Black Utahns offer ideas for policy changes in emergency meeting with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert

During a meeting of the state’s Multicultural and Martin Luther King Jr. commissions Wednesday, members of Utah’s black community spoke for more than two hours about the injustices they’ve faced because of the color of their skin and provided policymakers with specific ideas to address systemic racism in the state.

The emergency gathering, called by Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, comes at a time of local and national unrest over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Herbert said at the start of the meeting that he hoped the violence could provide an opening for Utah leaders “to address the underlying problem that has caused this visceral reaction.”

“Let’s use this as an opportunity to have a good dialogue and discussion and to the extent that we can impact change, let’s not just talk about it,” he said. “Let’s actually do it. I think Utah can be a great example of how to do it correctly and lead other states in the nation in healing some of these wounds that have been opened up again here recently.”

Those who spoke were united in that vision. But they also noted that the injustices black Americans face go back hundreds of years — and that previous commitments to change from white people in power have often gone unfulfilled.

“My eyes are paying attention and I’m not only watching but I have an expectation that there will be a delivery of goods,” said Adrienne Andrews, a member of the Human Rights Commission and the assistant vice president for diversity at Weber State University. “Because promises have been made in the past, not necessarily in this administration but by other leaders, and the bill is due today.”

Having a conversation is not enough, agreed Terri Hughes, a student at Weber State University student who’s part of the NAACP college division.

“We should leave here not just having a seat at the table,” she said. “We get up, we get to work. There should be some Google Docs being opened, some ideas being put down and in a couple months, we should see some change, because it shouldn’t take years. We’ve had 400 years of, ‘We’re going to do something. We’re going to figure it out. We’re going to try.’ We don’t want ‘try’ anymore. We want ‘do.’”

Speakers at the meeting Wednesday presented several ideas for police reform, including new educational requirements for officers, such as ongoing bias and diversity training that goes beyond the 18 hours they currently receive. And officers must be taught de-escalation principles, they said.

Karen Johnson, a member of the Martin Luther King Commission and an associate professor at the University of Utah, also proposed the creation of an officer database that could track “bad cops” so they can’t go somewhere else to perpetuate the same behavior.

Beyond police reform, speakers said they want to see more people of color in leadership roles, including in the classroom, as well as educational opportunities to teach young people about racism.

“Racism, hate, abuse is taught,” Andrews said. “How do we provide our educators with the tools they need to understand these concepts and the skills and capacities to work through them with the students in their classrooms?”

Addressing systemic inequities will require a significant allocation of financial resources, speakers said. And it likely won’t come unless there’s a game plan for the future that’s implemented across all levels of government, said Betty Sawyer, a past president of the Ogden NAACP.

“It’s time for you to do the heavy lifting on these issues of justice, equity, inclusive policies, having plans and holding every department in this government accountable for what they’re doing and not doing,” she told Herbert and Cox. “We need a statewide diversity and inclusivity plan, but every department needs to have a plan. Every department. And they need to have to report out on that plan every year. Their budgets, their salaries, all of that need to be tied to it.”

Herbert did not commit to anything specific at the meeting Wednesday, noting that he and Cox were there to listen and engage in a dialogue. But he did say he was dedicated to “learning, improving and doing.”

The governor said he needed time to go through his notes but requested another meeting be scheduled with the group in around 30 days, at which time they could come up with a “practical and doable” plan.

“This will be an exercise in futility, as I said earlier, if we don’t do something,” he said. “I don’t want this to be just a venting session, although that probably is not too bad for some anyway.”

Herbert said he would be willing to look at police reforms to weed out bad officers and promised he would examine the state budget to see if there is room for investment — though he insinuated that might be tough, given the need for slashes to state programs across the board as a result of economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Emma Houston, chairwoman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, characterized the meeting as “a conversation.”

And “we’re done with conversations,” she said. “We’re about action.”

In planning the meeting Wednesday, Houston noted she asked the governor and lieutenant governor what they were committing to do and said Herbert had “guaranteed” that he would put resources behind the initiatives community members were seeking.

“So we are holding everyone accountable for their words, their deeds, their actions,” she said. “We will reconvene, we will invite you all to be a part of the planning and the processes, and we will move this forward. We will hold each other accountable. We will hold our leaders accountable and we will make a change in the state of Utah.”

“We will definitely be in touch,” she concluded.