Utah lawmakers ban knee-on-neck chokeholds

The Utah Legislature on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a proposal banning police from using knee-on-neck chokeholds, in what the bill’s sponsor called a “down payment” for communities that have long lived in fear.

During a debate on the House floor, Rep. Sandra Hollins said it’s inhumane to kneel on a person’s neck to pin them to the ground, the tactic used by a white Minneapolis police officer in the death of George Floyd. And prohibiting it, she said, serves as a promise that state lawmakers are hearing the voices of protesters who have called for change and justice.

“Our community is feeling unsafe. That’s why you’re seeing protests,” said Hollins, Utah’s only black lawmaker, her voice shaking with emotion. “They are in fear of their lives.”

The legislation, HB5001, cleared the House chamber by a bipartisan 69-5 vote in the special session that began Thursday. It passed unanimously in the Senate later that day without debate after several lawmakers rose in support of the bill.

Afterward, lawmakers in the chamber erupted in applause — an uncommon sight in the usually staid Senate.

In the House, though, debate wore on for more than an hour as bill critics argued it was rushed through and didn’t give enough protection to police officers responding to life-or-death situations.

It’s been less than a month since Floyd’s death, said Rep. Norm Thurston, who called it “absurd” to pass legislation so soon and tried to persuade his colleagues to push off the bill until the next general session.

“We’re not going to get this right in 24 days,” Thurston, R-Provo, said. “This isn’t how we do things. We don’t do knee-jerk reactions. We don’t rush to judgment. We don’t rush to blame people.”

But Rep. Mark Wheatley said the question isn’t why lawmakers are acting so quickly to ban knee-on-neck chokeholds. It’s why they’ve waited so long.

“Anyone who has watched this video, we witnessed an individual who died. ... And the individual cried out, ‘I can’t breathe.' And he also cried out for his mother,” Wheatley, D-Murray, said. “This is not who we are are as a society. This is not who we are as Utahns.”

Thurston also objected that the bill would make it a third-degree felony to kneel on a suspect’s neck as a method of restraint and a first-degree felony if that action resulted in a person’s death. Instead, officers who violate the chokehold ban should be investigated and prosecuted under the existing laws against aggravated assault and murder, he argued.

Hollins responded that she included these provisions because of concerns from the Utah Attorney General’s Office that an officer using the knee-on-neck chokehold could kill someone, yet only face charges of aggravated assault.

“Aggravated assault will not work,” Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said. “If a person dies as a result of this, a more serious crime should be charged.”

Hollins said the bill developed out of numerous conversations with community leaders, advocates, police representatives and the state Attorney General’s Office, which supported the outcome.

Thurston’s colleagues rejected his attempt to strip out the provision making it a crime for officers to kneel on the neck of a suspect.

Other lawmakers worried about eliminating a less-than-lethal option, wondering if that would push officers toward using deadly force in a struggle. Hollins said, in negotiating the bill, Utah law enforcement representatives agreed that there was no scenario under which kneeling on a person’s neck would be necessary or appropriate.

“We all agree that placing the knee on the neck is inhumane and not a proper use of restraint,” she said.

And Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, added that, unless an officer is “Jackie Chan or one of the Avengers,” he or she couldn’t employ the restraint unless a suspect was already on the ground — meaning it wouldn’t be useful in the middle of a life-and-death struggle.

Utah police agencies don’t use knee-on-neck chokeholds, Hollins said, but taking a stand against them sends a message to the community and ensures that law enforcement won’t use the restraint in the future.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said during a briefing with reporters on Thursday that there are people who want to see the Legislature go further and ban chokeholds altogether but that there isn’t enough time to have that “complex” conversation during a special session. Those issues are likely to be further addressed in a future legislative session, he said.

“There needs to be deeper discussion,” he said later on the Senate floor.

In addition to outlawing the knee-on-neck tactic, Hollins’ measure also prohibits Utah’s police academy from teaching new officers how to use chokeholds, carotid restraints or “any act that impedes the breathing or circulation of blood likely to produce a loss of consciousness” as a valid form of restraint — but doesn’t outright ban officers from using them.

As they passed the bill in the Senate, several white lawmakers said Floyd’s death and the protests it sparked both locally and across the nation had opened their eyes to the need to address systemic racism in the state.

“We can’t solve problems that we don’t see,” said Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork. “And if there is one positive thing that has come out of the terrible, tragic murder of George Floyd, that is this. I think people who couldn’t see before are starting to see that there are problems that need to be solved.”

The legislators’ ban is the latest measure taken by Utah officials in response to Floyd’s death and more than two weeks of protests in Salt Lake City decrying police brutality.

Gov. Gary Herbert recently announced that the Utah Highway Patrol and state corrections officers can no longer use chokeholds on people in custody, and the Salt Lake City Police Department announced a similar ban on chokeholds and tear gas.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and the bill’s Senate co-sponsor, noted that this legislation alone couldn’t wipe out 400 years of “oppression and racism in our system.” Nevertheless, she called it an important way to address a “critical issue” for communities that are treated differently by the police.

“For the many moms out there that heard that voice of Mr. George Floyd calling for his mom, and for the many moms of brown and black children, this is a really good first step,” said Escamilla, who is one of just six ethnic and racial minority members of the Utah Legislature. “And we will continue to fight moving forward.”