Proposal would create a Utah commission to continue conversation about race and policing

The new commission would be tasked with addressing ‘systemic issues of inequality and racial disparities’ in law enforcement.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Police officers warn protesters that they will be arrested if they come any closer on 1300 East, during the Vice Presidential debate, Oct. 7, 2020. A Utah House committee voted 7-1 Friday in support of a bill that would create a new commission tasked with, among other things, addressing “systemic issues of inequality and racial disparities” in law enforcement.

A Utah House committee voted 7-1 Friday in support of a bill that would create a new commission tasked with, among other things, addressing “systemic issues of inequality and racial disparities” in law enforcement.

The proposal from Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, aims to codify and continue the conversations that emerged between community groups and law enforcement last summer, after frustrations over the relationship between police and communities of color reached a boiling point.

“Really what we learned this last summer and through these discussions and the dialogue that we had is simply understand[ing] that this is nothing new,” Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson, who worked with Wheatley on the bill, told members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Friday.

The creation of a Community and Police Relations Commission would recognize that “this is a bigger issue” that will require ongoing engagement, he said. And it would provide a platform to “keep that dialogue going forward.”

Several people who have been involved in the conversations that emerged out of last summer’s protests agreed that the dialogue has been productive, leading to many of the bills on police reform that are under consideration in this legislative session.

“Folks that felt that they hadn’t had their voices heard were being listened to and it just gave an opportunity for everybody to come together,” said NAACP Salt Lake Branch President Jeanetta Williams, who urged lawmakers to support Wheatley’s proposal to keep the conversations going.

West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine also spoke in support of the bill Friday, noting that he’s been involved in several of those meetings and that they have “profoundly changed” his perspective.

“One of the things I often tell my kids is ‘I don’t see the world as it is; I see the world as I am,’” he said. “And this commission gives us the opportunity as law enforcement as well as community leaders to hear the world view from other people.”

Under HB283, the Community and Police Relations Commission would be tasked with:

  • Examining best practices and procedures for police conduct and training, ways to improve relations between police and the community, ways to address systemic issues of inequality and racial disparities.

  • Providing a forum for Utahns to voice concerns and comments about police conduct, practices and policies.

  • Completing a first report on these topics and the commission’s progress for the governor and the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee by Nov. 30, 2022.

The bill also outlines the membership of the commission, which would include four state lawmakers, one local elected official and representatives from several state agencies, including the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs.

Wheatley has also proposed that the group include a representative from the refugee community, the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, and the mental health or substance abuse community, as well as five members nominated by community, minority or civil rights organizations.

But the makeup of the commission raised concern for several lawmakers and public commenters, who argued that it didn’t include enough representation from rank-and-file police officers.

The version of the bill that was adopted Friday would include 25 members, four of them representing law enforcement. Two of those would come from the Utah Sheriffs’ Association and two from the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, with one from each group representing an urban area and the other a rural one.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, spoke against the commission’s representation, arguing that the aim of the commission — to “address racism or whatever other systematic issues that may be out there” — can’t be done “if you don’t have the people that are being accused of it on the front line and that’s officers.”

“On a 30 member commission, you’ve got two police officers. That is outrageous and ridiculous,” he added. “I would hope we could make that more equitable.”

Sharon Anderson, a public commenter who said she had “serious concerns” about the bill, also criticized the commission’s makeup, which she likened to a board created to improve relationships with educators “and only two of the members are teachers who are actually in the classroom.”

Other opponents who addressed the bill during public comment argued that it was unnecessary, noting that there are already multiple ways for people who are concerned about policing to address those concerns.

“We can talk to our mayors, city council, police chiefs, city attorneys, county attorneys, internal affairs that’s there, grand juries. We can talk to our legislators, even as we’re doing today, and to our governor. We can write letters, emails, texts. So there is a lot of that oversight,” said Bliss Tew, with the Support Your Local Police Committee of Utah and a field staffer for the right-wing John Birch Society. “This commission just worries me because it seems to be another part of the related reaction to the war on police that seems to be organized across America at the time.”

Wheatley agreed with the prompting to add more rank-and-file officers to the commission and said he would be willing to add that provision into a substitute version of the bill to be considered on the House floor.

With that promise, several lawmakers on the committee agreed to vote in support of the proposal — but Gibson noted that he would be “vehemently opposed to this bill on the floor” if that change did not emerge.

HB283 now moves to the full House for further consideration.