SALT LAKE CITY — In light of growing calls for police reform, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown has revised his department’s policy on some use-of-force methods.
Salt Lake police officers are now explicitly forbidden from using chokeholds or tear gas as a form of crowd control, and new guidelines are in place for using less lethal rounds.
The move comes as police departments across the nation have announced they are banning chokeholds and other similar police tactics that are coming under scrutiny from state and local governments.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that he, too, is calling for changes in the way police conduct business in the state.
Effective immediately, Herbert said no state law enforcement officers — including the Utah Department of Public Safety and the Utah Department of Corrections — will be permitted to use chokeholds or restraints that pressure the neck or spine.
“I’m calling on all police agencies in the state, of which there are many, to review their own policies and make sure they are in alignment,” the governor said.
In addition to increased transparency and accountability from law enforcement agencies across the state, Herbert said there needs to be a change in the hearts and minds of all Utahns.
“That comes from families. That comes from parents. That comes from our faith-based organizations, our private organizations … all of us doing our own part to reflect upon our inner self and see what changes we need to make,” he said.
“What can we do to help others have a change of heart and mind, to treat others fairly, with civility, compassion, love and concern for their well-being? To be a helper, not a hinderer, with their progress in society.”
The governor addressed the ongoing protests, rioting and violence across the nation and in Utah “that is on top of everybody’s mind.”
“We were all horrified to see the killing of George Floyd, an African American, while he was subdued by those who are sworn to serve and protect,” Herbert said. “Such abuse of power is never acceptable.”
Herbert said he has convened two separate commissions to address issues in the community to help Utah “live up to the ideal of what our state was founded upon,” which was as a refuge to people experiencing the struggles of discrimination. The commissions, he said, will report directly to the governor.
“I think we all agree that nobody should have fear of our police,” he said. “Everybody is equal under the law, and should be able to look at police officers, men and women in uniform, as friends, as someone who can offer help.”
He said all people — no matter their ethnicity, color of their skin, background, religious or sexual orientation, or gender — are held equally under the law.
“When we witness these kinds of egregious actions, examples of cruelty from those who, in fact, are sworn to protect and to serve, it adds to the divisiveness we should not want or desire to have in society,” Herbert said. “We can’t ignore it, we can’t say it’s OK, and we certainly can’t say all is well in our society when these kinds of things happen.”
Salt Lake City leaders have been under pressure from members of the public to “defund” the state’s largest police department by $30 million. During a work meeting on Tuesday, Brown was grilled by City Council members about his department's current de-escalation practices and use-of-force tactics.
While chokeholds and rubber bullets are techniques not used by Salt Lake police, Brown also acknowledged those items are not explicitly banned in the city’s police policy. He said he would present a revised policy to council members later in the week.
But just hours after Brown met with council members, the Salt Lake Police Department released its updated policy manual with revisions to Section 302, “Control Devices and Techniques.”
Under the subsection for tear gas, the old policy stated that “tear gas may be used for crowd control, crowd dispersal or against barricaded suspects based on the circumstances.” While Brown said his department never used it for crowd control, the new policy now only states that tear gas “may be used against barricaded suspects based on the circumstances.”
The revised policy also states that only the SWAT unit can maintain the department's inventory of tear gas, whereas before the Public Order Unit also had access to it.
The new policy also includes a section for “less lethal shotgun guidelines.” Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking said the department has not used rubber bullets since the 2002 Winter Olympics. The less lethal guidelines in this section are for bean bag munitions, he said.
“Only officers who have successfully completed department-approved training in the use of the less lethal shotgun are authorized to carry and use the device,” the revised manual states.
Appropriate uses of less lethal rounds, according to the revised policy, include: if a suspect is armed; if the suspect has made threats to harm others or commit self-harm; if the suspect is “engaged in riotous behavior or is throwing rocks, bottles or other dangerous projectiles at people and/or officers;” or if “there is probable cause to believe that the suspect has already committed a crime of violence and is refusing to comply with lawful orders.”
Officers are also advised to consider how far away the target is and the trajectory the bean bag is fired, before shooting less lethal rounds.
These are the same guidelines for officers using what are known as specialty impact munitions. Those guidelines are not changed in the updated manual. Speciality impact munitions consist of ping pong-sized balls of hard foam or plastic, Wilking said, and are not as hard as the rubber bullets. And unlike rubber bullets that are typically fired in a way that they bounce off the ground and hit indiscriminately into a crowd, foam and plastic munitions are fired directly at a person, Wilking said.
The revised manual also includes a new section on chokeholds.
“The use of carotid control holds, restraints or techniques are not authorized, and officers shall not attempt to render an individual unconscious through the use of bilateral carotid artery restriction,” the new policy states. “Officers are strictly prohibited from applying chokeholds or direct force to the mouth, neck or throat that will intentionally compress the airway or restrict an individual’s ability to breathe unless the officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death to the officer or other person(s).”
Wilking said the chokehold is a technique not taught in Utah. It is not something taught by Peace Officer Standards and Training, the group that certifies all police officers in state, and is not a technique used by Salt Lake police.
Guidelines for using OC (pepper) spray, batons and Tasers were not charged in the new policy.
Herbert said Thursday that everyone deserves to have fairness and equity, as well as to have dignity.
“We have far too many people in our society, even here in Utah, that do not enjoy the fairness and dignity that the law desires them to have, that is set up by the United States Constitution,” he said.