Salt Lake City police ban chokeholds and tear gas in reaction to protests

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, center, takes a knee as he is joined by Robert Jenkins, left, and Aristide Gateretse, showing support of demonstrators protesting against police brutality on June 3, 2020, in downtown Salt Lake City, at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building as the initially set 8 p.m. weeklong curfew was removed.

After fielding questions from the City Council on crowd control during recent protests, the Salt Lake City Police Department has made good on a promise to revise its policies on chokeholds and tear gas.

A copy of the new policies, obtained Wednesday by The Salt Lake Tribune, shows that officers are now specifically prohibited from chokeholds and firing tear gas into crowds. Those rules have already been pushed out to officers, according to Detective Michael Ruff.

“We’ve never trained” to use tear gas on crowds or perform chokeholds, Ruff added. “But it wasn’t written down.”

Previously, the policy said the chemical weapon could be used for “crowd control” and “crowd dispersal.” Now, police can use tear gas only “against barricaded suspects based on the circumstances.”

Officers also cannot apply direct pressure to the neck, mouth and throat or prevent a person’s ability to breathe “unless the officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death.” There was no previous policy on the use of chokeholds.

The new policy also includes guidance for using beanbag shotguns.

A video from the May 30 protests appeared to show an officer firing a beanbag gun at the back of a man lying facedown on the ground. A Salt Lake City spokesman said the officer in question was not from the capital city’s department.

At a City Council work session Tuesday, Police Chief Mike Brown noted that Salt Lake City officers weren’t trained to use the kind of neck restraint Minneapolis police used on George Floyd before he died.

“We don’t teach that, we don’t train it and, on the street, we don’t use it,” Brown told council members.

The chief also said that the police units that respond to riots, including the downtown protest that turned violent May 30, do not use tear gas or have the material in their arsenal. Only SWAT teams have access to tear gas, Brown said.

The chief also told council members that police squads do not use rubber bullets.

“Their intention is to be fired into a crowd and to bounce uncontrollably,” Brown said. “They cause contusions, they cause abrasions ... they can fracture bones. They can actually damage organs that [could] lead to death.”

Instead, officers use “selective fired” foam bullets on people who act violently or destroy property.

“On the bullets, though, I think there are some videos and demonstrators ... that would disagree,” Council Chair Chris Wharton said.

Brown responded that multiple other police agencies were called in to assist during the May 30 protests that have different policies on use of force. The chief said the rubber bullets prohibition was already included in policy, but added Tuesday that he would quickly draft rules on chokeholds and tear gas.

“These are big deals, and I think Salt Lake City should lead from the front,” Brown said. “It’s not a hard decision. We don’t do these things, but we should state it in black and white.”