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Utah law enforcement leaders call for reform, not defunding

State police group suggests uniformity in shooting investigations, legislation

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People march from the City-County Building to the Salt Lake Public Safety Building during a Party for Socialism and Liberation rally in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020. Recent protests against police brutality, racial discrimination and the killing of George Floyd turned violent in Salt Lake City and other cities across the nation, prompting Gov. Gary Herbert to call in the Utah National Guard.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While discussions on whether to defund police departments across the nation start to gain traction, local law enforcers say there are better ways to bring about change.

“Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions. Now is the time to listen, learn and bring all parties to the table in order to ensure equity of change,” said Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown.

There are various interpretations of what defunding police departments would look like. Some say it means repurposing money spent on police into other areas such as social services. While in Minneapolis, City Council members have announced their intentions to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.”

Disbanding an entire department has happened before. In 2012, with crime rampant in Camden, New Jersey, the city disbanded its police department and replaced it with a new force that covered Camden County. Compton, California, took the same step in 2000, shifting its policing to Los Angeles County.

But supporters say it isn’t about eliminating police departments or stripping agencies of all of their money. They say it is time for the country to address systemic problems in policing in America and spend more on what communities across the U.S. need, like housing and education. 

“Why can’t we look at how it is that we reorganize our priorities, so people don’t have to be in the streets during a national pandemic?” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza asked during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Brown on Sunday retweeted an open letter written by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which is comprised of 78 police chiefs, including Brown, commissioners and sheriffs from across the U.S.

The group is calling for reform “that is evidence based, comprehensive and thoughtful. Efforts to defund the police in order to address the social and economic ills of our nation are ill-informed.”

The letter also says, “The call to defund the police in order to address the social and economic ills of our nation, prior to addressing our social disparities, is largely a false equivalence.”

The association is calling for departments to ban any technique that involves manipulation of the neck, such as a chokehold; mandate de-escalation training on a continuous basis and mandate “cultural competence and implicit bias training,” as well as other measures.

Similar measures were proposed Monday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other top Democrats in their “Justice in Policing Act.” The bill calls for such things as a ban on chokeholds and an end to “no-knock warrants” in drug cases. The legislation would also allow the attorneys general of each state to investigate cases of an officer’s use of deadly force.

Uniformity proposals

The idea is similar to recommendations announced Monday by the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, a nonprofit organization consisting of more than 4,000 law enforcers statewide that advocates for the safety and overall working conditions of police officers.

Brent Jex, head of the group, said it is recommending all uses of deadly force by an officer be reviewed by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, and that all criminal investigations into an officer’s use of a deadly force be overseen by the Utah Attorney General’s Office. This is intended to give uniformity into the way all officer-involved shootings are reviewed statewide.

Currently, officer-involved critical incidents are reviewed for possible criminal charges by the county attorney or district attorney from that officer’s county. Independent internal reviews are also conducted, which some cities then pass on to a citizen’s review board.

Furthermore, the Utah Fraternal Order of Police is calling for a member of the NAACP and from one other minority group to be placed on the POST Council. The council meets quarterly and decides discipline for officer misconduct. The council has the power to revoke or suspend an officer’s POST certification, which every police officer in Utah must have.

In order to add new members, however, state law has to be changed, Jex said. The group is currently talking to lawmakers to sponsor a bill.

The group is also calling for guaranteeing due process rights for the officers being investigated in use of deadly force situations, so all checks and balances are solid, he said.

Jex said those who are calling for the outright elimination of police departments should be prepared to accept the blame for the “massive, massive spike” in all types of crimes, including violent crimes.

“Because when the police aren’t there to blame, who do you think will be blamed next?”

As for the idea of repurposing funds, Jex said Utah already has programs set up where members of groups such as the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team and other social services work directly with police officers in dealing with people who are experiencing mental health and other issues.

Police departments are already short-staffed and underfunded, he said. They don’t need more funding taken away.

