Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police pushes its own reform agenda

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City police officers block protesters near the home of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill a few days after he announced there would be no charges filed against officers who shot and killed Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, July 12, 2020.

Utah’s largest police union has long seen Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill as its antagonist, so it’s not surprising that the group rejected his ideas to revamp how and when an officer can use deadly force, calling them “Sim’s random assortment of ideas to avoid accountability and maybe save his job.”

And when Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed an executive order Monday that among other things increases the responsibility of officers to stop their colleagues from using excessive force and emphasizes de-escalation techniques, the Utah State Fraternal Order of Police called them “dangerous experiments that do not have any scientific evidence to support them.”

Historically, the more than 4,000-member group has focused on protecting rank-and-file officers, a position that often puts it at odds with police chiefs and elected leaders.

Yet now, in this moment when police violence and systemic racism are at the forefront of national and local conversations, the Utah FOP’s leaders say they are not here simply to oppose reforms. They are also pushing their own ideas on how to improve their profession.

“That’s huge,” said Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief who now is the vice president of law enforcement strategy with the New York City-based Center for Policing Equity.

It shows, he said, that there’s momentum for this anti-police violence movement. Burbank said police advocacy groups are trying to put forward some easy ideas to show they are responding to the outcry.

“It needs to go further,” Burbank said. “Everyone needs to go further.”

But it’s a start.

FOP reforms

Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah FOP, bristles at the suggestion his group’s latest reform ideas are small or unusual, or that the FOP has stood in the way of revamping policing.

“It’s unfair,” he said.

The FOP isn’t involved in contract negotiations like a traditional union. Instead, it lobbies lawmakers on policy issues and provides a legal defense for officers involved in shootings or facing allegations of misconduct.

When it comes to reform, the group advocated for some efforts, including the 2015 bill that requires an outside agency to investigate another’s police shooting. Adams said the FOP was instrumental in getting that law passed, an effort he characterized as just one in a series of pushes for sensible reforms that includes providing de-escalation training to FOP members about a decade ago and advocating for changes to how police can execute no-knock warrants.

But the group has disagreed or stayed neutral on many proposals. Last year, the FOP didn’t have a position on body cameras, when the Unified Police Department thought about nixing them, saying that to wear them or not should be a department-by-department issue. Four years earlier, the group said de-escalation training was good for officers — but it shouldn’t be required.

Adams did say that the protest movement has influenced some of the organization’s recently released proposals. Five ideas the FOP either advocates for or won’t stand in the way of include:

• Gill’s idea to require agencies to complete all internal investigations of alleged officer misconduct even if the officer in question leaves. Any sustained allegations would be public under Utah’s open records law. The FOP also asked that the same standard apply to investigations into prosecutorial misconduct.

• The FOP also agreed with Gill that municipalities should be able to implement civilian review boards — “so long as those review boards provide robust due process protections for officers and establish consequences when an officer is wrongfully disciplined.”

• The group also agreed that officers could benefit from improved and extensive training on less-than-lethal force. This is an idea on which the police academy is already working. The FOP released a statement saying, “If politicians are willing to foot the bill, cops love hands-on training, including for less lethal engagement and de-escalation. If we can avoid taking a life, that is what we seek to do.”

• The FOP wants all investigations into police shootings finished within 60 days, “rather than waiting on prosecutors for months or years for an eventual outcome, which harms [law enforcement], the public, and family members of the deceased.” But they also say that body camera footage in these cases should remain private until the criminal review is complete, which runs counter to a Salt Lake City executive order requiring footage be released no later than 10 days after a shooting.

• The police advocacy group also wants to add some new voices — like from the local NAACP — to Utah’s Peace Officer Standards and Training board, which mandates what police learn and how they learn it, and disciplines officers.

It’s that last idea that Adams believes could do the most good.

“It’s sort of like a more boring reform,” he said. “It doesn’t probably fit into ‘abolish the police’ sort of sloganeering, but it would actually [have an] impact in a positive way.”

The POST council is the “sausage factory” for all the issues related to law enforcement in Utah. The 15-member board oversees officers’ training, certification and decertification, and is primarily made up of law enforcement officers.

If others with more diverse backgrounds had a seat at the table, Adams said, perhaps they could point out blind spots and change training practices for the better.

Seizing the moment

The issues that plague the criminal justice system have existed for as long as it has. Burbank, the former Salt Lake City police chief, said that’s by design.

“What you’ve got is a system we put in place, and it functions exactly as we intended,” he said. “What we didn’t do is consult a fairly huge percent of the population about if it’s equitable.”

Turns out, he said, it’s not, particularly for people of color and other marginalized groups. And to change that, you have to change officer behaviors on a large scale. That means changing how police do their jobs.

He suggested that officers should stop writing traffic tickets, for example, because it would remove them from situations where they could make a biased decision.

Now is the time to make those changes, Burbank said, because the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer has the nation paying attention.

Gill said that’s why he published his proposals. When asked to respond to some of the FOP’s criticisms of his ideas, Gill said he never meant his 22 proposals to be anything more than a conversation starter.

Seeing the FOP’s suggestions, Gill said it seems his plan worked. More people are weighing in — and he’s happy for it.

“Because this is the work that needs to be done if we want systemic and sustainable reform,” he said.

Most of these ideas would need to be enacted by state lawmakers, but Mendenhall, Salt Lake City’s mayor, did take some executive actions, which also included expanding the use of bodycams.

State lawmakers on the criminal code task force held their first discussion on these ideas Thursday, and largely rejected Gill’s use-of-force changes.

Gill wants to require officers to use less-than-lethal force whenever that is reasonable. Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, questioned whether it’s “physically and mentally possible” for officers to reasonably weigh their actions when they’re scared for their lives.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who co-leads the task force, suggested the people who are asking for these reforms are those who “don’t like law enforcement.”

Yet, the two did seem to like the idea of freeing police agencies from having to pay attorney fees for officers who were fired or criminally charged over excessive force claims. And Hutchings said he’d be willing to consider requiring officers to use less-than-lethal force where possible — if he’s assured police can make those decisions under duress.

The Legislature is expected to debate a range of bills, maybe some from Gill’s list and others from the FOP’s, starting in January.

Ultimately, GiIl said, “I don’t care where reform comes from.”

As long as it comes.