Utah lawmakers take step to ban police from using knee-on-neck chokeholds

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks at a Black Lives Matter protest at City Hall Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Utah lawmakers took the first step to ban police officers from using “knee-on-neck” chokeholds, like the one deployed by a Minnesota police officer in the death of George Floyd.

The legislation also would prohibit Utah’s police academy or local agencies from teaching new officers how to use chokeholds, carotid restraints or “any act that impedes the breathing or circulation of blood likely to produce a loss of consciousness” as a valid form of restraint — but didn’t outright ban officers from using them.

It also says officers would be investigated by a county attorney if they do use a prohibited knee-on-neck chokehold.

“This bill is just the beginning of the conversation,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City. “We recognize we had time constraints in getting this done, but we all agreed that the kneeling on someone’s neck and constricting their airway is inhumane. And we all agreed it was not a partisan issue, it was a human rights issue.”

The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee gave unanimous approval Tuesday, and the full Legislature will consider it during a special session Thursday.

Committee members were largely supportive, though Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, questioned whether it was wise to bar educating officers about carotid restraints, in which officers use their arms to apply pressure to the sides of a person’s neck to cut off blood flow to render someone unconscious quickly. It’s different, he said, than a chokehold.

“Prohibiting kneeling on the throat and neck, that’s not even low-hanging fruit,” he said. “That’s fruit that’s literally sitting on the ground. There is nowhere where I think you will find someone defending that behavior. There is a world of difference though between a chokehold done by an untrained, unqualified person, and a carotid restraint done by someone who is specifically and expertly trained in its application.”

Hollins, who is Utah’s only black legislator, fired back at Thatcher’s comment, saying that prohibiting knee-on-neck chokeholds was an important change.

"It may be fruit sitting on the ground for you, but it is very important legislation for the communities that I serve," she said, "for the people who have reached out to me, to the black communities. It is not low-hanging fruit. It is fruit that is going to make a difference in our communities and make them feel safe enough that they know if they call the police, this practice would not be implemented."

Lone Peak Police Chief Brian Gwilliam, who is with the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, told lawmakers Tuesday that he didn’t believe the state’s police academy taught chokeholds in its training. Some agencies in the state have taught how to use carotid restraints, though.

Hollins said the legislation didn’t go far enough, but added it was something that was being discussed long before people in Utah and across the country watched video footage of the Minneapolis officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

“I know a lot of people, when that video came out with Mr. Floyd, their eyes were opened,” she said. “My eyes, as a black woman living in this state, have been opened for years. For years. So I don’t take this lightly at all. I want our police officers to be protected, but I also want to make sure our communities are protected.”

The legislators’ proposed ban is the latest measure taken by Utah officials in response to Floyd’s death and more than two weeks of protests in Salt Lake City decrying police brutality.

Gov. Gary Herbert last week announced that the Utah Highway Patrol and state corrections officers can no longer use chokeholds on people in custody, and the Salt Lake City Police Department announced a similar ban on chokeholds and tear gas last week.