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Robert Gehrke: Utah lawmakers still need to get these police reforms past the finish line

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

When the Utah Legislature convened nearly six weeks ago, police reform was the marquee issue, a product of a summer of widespread public protests and months of negotiations.

Now, with just days left in the 2021 session, a few of those reform bills have passed, a few are dead. But a significant number remain in limbo, facing an uncertain future before the Legislature adjourns at the end of the week.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Chapter of the NAACP, said she’s optimistic that key pieces of legislation will get through and said the work of the recent months is paying off because it has brought law enforcement groups together with representatives of the people they police.

“I feel that we are headed in the right direction,” she told me Monday. But the work is not done yet. Here is a quick rundown of some key police reform bills that have not yet passed.

SB196 (Sen. Jani Iwamoto) • This allows police agencies to share information about former officers with other departments. The goal is to stop bad officers from department hopping. The Senate passed it unanimously and it is still awaiting a vote by the House. An earlier bill by Iwamoto requires agencies to finish investigations, even if an officer leaves the force.

SB106 (Sen. Daniel Thatcher) • This directs the police academy to prepare model use of force policies for departments to adopt. It is one of the NAACP’s priority bills and passed the Senate unanimously two weeks ago, but hasn’t had a House hearing.

SB157 (Thatcher) • This is another bill backed by the NAACP. It would ask the Department of Public Safety to assist local police departments in setting up citizen review boards to hear complaints of police misconduct. The bill passed the Senate two weeks ago, but hasn’t had a vote in the House.

Williams said she doesn’t know what is holding up either of the two bills the group supports.

“I’ve been making calls on those and had a message in to President [Stuart] Adams and also to the speaker of the House and I’m just trying to see what’s going on with those so we can get those out,” she said, but she has not received an answer. “We really do need to get those passed.”

HB154 (Rep. Kera Birkeland) • This bill has been dramatically scaled back. It initially included a definition of what constitutes “use of force” by a police officer, prohibited officers from beating up someone already subdued and required an officer to report misuse of force to supervisors. Now? The version that passed the House on Monday required just two things: That an officer, when possible, warn that he or she intends to use more force and that prosecutors hit a deadline when investigating police use of force. It now goes to the Senate.

HB334 (Rep. Steve Eliaison) • This would require police receive training on mental health and developmental disorders after Salt Lake City police shot and injured a 13-year-old boy with autism. It passed the House and a Senate committee unanimously and should pass the Senate without opposition this week.

HB301 and HB307 (Rep. Candice Pierucci and Rep. Steve Christiansen) • The first requires domestic violence training, while the second requires “outward mindset” training. Both have passed the House and are awaiting votes in the Senate.

“The majority of sheriffs and chiefs have been doing this,” said Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter, president of the Utah Police Chiefs Association, which supports the training bills. “I think what it does is it creates consistency in what we do and how we’re doing it.”

HB283 (Rep. Mark Wheatley) • This proposal would create the Community and Police Relations Commission to look at best practices, data collection and racial disparities in law enforcement. The bill passed the House on Feb. 18, but hasn’t been considered by the Senate. If the Senate refuses to pass it, the governor could likely create a similar commission on his own.

HB62 (Rep. Andrew Stoddard) • The bill would allow POST to discipline officers found to have violated department use of force policies or exhibited dishonesty or prejudice in the line of duty. The bill moved to a full Senate vote Monday.

This is just the list of bills that are still under consideration, the ones that either haven’t passed yet or haven’t been discarded. It means there is a lot of work to do in order to start to meet the public’s demand for more responsive, equitable policing.

And it’s just a beginning. Both Williams and Chief Carpenter acknowledged that lawmakers will likely consider police reforms for years to come. And the chief hopes that in those years to come, activists, minority community and law enforcement come together like they have this year.

“The reality is that reform that is created with input from all stakeholders is kind of what we want,” he said. “We recognize that change needs to be made, but we need to make sure it’s logical, it’s measured and at the end of the day we’re still able to protect our community and protect law enforcement that is put in these situations.”

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