According to the accounts of the half-dozen witnesses of what is now jokingly referred to as “The Great Pickle Factory Raid,” on March 20, a Salt Lake City fire marshal, three city inspectors, one Salt Lake City Police Department armed patrol officer and six plainclothes SLCPD detectives—some of whom wore jackets identifying them as belonging to the force’s Organized Crime Unit—descended upon the Pickle Factory, a low-rent artists collective at 741 S. 400 West. Two individuals were handcuffed and detained for questioning and the building’s owner was arrested.
According to SLCPD, the hefty police response was to assist city inspectors resolve a matter of the owner operating without a business license—the sort of issue that’s usually resolved via mailed warnings and phone calls.
Pickle Factory owner Lou Barrett has been rehabbing the old building for the nearly two years since he bought it, and says he was blindsided by the city’s actions.
“I’ve owned property and dealt with city officials and inspectors for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a reaction like this over a simple code violation,” Barrett says.
Art Raymond, spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, says that businesses can find compliance burdensome sometimes, but that it comes down to the reality that “our state building code is in place to ensure the public safety.”
Barrett says he had spoken with the city just the day before the “raid” and worked out what he would need to do to be in compliance.
For tenants like Ryan Chatterton, the incident was frightening and, in hindsight, more than insulting. The Pickle Factory and its tenants—artists, architects, photographers, designers and others—have been active in helping promote Salt Lake City’s Granary District, hosting community block parties and receiving fond encouragement and previous support from the city in seeking to revitalize the neighborhood.
“It’s like, on the one hand, they’re feeding us, and slapping us with the other,” Chatterton says of the city’s “disjointed” response to the Pickle Factory’s presence in the neighborhood, which, aside from a few scattered businesses and restaurants, is seen as a mostly dilapidated industrial pocket of the city.
Many of the eight tenants are artists who simply use their studio space for creative purposes and sell their art from other places. Some tenants previously believed they weren’t operating a business and therefore didn’t need a license, but since the raid have realized they may actually have been operating as a business, according to the city’s regulations.
Barrett says that in early March, new tenants moved in and told him they planned on applying for a business license. He says he told them they should wait, knowing that a business license wouldn’t be approved until he had completed renovations to the building.
The tenants applied regardless, and when a building inspector showed up, he cited Barrett and told him that he was operating without a business license—the inspector also “red-tagged” the building with a notice that Barrett needed to obtain a license.
Barrett says that after a week, he removed the tag, something he later learned he was not supposed to do and that he believes may have drawn the attention of city inspectors.
On Tuesday, March 19, Barrett says, he talked with the city about everything he needed to do to be in compliance, and a staffer told him that complete instructions would be mailed to him for review.
But the following day, other city officials decided to do more investigating while Barrett was away from the site. Barrett’s 16-year-old son, Jack, and 22-year-old daughter Hilary were doing work at the factory when the officials entered unannounced and began aggressively questioning tenants.
When Hilary confronted the officials, she says, they warned her that, “If you don’t get your parents on the phone, you are obstructing justice,” she says.
Hilary repeatedly told the officials they couldn’t be in the building without her parents, the owners of the building, present. After a heated exchange, Hilary escorted the city officials out of the building and locked them out.
While accounts of the incident differ somewhat among the city, SLCPD and the tenants, it’s generally agreed that it was at this point when things got ugly. Within 20 minutes of the city officers being locked out of the building, multiple SLCPD detectives arrived on the scene.
Raymond says that the city officials, under guidance from their supervisor, contacted the police because they felt “unsafe” in their interactions.
“The response of the Salt Lake City Police was unrelated to the code violation discovered by city employees,” Raymond says.
But according to SLCPD spokesman Sgt. Shawn Josephson, the police were called to assist the city’s business-licensing staff because they complained of individuals obstructing their work.
“That’s part of our duty, anyway,” Josephson says. “We are responsible to assist in making sure that people are compliant with business-license laws.” Josephson also confirmed that they investigated the incident, detained two individuals for questioning and arrested one individual.
Lou Barrett, was taking a nap and had his phone off at the time his children were calling him to come to the Pickle Factory. He arrived late to the incident and met the officers outside of the building. He was then arrested, but not jailed, on a misdemeanor offense of operating without a business license.
Matt Swindel, an architect with Imbue Design, says that he and his partners had an architecture business, with its business license registered to a home address, while they, too, waited for renovations to be completed at the Pickle Factory. He says that he and his colleagues were shocked at how the city responded to their license status. When Swindel exited the building while police were outside, he was immediately approached by a plainclothes detective who, Swindel says, began asking him rapid-fire questions. Swindel says he could not even tell at first that the man questioning him was law enforcement, and repeatedly requested to have his lawyer present.
“I said, ‘I’m not answering questions without my lawyer,’ ” Swindel says. “At that point, he grabbed my wrists, spun me around from where I was standing, and slammed handcuffs on me.”
Swindel says he was detained with handcuffs for nearly half an hour without an officer explaining why he was being detained or if he was being charged with a crime.
Barrett’s other daughter, Lauren, who showed up when police arrived, was also handcuffed and interrogated by detectives. City-code-enforcement officials have now barred tenants from the space until the building is brought to code and licensed by Lou Barrett.
Lou says he feels no indignation over the city’s concerns and the misdemeanor charge, acknowledging that there are repairs he needs to complete. He says he will focus on taking care of them and acquiring a license as soon as possible.
Swindel, like other tenants, recognizes that the city has a job to do—he just wishes it had been done differently.
“I understand there are legitimate concerns of health and safety when it comes to occupying a building,” Swindel says. “But then to be just so aggressively harassed for running our business out of this building … it was just so over the top.”