Here’s how policing in Utah will change after this year’s legislative session

Proponents say the bills that passed this year will make a meaningful difference in addressing issues ranging from transparency to training.

The end of Utah’s legislative session brought with it a number of measured but meaningful steps taken in response to police violence and a summer of protests that reached a boiling point in Salt Lake City last year.

There was no radical restructuring, or efforts to “abolish the police.” Even some consensus bills like one creating a commission to explore race and policing or to add a member of the NAACP to the board that disciplines officers failed.

Still, proponents say the bills that passed this year — many of which were crafted and supported by community activists, communities of color and law enforcement groups — will make a significant difference in addressing issues ranging from transparency to training.

One recurring theme in the proposals that gained final approval this year was improving data collection, noted Steve Anjewierden, a retired chief of police services at the Unified Police Department.

“That data collection piece, I think that’s a critical part of gathering that information so we know where to put our energy and our focus as we move forward in the future,” he said Monday during a virtual wrap-up of police reform bills that was hosted by several community groups, including the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

Lex Scott, the leader of Black Lives Matter’s Utah chapter, said there were some bills she liked that gained approval. But she thought legislative leaders had focused too much on the opinions of law enforcement and failed to act on bills that would actually create change, such as one that would have allowed municipalities to create civilian police oversight boards.

“The police reform bills that pass are the ones that were backed by police,” she said during the panel Monday. “And it’s like if you’re a child that gets in trouble and you get to choose your own punishment or you can set the rules.”

She said her group plans to run ballot initiatives in the hopes that voters will have a chance to weigh in on that bill and another one that sought to standardize the release of body camera footage. Both were tabled during committee hearings.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lex Scott from Black Lives Matter Utah leads chant as counter protesters stand across the street at Cottonwood Heights police station on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he’d picked up on some fatigue among lawmakers who were concerned about the number of police reform proposals under consideration and didn’t want it to seem like the Legislature was picking on law enforcement. And while he acknowledged that police groups may have had a larger influence this year, he argued there’s value in having them at the table when having these conversations.

“When I’m crafting a new policy or a new bill — or if I’m evaluating and asked to vote on someone else’s — I do want to know what stakeholder involvement has been accomplished,” he said. “I heard Lex say that we don’t need to kiss anybody’s ring to pass a bill. I’ll agree with that, but I still want to know if they were involved.”

Many of the police reform bills that passed in this year’s legislative session are awaiting the governor’s signature. But — barring a veto — here’s a look at how policing in Utah will change.

More training

Officers will be required to have more training on how to deal with people going through a mental health crisis or those who have developmental disabilities, like autism.

One bill required annual training so police could better understand people with autism, while another required officers to take at least 16 hours of yearly training on mental health and crisis intervention responses.

Anjewierden, who serves on Salt Lake City’s Racial Equity in Policing Commission, said he thought these bills represented some of the biggest police reform accomplishments of the session.

“Our officers are trying to address a mental health crisis with limited amount of training,” he said. “Ideally we can get mental health professionals into that situation. But when law enforcement is confronted with that, they should have the most information possible, particularly since oftentimes they’re there in moments of crisis, which can lead to some of the outcomes that we’ve been talking about over the summer.”

The legislation that requires police to learn about autism was in response to a Salt Lake City police shooting last year, when an officer shot and critically injured a 13-year-old boy. The boy’s mother had called the police for help getting him to the hospital for treatment, but instead several officers chased after the boy with autism as he ran. One of them opened fire, severely injuring the teen.

At least 40% of people Utah police shot at last year were experiencing a mental health event, The Salt Lake Tribune has found. That data was gleaned from news reports, and includes cases where police determined or family members reported that a person had a mental health issue, mental disability or was suicidal.

How paperwork may reduce police shootings

Every time they point a weapon or Taser at someone, officers would now be required to file a report.

Some Utah departments already do this, and it’s been shown in other states to reduce the number of police shootings — particularly those cases where police believed someone was armed but they were not, called a “threat perception failure.”

Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, said Monday that he expects that bill will help improve transparency and allow community members to see “if there’s an officer that’s always using their guns.”

Officers would have to fill out the additional paperwork within two days, and a supervisor must review the report. The legislation had the support of police groups, who believe gathering this data point will benefit the police and the public.

“The act of pointing a weapon at a suspect should be captured in officer reporting,” said Ian Adams, the executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, in an interview. “This bill will ensure that it is.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police form a line as protesters march near Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

Tracking when police use force

That’s not the only legislation that will increase data gathering for Utah police.

They’ll now also be required to report to state and federal agencies anytime an officer uses force against someone, including in instances where police use deadly force.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, called the proposal “one of the low hanging fruit bills” that came out of the conversations this summer about police reform.

The effort to collect more data, he said during debate of the bill Friday, would help the state gauge the effectiveness of some of the other police reform bills that lawmakers passed this year, allowing them to “keep our finger on the pulse” of how officers use force.

Right now in Utah, it’s impossible to know how often police officers are violent with people. Some agencies don’t track use-of-force data, and it previously hasn’t been required to be reported to a central agency.

And no government agency in Utah is keeping track of how many times police are shooting their guns, even as deadly police violence has reached all-time highs in recent years. A database maintained by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that 2020 was a record-tying year for the number of times police officers shot at someone.

Limiting when police can fire

Police will soon be banned from shooting at people who are suicidal but pose a threat only to themselves under a bill aimed to prevent “suicide by cop.”

“These events are in many cases preventable with proper recognition and proper training. It is why crisis intervention training is so critical. It is why awareness of mental and behavioral health is so important,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, during debate on the bill.

State law currently says a police officer is allowed to use deadly force if a suspect poses “a threat of serious bodily injury to the officer or to others.”

This bill clarifies the law to say that police should not shoot if someone is only a threat to themselves.

“I know that our community wants better outcomes,” said Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. “I absolutely know our law enforcement wants better outcomes. No police officer wants to be in the situation where they are confronting someone who is attempting ‘suicide by cop.’”