Utah lawmakers push back on ideas for preventing police shootings

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Protesters chant Black Lives Matter chants as counter protesters stand across the street at Cottonwood Heights police station on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.

State lawmakers on Thursday threw cold water on the Salt Lake County district attorney’s proposals for reforming Utah laws that shield police officers from consequences for using deadly force.

Lawmakers on the criminal code task force vocalized support for only a couple of the ideas on the 22-item list released last month by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, whose office is itself buried under a mountain of criticism for its handling of police shootings. Their resistance to the proposals could be a taste of the challenges ahead for those who hope to push reform proposals through the state Legislature amid the public outcry against police violence.

During the afternoon meeting, representatives from the prosecutor’s office floated the idea of requiring officers to use less-than-lethal force if they reasonably can. In response, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, questioned whether it’s “physically and mentally possible” for officers to calmly weigh their actions when they’re scared for their lives.

A few minutes later, Gill’s policy advisers mentioned that the public is inflamed by accounts of officers shooting unarmed people after mistaking cellphones or other items for guns.

“It inflames a few people that don’t like law enforcement,” countered Rep. Paul Ray, who co-leads the state’s Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force.

A suggestion about mandating implicit bias training for officers also seemed to needle Ray, who said police already receive extensive training.

“People keep saying that, you know, they want to change police behavior,” the Clearfield Republican said. “Let’s change criminal behavior. That’s the problem. The problem is not your police officers. The problem is your criminals. It’s your rioters.”

Gill’s chief policy adviser for criminal justice, William Carlson, cited a Salt Lake Tribune report that tracked 185 cases in which Utah police shot at someone over the past decade. Only three officers have faced charges for these shootings and none was convicted, The Tribune found.

Last month, protesters engulfed Gill’s office after prosecutors ruled that Salt Lake City police officers were legally justified in fatally shooting 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal as he ran away from them. Infuriated by the decision, demonstrators painted the district attorney’s office and surrounding streets scarlet, posting signs that accused Gill of having blood on his hands.

Gill has expressed support for protesters who are demanding police reform and more accountability for officers but has said he must base his charging decisions on the laws that currently exist. These laws, he wrote in his list of proposed changes, “are more generous to law enforcement officers than to other members of our community.”

But lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing said there’s a good reason for the discrepancy between the way the law treats police and everyone else. Officers run toward danger while others run away from it, Hutchings said. They’re not only responsible for their own safety, but for the safety of people in the community.

Ray and Hutchings, the lawmakers who spoke the most Thursday, both expressed concern that placing too many constraints on police officers could endanger them.

For instance, Ray said it would be too risky to require officers to give a verbal warning before opening fire or using other forms of deadly force. Carlson said the current law instructs police to issue an oral warning “if feasible” but suggested that state legislators could eliminate these two words or spell out exactly what officers are supposed to say in these situations.

“You’re going to cost lives with something like this,” said Ray, who argued that officers don’t always have time to comply with such a mandate.

And Hutchings said it’s only too easy to act as an armchair quarterback when evaluating police shootings.

“It’s almost like watching the Super Bowl sometimes. Like, why would you do a pass? Really? That’s the worst possible thing,” Hutchings said. “But that’s from what we know when we’re not in the situation. It’s what we know from, you know, the ability to go back and review everything from lots of different angles.”

Ray also strenuously objected to the idea of rolling back a 2019 state law that he championed — one that prevents cities and towns from setting up citizen review boards that can exercise power over local police departments.

“You don’t want a group of anti-law enforcement civilians telling the chief what to do, what policies they have,” he said.

The state lawmaker did express openness to the idea of freeing police agencies from the obligation to pay attorney fees for officers who were fired or criminally charged over excessive force claims. And Hutchings said he’d be willing to consider requiring officers to use less-than-lethal force where feasible, if he’s assured that police are capable of making these decisions under duress.

Ray did pointedly ask Carlson whether Gill’s list of suggestions was a product of the protests and criticism aimed at the district attorney’s office. The prosecutor has most recently come under fire for charging demonstrators with first-degree felonies punishable by up to life in prison for allegedly helping paint his office building during the July protests.

“Had the protests or the riots and the attack been strictly on the public safety building and not your building, would you be sitting here with these directives right now?” Ray asked.

Carlson said the list of proposals predated the protests.

Ray said he would discourage state lawmakers from considering broad police reforms during a special session and would prefer to take up these bills over the 45-day general session, beginning in January, when they’ll have more time to debate significant policy shifts.