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Utah Legislature passes bill to ban police from using ‘knee-on-neck’ holds

Bill in wake of George Floyd’s death only ‘beginning of the conversation,’ sponsor says

Police maintain a line as they move to end protests over the death of George Floyd, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Daylong protests moved across the city Saturday after a peaceful demonstration against police brutality turned violent.
Police maintain a line as they move to end protests over the death of George Floyd, in Salt Lake City on May 30, 2020. The Utah House on Thursday passed a bill prohibiting police from kneeling on a person’s neck when restraining them.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature swiftly passed a special session bill on Thursday to ban Utah police from using a “knee-on-the-neck” restraint like the one a Minneapolis officer used in the death of George Floyd.

It now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for consideration.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, won final legislative approval with a unanimous vote in the Senate, just hours after it passed in the House on a 69-5 vote. Immediately after adjourning for the day, Hollins and all of those involved in the myriad of conversations that occurred with law enforcement and community leaders spoke to the media to emphasize that this wasn’t a partisan issue, it was “a human issue.”

“This is the first step towards reform, and looking at how we can make everyone in this state feel safe,” said Hollins, Utah’s only black lawmaker, who led the effort to begin the process of reform with SB5007. “How we can start working on those issues around race and culture in this state to make sure that everyone is treated equal.”

The bill had overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, but faced opposition from a handful of House lawmakers arguing the bill was a “knee-jerk” reaction to something that didn’t and doesn’t happen in Utah.

But to Hollins and her colleagues, SB5007 “sends a very powerful message” from Utah’s Legislature and law enforcement, telling minority communities “we hear you and we’re going to do something about” police violence.

“This is just the beginning of the conversation around what we need to do in this state to assure that this never happens to anyone,” Hollins said, her voice cracking with emotion as she addressed her House colleagues from a web camera. “Not to my kids, not to your kids, and how do we make sure that our police officers are not put in a position that they would have to go to court and defend the use of this.”

Hollins, in her closing remarks before a House vote on the bill, said it was negotiated and agreed upon by members of Utah’s minority communities and law enforcement as simply a first step to dealing with a deeper, generational issue between police and minority communities.

“Our communities have been in fear for a long time,” Hollins said. “This is just a downpayment for them to say, ‘We hear you, we want you a part of our community, and we are going to make sure that you feel safe in this community.’”

Later Thursday, Hollins read a citation on the House floor to commemorate Juneteenth, a nationally celebrated holiday marking the end of slavery in the U.S. The holiday, on Friday, has been an official state holiday recognized in Utah since 2016 — a bill Hollins also championed.

SB5007 was co-sponsored by a long list of lawmakers on both sides of the Democratic and Republican aisles.

Before the bill came up in his chamber, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told reporters that he hopes the bill will pass in the Senate without any dissent.

“There is broad support for that bill and quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do,” Vickers said.

As Vickers’ hoped, the bill sailed through the Senate with no opposition. Senators moved to vote on the bill after no debate, and many spoke in passionate support of it before casting their “aye” votes.

Co-sponsor Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Latina Democrat from Salt Lake City, said the bill “sends the right message that in the state of Utah, we pause, we take things seriously, and we value people’s lives. Because that’s what this is about.”

But it’s just a start, she said, since there is more work to do to specifically address other types of chokehold restraints used by police officers.

HB5007 would also prohibit peace officer training that includes the use of chokeholds or other restraints that may cause unconsciousness. It further would ban training in the use of carotid restraints or other methods that may impede breathing or blood circulation and cause unconsciousness.

While Utah’s Peace Officers Standards and Training does not teach those restraints, some police agencies in the state do. The bill had the support of police leadership statewide.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson at the post-session press conference said, “It’s been an honor, honestly, to work with them (legislative sponsors), and so closely, as we begin this reform process and period understanding that law enforcement as a whole, we’d like to stand non-partisan, while we try to address issues from a holistic point of view, of what’s best for our community and our society.

“I can stand here with the support of the police, the sheriffs and the Department of Public Safety in support of this bill, understanding what we’ve done today is a great stride forward in our policing community, knowing that we do take this serious.”

Under the original version of the bill, an officer using knee pressure on someone’s neck or throat could be charged with aggravated assault, but the House voted to pass a substitute to the bill presented by Hollins that would make it a third-degree felony. If it results in serious bodily injury or loss of consciousness, it would be a second-degree felony, and if it results in death, it would be a first-degree felony. The Senate approved the bill with that change.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, balked at that amendment, opposed to creating a “brand new crime” for that act. He also voted against the bill as a whole, arguing the Utah Legislature doesn’t “do knee-jerk reactions” and “rush to create criminal code in 24 days.”

“I think we should have deliberate discussions over the summer and come back in the general session with a bill that does real reform,” Thurston said.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield; Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding; Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Bluffdale; and Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, all joined Thurston in voting against the bill.

Albrecht, who said footage of Floyd’s death “sickened him,” argued Utah is passing a bill that’s “maybe not necessary at this time” since the state’s training program does not include knee-on-neck holds.

“I hope we’re not knee-jerk reacting to this bill,” he said. “I think the attention has already been drawn to law enforcement.”

But others, like Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said the Legislature is the “right body” to create this policy, and it’s a “law that needs to be passed.”

“The deeper, more chronic problem of racism we continue to struggle with,” Nelson said. “I would like to make a plea, as mother’s breathe reverence for the law, that they also breathe respect for individual rights and equality under the law. We are all equal — equal under the law and under heaven.”

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a retired Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, spoke in support of the bill, saying it sends a clear message Utah law enforcement does not condone or use knee-to-the neck restraints.

“Utah law enforcement is a different breed,” Perry said, noting that police don’t want unethical cops among their ranks. “That’s why Utah law enforcement leadership has stepped forward and supported this particular bill ... The worst thing for a good cop is a bad cop.”

Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, urged support for the bill, describing how Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” while the officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

“This is not who we are as a society,” Wheatley said. “This is not who we are as Utahns. And I say we need to have this bill codified so it never happens.”

A House political heavyweight, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, also backed the bill, saying it was the product of careful negotiations between minority community leaders, law enforcement and lawmakers.

“They came to the table and said, ‘We can make some changes, and we can do better. This is wrong.’” Schultz said.

As one senator after another voted in favor of the bill, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said he felt a great swelling of pride in the way lawmakers came together on this bill. Before he cast his vote in support, Stevenson said he hopes Utah’s support of the bill will “be a demonstration” to other states across the nation and “get people to come together on really important issues.”

“I think a lot of us thought that maybe what we saw in our streets a few weeks ago couldn’t happen here,” Stevenson said, referring to protests that turned violent in Salt Lake City after Floyd’s death. “But I think it shocked a lot of us into a reality that there is a problem, and we need to accept it.”

Lawmakers who began the process of addressing changes said the daily protests played a role in the reform.

“Knowing that policy changes needed to be made started years and years ago,” Hollins said. “For some of us, this is our lived experience. ... When the protesting started, we knew it was urgent. ... When protesters started reaching out to us, and say, ‘We cannot do this anymore. We’re fed up. We’re scared. It’s time to do something.’ That’s when we started to come together, the legislators of color, and we brought the rest of our colleagues in, and said, ‘It’s time.’”

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Sahalie Donaldson, Amy Donaldson