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Robert Gehrke: Now is the time for these major police reforms in Utah

Summer of protests has led to a series of meaningful reforms now before the Legislature.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It seems that, because of Utah’s short legislative schedule, big issues that flare up during the summer lose momentum — either focus is lost or other issues arise to crowd people’s short attention spans.

As we open the 2021 legislative session this week, there’s one issue too important to let that happen: justice and police reform.

It may only be a few months, but it seems like a decade ago now when the killing of George Floyd drove thousands of Utahns into the streets to demand changes to how police departments operate around the state. Those calls for reform were echoed not just among those marching, but also among those in Utah’s Capitol.

We got a ban on knee-to-neck chokeholds — which were already prohibited administratively — an easy enough first step that Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, called a down payment on future reform.

Now it’s time to take action on the systemic issues with policing in the state. For months, groups have been meeting to craft proposals. As my colleagues Jessica Miller and Taylor Stevens report, lawmakers are anticipating potentially dozens of bills addressing policing and justice reform when they start their 45-day session this week.

“I really feel like because of the murder of George Floyd and different events that have happened here in Utah, there has been a willingness from the Department of Public Safety and many of the community advocates to find ways to work together,” said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.

What they’ve come up with is a list of ideas that, if implemented, will help to make our police forces more transparent, responsive and accountable. Here are just a few of the areas being considered:

Training

Romero is sponsoring legislation that would require 16 of the 40 hours of training officers are required to receive each year to be in de-escalation tactics and how to recognize and deal with mental illness. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, is also sponsoring legislation that would create uniform training standards for officers who handle police dogs.

Qualified immunity

This is the controversial legal protection enjoyed by police officers that makes it difficult for someone who feels they’ve been wronged to seek redress from the courts. Legislation is being crafted, modeled after a bill that was passed in Colorado, that would allow lawsuits in state courts for civil rights violations.

Civilian review boards

Every city should have one of these citizen boards to hear complaints against law enforcement, but cities are balking at the state mandating they have one. The approach may end up being the creation of state incentives and guidance to cities that want a review board.

Use of force

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, is sponsoring legislation that would require officers to intervene when they see a colleague, even a superior, using excessive force (stemming from the Floyd killing), and prohibits using additional force if a suspect is safely restrained.

Ban no-knock warrants

Officers would have to knock and announce when serving a warrant unless there is an imminent threat of injury or death. This reform grows out of the shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville officers serving a warrant.

The complaint process

Another bill would create statewide standards for investigating complaints against officers and due process for those officers. Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, is proposing legislation to prevent problem officers from bouncing between departments.

Police shootings

On the heels of protests over police shootings, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill put forward a list of 22 ways to address deadly encounters, including a new legal standard that would make it possible for officers to be prosecuted in egregious cases (it is almost impossible to win a conviction under the current law). He also suggested requiring an officer to be in “imminent danger” to justify a shooting and prohibit shooting a suspect who only poses a danger to himself or herself.

Gather better data

We need better metrics across-the-board when it comes to policing and a few bills are aimed in that direction. Romero, for example, is seeking to require police departments to report their instances where force is used to a state database.

It’s a lot, and these are just some of the highlights — common-sense steps that should, at least, help avoid catastrophes and put some checks in place when they do occur.

“Everyone is committed to better outcomes,” Thatcher told me. “We’ve been doing things better and further and faster than any other state, but … we do still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. But we’re committed to this. Sometimes making sure you make good policy takes time.”

That’s part of what has been encouraging: We saw these groups with vastly divergent interests — from Black Lives Matter to the police associations to the NAACP, ACLU and Libertas Institute and more — staying engaged and chipping away to sculpt workable solutions.

“So much of the work comes beforehand,” Iwamoto said. “It’s been really a great process for everyone to come forward — law enforcement and different citizens’ groups have been involved — and made sure these are good bills.”

And it’s been heartening to see people of color leading the way, not just in crafting the bills but sponsoring the legislation — lawmakers like Romero, Iwamoto, Hollins and Sen. Luz Escamilla.

“For me, as an elected official and someone who has grown up here, as a BIPOC [black, indigenous person of color], as a Latina having been put in situations where I have been pulled over with my cousins and feeling there wasn’t a good reason, we bring a lot, as does Rep. Hollins and others, from our personal experiences,” Romero said.

Now, after months of wrangling in private, it’s time to get these reforms passed. We can’t let this momentum or this moment sputter. We need the players and the public to keep pressure on and get these bills into law.

It won’t, as Thatcher notes, solve the whole problem — bad things will happen — but it moves us in the right direction and creates a foundation for this important dialogue and debate to continue in the years to come.

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