Utah’s governor bans police chokeholds, elevates multicultural leaders

(Spenser Heaps | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert listens as State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 11, 2020.

The Utah Highway Patrol and state corrections officers can no longer use chokeholds on people in custody, Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday — and he’s urging law enforcement agencies around the state to institute a similar ban.

“No state public safety or corrections officer is permitted to use chokeholds or restraints that pressure the neck or the spine,” Herbert said Thursday, addressing police brutality and bias at a news conference meant to be focused on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Herbert said he has directed Jess Anderson, the state’s commissioner of public safety, and Mike Haddon, executive director of the Department of Corrections, to enforce the new policy.

Juvenile Justice Services, which oversees the state’s youth offenders, also updated its policies Thursday to exclude chokeholds and using the knee to hold down someone’s head, neck or diaphragm, director Brett Peterson said.

He said its staff have always been barred from using restraint techniques that restrict blood flow and breathing, but the new language is more explicit about what is prohibited.

The new policy also mandates that any staff who sees someone using the prohibited holds must intervene and report the violation.

The governor’s move comes the day after Salt Lake City police banned chokeholds and the use of tear gas.

Herbert promised to convene the state Legislature next week to in part debate bills about law enforcement policies. He also brought two multicultural officials into his executive leadership group.

Herbert took these steps Thursday in reaction to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis when an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. When “egregious” acts by law enforcement happen, Herbert said, “it adds to the divisiveness that we have and should not want in our society.”

“We have far too many people, even here in Utah, who do not have the dignity of fairness” promised by the U.S. Constitution, Herbert said.

The governor praised efforts in Utah to try to remedy inequities. He touted the passage of hate-crimes legislation, efforts to end discrimination and add protections for LGBTQ populations, and programs to aid refugees and immigrants.

He acknowledged, though, that those efforts are not enough. “Far too many of our multicultural communities continue to experience discrimination, and we in Utah can do better,” Herbert said.

Herbert will meet again with the state’s Martin Luther King Commission and the Multicultural Commission in early July, after a listening session last week ended without action.

“In the meantime, there are things we can do now to make a difference,” he said.

Herbert announced that Nubia Peña, director of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, and Dustin Jansen, head of the Utah Bureau of Indian Affairs, will now report directly to him and join his regular leadership meetings, ensuring an ongoing seat at the table.

Herbert added more details on Twitter about efforts to address racism in the state, saying that he plans to provide implicit bias training to state government officials, beginning at his next cabinet meeting in July and going through “each successive layer of leadership in our executive branch of government."

Finally, Herbert said he was directing Anderson, the public safety commissioner, to identify other ways law enforcement can decrease fear and anger in underrepresented communities and also increase transparency and accountability throughout the state.

Anderson will report those findings to the governor July 1.

“Utah was founded as a place of refuge for those seeking escape from hatred and persecution,” he concluded. “We can do better to live up to that ideal in our daily actions and in our policies that we create.”

While changes in government policy are important, Herbert said at his news conference that “of a greater concern to me is what we need to be doing to change hearts and minds.”

Herbert’s comments came Thursday as protesters geared up for another night of demonstrations in the city, where people have taken to the streets 12 times in the past 13 days.

Protesters first gathered to protest the killing of Floyd, but have more recently been calling for police here to lose some funding, and for the Salt Lake City police officers who shot and killed 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal last month to be identified, charge and fired.

Video shows Palacios-Carbajal was running from officers, who fired more than 20 shots at him.

On Thursday evening, several thousand people converged at Liberty Park around 6 p.m. for an event billed as “a peaceful skateboard protest.” After a few brief speeches centered around the theme of solidarity, and promoting the idea of letting their sheer numbers do their speaking for them, the protesters took off — mostly on skateboards, bicycles and roller skates — toward Salt Lake City Hall. There, organizers led the peaceful crowd in several chants, culminating with a “Whose Streets? Our streets!” refrain.

Tribune reporters Paighten Harkins and Eric Walden contributed to this story.