Police Reform is No. 1

Lex Scott, the founder of the Utah chapter of the Black Lives Matter, became emotional with tears in her eyes as she talked about the police reform bill introduced in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

“We would like the bill to have more. But, you know, it’s just so big. It’s really big,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s the perfect bill. I’m not saying that the road ends here. I’m just saying, it’s so big. There are no words.”

She also supports the efforts in Minneapolis to defund the police department.

“Police are paid out of taxpayer dollars. Police are supposed to work for the public. When it has become obvious they no longer work for the public, they shouldn’t be paid to hurt the public. So I back Minneapolis 100%,” she said. “They should not get paid for murdering black people. No.”

But whether defunding or entirely disbanding a police department is the right answer for Utah, Scott admits she doesn't have all the answers. She said she needs to learn more first about the defunding movement.

“My No. 1 goal right now is police reform,” Scott said. “My No. 1 goal is I want police to be held accountable for their actions. I want there to be civilian oversight and I want our use of force policies to be rewritten in the nation. My No. 1 goal is to prevent more Darrien Hunts from happening, and Patrick Harmons from happening.”

Hunt and Harmon were both black men shot and killed by police in Utah. Hunt, 22, was fatally shot from behind in 2014 while running away from two Saratoga Springs officers while holding a 3-foot long katana sword. The shooting was determined to be legally justified. Hunt’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against police that was settled out of court.

Harmon, 50, was shot by a Salt Lake police officer in 2017 after initially being stopped for not having a light on his bicycle. When police discovered he had warrants out for his arrest, they tried to take him into custody, Harmon resisted, and then produced a knife. An officer shot Harmon three times fearing for the safety of his colleagues. Both the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office and Salt Lake City’s Civilian Review Board determined the officer followed policy and the shooting was justified.

Last in, last out

Former Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, who is currently the vice president of Law Enforcement Strategy for the Center for Policing Equity, agrees with making changes in how money is spent on policing and reforming policing strategies, but the idea of doing away with police officers altogether is “crazy.”

“Who will you call if there’s no police department?” he questioned. “Just blanket do away with (police) is going to be problematic, I’m afraid.”

Burbank believes police departments could use money spent on military-style equipment and “warrior training” in other ways. But he said across the country, about 85% of a police department’s budget is simply personnel. And if departments start defunding that, it will be the young officers who have the most recent and best training, and the ones who are more likely to bring about change, who will be laid off.

“Last ones in are the first ones out,” he said.

Burbank said changing a department’s own policies is a much more effective way of bringing about reform. Studies done by Burbank’s organization found that department policies and procedures have more of an impact on changing behavior and keeping personal biases in check.

“Changing the bias of individuals is hard,” he said. “Changing policy, changing practice is easy, and in most cases can be done by the police chief alone.”

For example, Burbank said when he was chief, he ordered his officers to stop issuing jaywalking tickets. He said a disproportionate number of tickets were being written in the area around the homeless shelter as compared to the east bench. Burbank said officers were using jaywalking as a way to stop people to look for other crimes, such as drug possession.

“Focusing on extensive misdemeanors as a deterrent to serious crime is not effective and simply serves to incarcerate more individuals for nonserious offenses,” he said.

It’s little policy changes that can help police departments end things like profiling, he said.

Having discussions now on how to improve a police department is much better than talks about doing away with police, he said.

Dr. Martell Teasly, the dean of the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, agrees that reform is needed, but so are police departments.

“You don’t want to get rid of a police department totally. What you want to do is change its relationship with the community. That’s what all the protests have been about,” he said.

What needs to be defunded is the notion that police are a hammer and treat everything like a nail, Teasly said. Defund intervention programs and put more money into prevention programs, he said.

“Too many people are being locked up,” Teasly said. “We need to reduce incarceration models. ... Too many people are being incarcerated for non-violent crimes.”

Some problems should be community-based issues, he said. For example, the movement toward treating drug abuse as more of a health crisis.

“Not all problems are police problems,” he said.

Teasly believes certain areas can be defunded by pulling back some of the responsibilities of police departments.

“Something needs to change,” he said. “Reform is needed everywhere.”

Contributing: Associated Press, Dan Rascon