary to $145,516 from the current $128,656. The additional $16,860 was an increase of approximately 13 percent.
Two days later, Tali Bruce said, an employee at one of the pubs she and her husband own was pulled over for driving without insurance. Rather than issuing a fix-it ticket, the officer had the vehicle towed, which left the woman and her daughter by the side of the road on a cold night.
She also believes there was an orchestrated effort to get residents who support Russo to pack a city meeting to criticize her after a false rumor had circulated that she wanted to eliminate all police from Cottonwood Heights.
And Bruce is disappointed that she didn’t get a courtesy notification when Russo filed an open-records request for all of her emails after she proposed the cost-benefit analysis.
According to City Manager Tim Tingey, Russo’s raise brought his salary to a little above the mid-range for police chiefs in the Salt Lake Valley.
Tingey, who became city manager in October 2018, also said employees are allowed to endorse candidates as long as they do so in their personal capacity. He also said that because of liability concerns, people are not allowed to drive uninsured vehicles and that towing those cars is not unusual.
Mayor Mike Peterson agreed that submitting the open records request was not a good choice, and said the matter should have been handled differently.
The mayor also said he personally has not seen anything that he thinks is bullying but stressed that he can’t tell Bruce how to feel.
“I feel bad that she feels bullied,” he said.
The feelings probably go both ways, Peterson said. While Bruce feels like she’s being bullied, Russo probably feels he’s being bullied by the councilwoman by her constant criticism, he said.
During his campaign for mayor, he walked most of the city and held numerous meetings, according to Peterson. From that experience, he believes there is “tremendous support” for the police.
The chief and the police department have been involved in a number of controversies. For years, there were allegations that police helped put the Canyon Inn bar out of business in 2015 by harassing customers with heavy-handed traffic stops and allegedly bogus DUI citations to make way for a new development project. More recently, a former Cottonwood Heights police officer filed a federal lawsuit against the department alleging she was sexually harassed and discriminated against because of a disability.
Russo and then-mayor Kelvyn Cullimore have denied any wrongdoing in the Canyon Inn matter. Lawyers for the city have denied the allegations in the harassment suit, which is pending in U.S. District Court.
In a 2016 survey asking Cottonwood Heights residents for their input on important issues, the city asked if the police department is too aggressive on enforcement “aimed at preventing impaired driving.” Of the 1,268 respondents, 37 percent either strongly or somewhat disagreed, and 31 percent strongly or somewhat agreed. The remaining 32 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.
On the question of whether the department is professional and responsive, 58 percent agreed and 21 percent disagreed. Police are committed to address the issues that pose the biggest threats to community safety, according to 49 percent of respondents, versus 25 percent who disagreed. Sixty-six percent trusted the department to deter and deal with crime, while 20 percent did not.
Bruce, who is serving her first term on the city council, said she ran for office because she perceived the community was divided and wanted to heal the divide.
On her campaign website, www.talibruce.com, Bruce said she would not “blindly support big money developers” over the desires of average citizens. She also said she wanted police officers to have regular training in de-escalation tactics.
Bruce said that despite her situation, she believes the majority of police officers “are really terrific people.”
“There are definitely times when it’s shaken me,” Bruce said of the alleged effort to intimidate her. “Certainly, it’s taken its toll, but it’s made me stronger.”