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.
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 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.”
“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.
“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.