Brittney Nystrom: Now is the time for bold police reforms

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sophie Alcala faces off with the Salt Lake City Police during a Justice for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal protest in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

Almost every day since May 30, people in cities and towns across Utah have been in the streets. From Logan to Daybreak to St. George, they have marched, protested and sought justice for George Floyd and so many others whose names and stories symbolize searing injustice. They have called for reforms that protect people of color from police brutality and an end to systemic racism.

The people have been persistent.

The people have been specific.

The people will not go away.

Yet elected officials and law enforcement agencies in Utah have responded thus far with loud promises of change and only a few small-scale reforms.

We believe that passing laws and resolutions to ban knee-on-neck chokeholds or tear gas — both of which were already unofficially prohibited by many law enforcement agencies — does not achieve meaningful change the people are demanding. Instead, these steps should be a precondition to starting a real conversation that redefines and reimagines policing. After all, it is hard for the people to speak freely about reform when their local police force is still authorized to cut off their oxygen or fill the air with choking gas and patrol their neighborhoods in military-grade vehicles.

Given the urgency behind the current protests, passing minor reforms is not enough. It is like moving the finish line back to the starting line — taking one tiny step forward — and claiming the race is over. If they listen carefully, elected officials will realize that banning lethal chokeholds and allocating money for more body cameras are not the only or most important demands the people marching in the streets and speaking at city council meetings are making.

It also appears that some elected leaders in Utah would prefer to wait out the protesters. We must guard against these issues being assigned to hand-picked advisory committees designed to sideline real reform. We must advocate for a dynamic and public process that includes the people and organizations like Black Lives Matter Utah who have invested years of hard work and developed expertise on how to reform our failed model of policing. We must prevent a disconnect between what the people are demanding and what the gatekeepers deem appropriate to implement.

We cannot let that happen. If elected officials and police agencies claim they want to make Utah a place where Black Lives Matter, they need to understand, consider, and enact their demands.

Through numerous conversations and work sessions with our allies, including Black Lives Matter Utah, Utah Against Police Brutality, Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Libertas Institute and Americans for Prosperity, the ACLU of Utah has developed the following eight priority reforms for policing in Utah.

1) Create effective civilian review boards.

2) Improve use of force policies.

3) End qualified immunity as a defense against civil rights violations by police.

4) Standardize body camera use and body camera policies.

5) Require law enforcement data collection on race and ethnicity.

6) Stop the revolving door that keeps problematic officers in uniform.

7) Eliminate no-knock and quick-knock warrants.

8) Remove police from schools.

These priority reforms are described in more detail on the ACLU of Utah website at www.acluutah.org, where we will continue to develop and advance them.

Adopting these broad-scale changes — which we urge city councils and lawmakers across Utah to do — will begin to reorient the current, over-broad policing model to a new approach that addresses community concerns through more appropriate channels like social workers and mental health responders.

Enacting these reforms will remove bad actors from police forces and give civilians more power to approve policies that govern how police officers operate in their neighborhoods. These reforms will stop some Utah schools from having more police officers than guidance counselors and school nurses. Making these changes will prevent mental health situations from turning more violent and risky for everyone involved.

During the past three weeks, our elected leaders have watched the people take to Utah’s streets. They have seen their numbers and read their signs and they know that this time it is different. If they truly support the premise that Black Lives Matter, they need to open their doors and their minds to enacting these demands and begin the process of real reform.

We at the ACLU of Utah will be there with them.

Brittney Nystrom

Brittney Nystrom is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.