As police protests continue in Utah and across the country, those participating have made one thing clear: They want change.
The demonstrations began in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. And protesters say they won’t stop now — weeks later — until the system of law enforcement that led to him being targeted is “fixed.”
“People are saying, ‘This is enough. Something needs to be done,’” said Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP. “So what can we do?”
Williams and three other community leaders in the state explored what solutions might look like as part of an online discussion hosted by The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.
All agreed it will take a large effort — and more than one proposal — to address the racial injustices and violence in policing. These are some of their ideas:
More training — including on history
For Shawn Newell, that’s a major problem.
“The amount of training that our officers get is really just not conducive to the job that they do,” he said.
Newell, vice president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, said one of the biggest things that could be done to improve policing is to give officers more training so that they can handle situations better. That would primarily include de-escalation exercises that can show police how to calm a suspect down rather than coming at a situation with force.
He’d also like it to cover bias and how officers can understand their own implicit prejudices, how to address those and how not to target specific suspects. Many departments already do this, he noted, including Salt Lake City police. It could occur more often, though, perhaps annually.
“I’m fairly confident that it can change the culture of policing,” he added.
In the case with Floyd, reports have shown, the main officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck had complaints on his record. A big part of the training, Newell said, is recognizing bias in yourself and your coworkers — and stopping it.
Another component could be teaching officers about the history of oppression in the United States, particularly with people of color, which both Newell and state Rep. Sandra Hollins support.
Hollins is the only Black lawmaker in the Utah Legislature. And she has previously pushed for cultural training for officers stationed in K-12 schools. But all officers, she feels, could benefit from learning about slavery and Jim Crow and segregation and how that’s contributed to what’s happening today.
Newell, also a member of the Utah Board of Education, added: “Without that, they have no context for why people are frustrated, why people are fearful.”
In some countries, he noted, officer recruits go through two years of training. That could encompass a lot more about responsibility and community support than just the 20 weeks required in Utah.
“We skip over some really critical areas like education,” he said.
Restricting force used by officers
The state has already taken some action to restrict what force police officers can use on suspects.
Last week, Hollins’ bill to ban knee-on-neck chokeholds — like the one used on Floyd — passed the Legislature in a special session.
“That should never have been used. He was already on the ground,” she explained Wednesday. “There was no need for that.”
Now, an officer who uses that can be charged with a felony. And they’ll be prosecuted for homicide if the individual dies.
But the lawmaker doesn’t plan to stop there. Hollins and state Sen. Luz Escamilla plan to examine other types of force used by law enforcement, including all types of chokeholds and more lethal methods, such as firearms, to limit what and when those are appropriate. They are, statistics show, more often used against people of color.
And many restraints, Escamilla said, especially anything that stops an individual from being able to breathe “are actually counterproductive.” Like when someone is drowning, she said, it will just cause a person to move more. But while many of those aren’t taught to new officers, they aren’t banned in the state.
She also brought up the case of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, who police fired on more than 20 times. Even if a chokehold is banned, she questioned whether there was a less deadly way that officers could have responded. That case is still being reviewed by the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office.
Escamilla noted: “What you’re going to see is more bills to come.”
Collecting data on profiling
When Hollins first moved to Utah, she and her husband were pulled over while driving on the freeway.
The white officer, she recalled, first accused them of speeding. Then, he questioned how they got their car: “How could you afford a car like this? Where’d you get the money?”
They answered him. And she remembers the officer commenting before walking away, “I just wanted to see if you had an attitude. If you had an attitude I was going to give you a ticket.”
The encounter has stuck with Hollins. She doesn’t think she and her husband would have been pulled over at all if they weren’t Black.
Profiling, she said, has been a large problem with policing since law enforcement was created. People of color are pulled over, frisked and questioned at much higher rates than white individuals, according to national data.
In Utah, she suggests having officers mark the race or ethnicity of the individuals they police — perhaps getting it off their driver’s license. That data could then be examined to see what officers or departments have an issue with targeting individuals of color. It would expose the problem, she believes.
Making sure ‘bad cops’ can’t get rehired
Williams with the NAACP would like to see another database created for officer misconduct — and she hopes it would be accessible nationally.
The idea would be that “bad cops,” she said, would get listed. Other agencies could review the information before making a hire either in the same state or another.
That might have addressed the issue with the officer who killed Floyd. And it also could have potentially stopped an officer from killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 in Ohio. Rice, a Black child, was shot while playing with a toy gun outside.
“What we found out later was that the police department had hired [the officer] without tracking his record,” Williams said. “If they had known about that, then he wouldn’t have been hired.”
Escamilla would like to see the effort start in Utah and led by the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) office that oversees certifying officers here. She’s drafting a bill aimed at that. And Williams said the NAACP will now have a seat on the POST board.
Recruiting diverse candidates to lead change
In most areas of Utah, the officers in the police department do not reflect the diversity of the community.
All four of the leaders who spoke on Trib Talk said that needs to change before policing will get ever get closer to being equitable and safe.
Newell believes it will take time and many changes to the culture of departments before that happens. He had planned to be an officer at one point, himself, and decided on his way to the interview that he didn’t feel comfortable being a Black man in that position. He worried about being safe on the streets, but also “there was a bit of hesitation for my own safety in the locker room with my coworkers.”
Still, he believes it’s an important step for departments. Currently, the infrastructure of policing is inherently biased. But adding in new perspectives and minority voices would help, he said.
Williams and Escamilla added, too, that there should be more diversity with the state and city leaders that oversee police departments and the civilian review boards that help keep them in check. It should be up to people of color, they said, to lead change.
Escamilla said: “We should not have anyone else tell us how we’re going to be saved.”