Utah lawmakers move to ban cities from creating stronger police review boards — the very thing activists are pushing for in Salt Lake City

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah Against Police Brutality holds a rally in front of West Valley City Hall, April 21, 2018. Elijah Smith was killed by West Valley Police on April 8 after he ran from them into a home.

Utah activists have pushed cities to create stronger civilian review commissions to help hold police accountable. The state Legislature took notice, and on Thursday, moved to ban the very boards these activists want.

HB415, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, won’t affect boards already in existence, like Salt Lake City’s independent Civilian Police Review Board, which can recommend whether an officer acted outside official policy but cannot dole out discipline. This bill would block municipalities from granting more autonomy and power to discipline officers to groups, like the ones activists long critical of law enforcement have sought.

“What we’re having is anti-law enforcement activist groups trying to take over these community councils and be negative towards the police department,” Sen. Don Ipson, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told his colleagues Thursday. “This simply gives clarity.”

The bill is a direct response to a proposal announced last summer from the group Utah Against Police Brutality, which has been pushing the Salt Lake City Council to consider a new ordinance that would create a democratically elected seven-member board with the power to veto the choice of police chief, as well as new law enforcement policies and to strike down old ones.

As part of the Salt Lake City Police Accountability Council proposal, the activists also want video of any incident under investigation posted within 48 hours, except in some cases when 14 days would be the maximum. They want to be able to direct the police chief to fire or discipline any officer, and though he or she may appeal, they want to have final say on the decision. And they want to do all that with a budget of 3 percent of whatever the city appropriates for the police force.

HB415 received final approval from the Legislature on the final day of the session and would make it impossible for a municipality to establish a board with those provisions. The bill blocks a municipality from creating an entity with authority independent of the police chief that can, among other things, overrule a hiring or appointment proposal; review or approve a police department’s rules, regulations, policies or procedures in order for them to take effect; or veto a new policy or strike down an old one.

The bill still allows a municipality to establish a board that has authority independent of the police chief as long as a municipality appoints its members and maintains direct oversight.

“There isn’t a problem now,” said Ipson, R-St. George, “but we feel like there is one coming if we don’t do this.”

Utah Against Police Brutality had focused its energy on Salt Lake City before moving on to request other municipalities adopt similar proposals. The Salt Lake City Council, which did not take a position on Ray’s bill, has never considered the proposal in a formal or public meeting, though most council members have met with the group.

In a statement, the organization released before the bill’s passage, Utah Against Police Brutality called it “terrible, anti-democratic, overreaching and cynical” and argued that “the public has been clear for years that they want more effective, innovative and efficient police oversight. HB415 prevents that from happening.”

The Rose Park Brown Berets, an organization that has its roots in a movement begun by Chicanos in California in the 1960s and now advocates against oppression and exploitation, also opposed the bill.

“HB415 spits in the face of democracy in favor of ideology riddled with nationalistic undertones and will lead to even less due process for innocent people killed by police,” the organization said in a written statement released Tuesday. “The police will truly be judge, jury and executioner. In Ray’s eyes, police are above the law only they can enforce, and communities of color will continue to pay for it.”

Police in Utah fired on at least 30 people in 2018, hitting 25 and killing 19 — more than any other year in recent memory. The Salt Lake Tribune’s records of shootings by police go back 15 years.

While several activist groups opposed the bill, the Utah Chiefs of Police Association spoke in favor of it, arguing that the bill helps preserve an already-established balance needed to hold police accountable.

“It’s always interesting to me this argument that if we just put a different group of people in [a committee], they’ll come up with a different outcome," said Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, who spoke on behalf of the police association during a House committee hearing earlier this month. "Yet over and over again as I’ve watched review boards come in and advisory boards and once they see both sides and they have to weigh both sides, it’s amazing how much they come to the middle area, which is really where law enforcement is operating from now.”

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, who could not be reached for comment on the bill’s passage Friday afternoon, has said in the past that even without a review board like the one Utah Against Police Brutality has sought, there are already processes in the city that hold police accountable. Those include internal processes for receiving and investigating complaints and the existence of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, which independently reviews all critical-incident cases, he said.

Now that the bill has passed, Dave Newlin, an organizer with Utah Against Police Brutality and a former Salt Lake Tribune web manager, said the organization plans to lobby Gov. Gary Herbert to employ his selectively used veto power to kill the bill.

But whatever happens, “we’re definitely not going to stop fighting for police accountability,” he said Friday. “We’re going to look at every option available to us — up to and including trying to get this repealed. That’s a long and difficult process, but it’s possible.”