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The head of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, who blasted Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill for his finding that a fatal police shooting was unjustified, was in court the same day he first made his controversial comments defending his wife on a charge of child abuse filed by Gill's office.
Chad Bennion testified in his wife's defense Friday after she was charged with a class A misdemeanor child abuse for slapping their 10-year-old child across the face and leaving a bruise. She was found guilty of a class B misdemeanor and is awaiting sentencing.
The case was handled by Dawn Emery, a prosecutor in Gill's office, although Gill said in an interview that he didn't know who Bennion was and only learned that he was a Salt Lake County GOP official when he received an e-mail from Emery after the verdict was reached.
Hours after the verdict, Bennion unloaded on Gill in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, calling him a "cop-hater" for finding that two West Valley Police officers were not justified in shooting and killing Danielle Willard on Nov. 2, after the suspected drug user attempted to flee and, the officers claimed, hit one with her car.
Gill is screening the case for possible criminal charges against detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon.
Harsh criticism • Bennion who represents police officers in labor disputes for the Fraternal Order of Police and works with the attorney representing one of the two officers in the Willard shooting said the Salt Lake County Republicans would make an effort to unseat Gill, a Democrat, in next year's election and questioned if experiences where he saw police abusing people while growing up in India tainted his performance and led him to "let criminals off."
Asked whether his wife's prosecution had anything to do with his harsh criticim of Gill, Bennion declined to comment on what he called a private matter.
He said Gill is raising the case with his family to divert attention from the legitimate issue of how his office handles police investigations.
"I find it a little more than coincidental that Sim is out there claiming I'm a racist in order to avoid issues with his office and then trying to drag up issues [involving] private citizens … to distract from the issues in his office," Bennion said. "The fact that his office is directing people to ask me questions about private citizens, I think all that proves to me is that we have a D.A. who shouldn't be in that office."
Neither Gill nor his office contacted The Tribune about Bennion's case.
Gill said he would only be speculating on what may have motivated Bennion to make his comments.
Clashing rallies • Meanwhile, about 30 supporters of law enforcement gathered for a rally outside Salt Lake City Hall on Wednesday, where they had heated exchanges with about 10 friends and supporters of Willard.
The two sides police backers in blue, Willard friends wearing red shouted and at times cursed each other, carrying signs that read "Sim, how many criminals have you released today?" on one side and "Sim Gill, Hero" on the other.
The law-enforcement crowd set up a mock flag-draped casket with a police officer hat and belt and a sign that read: "Sim Gill made this officer hesitate."
Justin Watt shouted at Willard supporters that she was supporting an Aryan street gang by buying drugs. Willard supporters, such as Scott Simons, shouted back, "So what? Does that give a cop the right to blow her head off?"
One police officer, who asked his name not be used, said Gill's actions "make us hesitate when our lives are in danger … which makes it less likely we'll go home to our wives and kids because we wonder what Sim Gill would say."
"I think that's just an alarmist statement," Gill said in an interview. "I hope everyone is not suggesting that any one particular group is above the law."
Gill said he has done an estimated 35 to 40 police shooting investigations and found just a few to be unjustified, but the law requires the review.
"There is an obligation here," he said. "I don't cherish the difficult decisions that sometimes have to be made, but that is a responsibility given to review [shootings] and that's what the law requires us to do."
Bennion's role • The rally was not organized by Bennion, but he promoted it, sending out a notice through the Salt Lake County Republican email list, a move that some county Republicans saw as a conflict of interest with his work for the Fraternal Order of Police.
Dan Burton, an attorney and member of the GOP state central committee, said Bennion should steer clear of the Gill issue and let someone else act as spokesman for the party because of his conflict of interest.
"It looks like Chad is looking out for the Fraternal Order of Police. … It's clear to me that this is a conflict of interest that should cause him to think twice," said Burton, who also disagreed with the tone of Bennion's remarks.
"If he wanted to say he disagrees with the finding or the process wasn't appropriate or had some flaws in it, that's fair game, but the way he's talking about it goes after Sim Gill personally, not the process or the investigation, and that's just not appropriate."
Bennion said he stands by his comments and said the other county party officers approved of his promotion of the police rally.
But one county officer, secretary Michelle Hunt, said Wednesday she has been too busy to pay attention to the controversy and had no comment about the issue.
The notice Bennion sent through the party list described the rally as supporting "the right of police officers to defend themselves, and to protect the public, without fear of retribution from the Salt Lake County district attorney's office."