After Utahns took to the streets this summer to protest police violence, state lawmakers have been expected to debate dozens of bills aimed at reforming law enforcement practices.
So far, a few bills have inched along with little opposition, such as legislation that would require data collection for times when police use force, as well as a bill that would require officers to undergo annual training on how to deal with people who have mental health issues.
But on Thursday, two bills sponsored by a Democratic lawmaker stalled during their first hearings before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. One dealt with civilian review boards and the power they could have over police, and the other required body camera footage to be released within 10 days of police shooting at someone.
The debate on both bills largely pulled in the same two directions: There should be more accountability for police, some argued, so that public trust could be restored. But others said the police are already scrutinized enough — and they should be supported, rather than picked apart.
Both bills were sponsored by Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray.
HB74 would have allowed for cities or municipalities to set up elected civilian review boards, with the caveat that those who were on the board were not current or former law enforcement or their immediate family members.
That exclusion drew opposition from several groups, including Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police. Executive Director Ian Adams said that his organization “strongly opposes” the bill because of that, but said the underlying discussion of the need for civilian review boards should be discussed.
Casey Robinson, founder of the group Utah Citizens’ Alarm, said he worried that the citizens who would want to be on a police oversight board are people who are “anti-police, and want to defund and abolish the police.”
“Disgruntled citizens who should not have authority or oversight, especially in this climate,” he said. “These people may also have an ax to grind with police.”
Those who supported the move said it gives the power back to local communities to decide if a civilian review board is right for their cities to review police force or misconduct. Natalie Pinkney, a South Salt Lake City Council member, said her city would like to form a board that is focused on closely scrutinizing police issues, but can’t under current law.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, sponsored legislation two years ago that stripped those civilian review commissions of power. He motioned to table Wheatley’s motion on Thursday, saying the city councils should be making those policing decisions if needed.
“I ran the bill that stopped overreach so elected city council members could not punt it off because they’re afraid,” he said. “If you don’t want to make a decision, don’t run for office.”
Wheatley’s other bill was HB133, which also stalled Thursday. It was a measure that would require Utah police to release body camera footage of critical incidents and police shootings within 10 business days. Salt Lake City has adopted this policy, and Wheatley’s bill would have made a uniform standard statewide. Other cities release only partial body camera footage after a shooting, and some don’t release anything until a county attorney has determined whether an officer was justified in using deadly force.
Marina Lowe, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said the state’s current patchwork system can be confusing to the public, and that means information often isn’t shared until well after a police shooting. Lex Scott, the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, said releasing body camera footage would bring transparency and accountability in those instances where police take someone’s life.
“When people are shot by police, their mothers call me,” she said. “They call me and want to know what happened to their son or to their daughter. Sometimes they have to wait up to a year.”
Opponents of the bill said they worry that releasing body camera footage early in an investigation leaves out important context, and could affect someone’s memory or their ability to get a fair trial if police or a person who was shot at were charged. They also said the rigid 10-day time period could be problematic for agencies that don’t have a robust records staff.
Earlier this week, House Speaker Brad Wilson gave his support to three criminal justice bills being debated in the Legislature, including the legislation regarding data on use of force and training on mental health crises. The third would add penalties to the criminal code for police or anyone involved in a criminal investigation if they share intimate photos of victims for nonpolicing purposes. This bill was in response to a former University of Utah police officer who showed off explicit photos of slain student Lauren McCluskey.
Wilson said he hopes the Legislature continues to make progress this year in policing issues.
“These are good policies we need to advance,” he said of the three bills he highlighted. “I’ll be voting for them.”