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Smart statewide police reform will benefit Utah citizens and officers alike

An officer walks back to his vehicle as police respond to an officer-involved shooting in West Jordan on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As the frequency and intensity of policing protests begin to wane, the time for reform becomes more ripe. Increased awareness and education of the issues at hand has also increased political support for making important changes.

This was confirmed by a recent public opinion poll, commissioned by Libertas Institute, that found overwhelming support amongst Utahns for police use of body cameras, elimination of no-knock warrants, and higher standards of reporting and accountability for officers who use excessive force. Now it’s up to police departments and the Legislature to improve current practices and ensure the people’s will is met with real, broad-based reform — not simply minor changes like banning knee-on-neck chokeholds.

Consistent with public opinion, forcible entry with a no-knock warrant should be banned statewide in most cases. Breonna Taylor was a recent victim of a no-knock warrant that went wrong when she was shot to death by police who forced their way into her home with a battering ram during a search for drugs. Under current law, these “dynamic entry” warrants are a tool police use to catch a criminal suspect by surprise in an attempt to prevent the possibility of them fleeing or destroying evidence. But the dangerous nature of this tactic — risking the lives of suspects, innocent third parties and the police officers themselves — is simply not worth it when the underlying circumstances are not life-threatening.

A person’s home is supposed to be their safe, private place, free from the intrusion of strangers and outside forces. So when armed individuals show up unannounced, violently forcing their way into one’s home, it’s easy to see how chaotic it can be for both civilians and police. Fight or flight instincts can take over for the person in the home, creating a potentially deadly situation for everyone involved. This is likely why 73% of Utahns agreed with banning no-knock warrants unless there is an imminent threat to a person’s life. And this is exactly what the Legislature should do.

Excessive force is another issue most people can agree is objectively wrong; 90% of Utahns believe police officers who use excessive force should be suspended or have their police certification terminated. Excessive force isn’t currently defined in state code, but an objective definition, such as banning additional force after a person has been detained, is necessary and should be put into law. But even if a definition is legally created, keeping officers accountable when it does happen can be tricky.

The Department of Justice reported that 84% of surveyed police officers said they’ve seen colleagues use excessive force on individuals, but a staggering 61% admitted that they don’t always report the misconduct. Weeding out “bad apples” in policing, which everyone agrees exist, is nearly impossible if no one is speaking up about illegal or questionable actions when they occur. This is why body camera footage is critical — it protects the officers acting in good faith, and reveals who the bad actors are.

Unfortunately, not all police departments in Utah are equipped with body cameras for all of their officers. Some argue they’re just too pricey to purchase and maintain, but instead of “defunding the police” as some have called for, cities and counties should reprioritize law enforcement funding to increase accountability. It’s also worth looking into whether the Legislature should supplement these costs with state funding. The evidence cameras produce is priceless to determine exactly what happened in every questionable case.

Every state has felt the power of uniting voices calling for change in policing. A recent national survey from Pew Research Center found that since 2016, the number of Americans who give police positive ratings for accountability and using force appropriately is declining. Pew’s poll also shows strong nationwide support for banning chokeholds, creating a federal database to track officers accused of misconduct, and increased training in nonviolent alternatives to deadly force.

There are many ideas on exactly how to proceed with police reform, and at this point, some level of reform is inevitable. Trust in police is decreasing, and unrest is growing. The policies outlined above, and the strong public opinion behind them, suggest how Utah can proceed to address these problems while keeping our communities safe, ensuring good officers aren’t put at risk unnecessarily, and making sure bad actors are held accountable for their actions.

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.