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Police oversight boards, faster body camera release times blocked by Utah committee

Utah bills seeking broader police reform stall, but more tempered bills advance

SHARE Police oversight boards, faster body camera release times blocked by Utah committee
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The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two bills with broader checks and transparency for police hit roadblocks Thursday, but others with more tempered approaches are advancing through the Utah Legislature.

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee held HB74, which would allow cities to create their own elected police oversight boards, and HB133, requiring release of body camera footage of incidents that result in death or bodily injury or whenever an officer fires a gun within 10 days.

But that same committee voted to favorably move to the full chamber several other more measured police reform bills, including SB38, which would require annual certification of police K-9s and their handlers, and HB59, which would criminally punish officers, prosecutors or others taking part of an investigation if they improperly share intimate images — a bill inspired by former University of Utah police officer who showed explicit photos of slain student Lauren McCluskey to fellow officers.

The House committee also endorsed a bill not targeted at police, but rather at rioters. HB58 seeks to require a person arrested for rioting to appear before a magistrate before being released from jail. It would also require a judge to order the person pay restitution if convicted. The bill was opposed by groups including Black Lives Matter Utah, but supported by law enforcement and lawmakers that were critical of Salt Lake City protests that resulted in destruction of property, including the burning of a police patrol car.

By and large, the House panel supported bills that were supported by law enforcement groups including the Utah State Fraternal Order of Police and Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

Civilian oversight boards

HB74’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, sought to roll back state law that prohibits cities from establishing police oversight boards, arguing it is a case of “local control.”

But lawmakers on the House panel balked, concerned it would allow the creation of a board packed with “anti-police” Utahns that would conflict with existing city council and mayoral powers.

Current law explicitly bans cities from creating boards that have authority independent of police chiefs, power to overrule a police officer hiring or appointment, and are required to review or approve police department rules and budgets.

HB74 would strike that ban, and allow cities to create boards that do all of those things and have “any other authority or power designated by the municipality subject to state law.” The board would be elected in a “nonpartisan, municipal election” and would not be allowed to seat a current or former police officer or an immediate family member of a current or former police officer.

“I want to make clear that all we want is to feel safe with the police that serve our communities,” Wheatley said. “And we want police to feel secure ... This is a bill to provide cities an option. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It’s just an option. That’s what this bill was and is. It’s about local control.”

South Salt Lake Councilwoman Natalie Pinkney spoke in favor of the bill. Last year, Pinkney and other council members and Mayor Cherie Wood announced they wanted to create a civilian review board. She argued under current state code, city councils don’t have the capacity nor the power to fully hold police departments accountable.

“We are required by Utah state code to have a police department but we are barred from having full authority over that department,” Pinkney said. “All municipalities no matter their size or their general fund capacity are required to support them through taxpayer dollars, but we are unable to have independent authority. All of these aspects made it impossible to enact change.”

Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, urged lawmakers to support the bill, saying it would create a “jury” or an investigative body that would create real change by allowing an independent elected body to hold police accountable.

“The civilian review board that is in place right now has no power,” Scott said. “They don’t have the power to subpoena police. They don’t have the power to fire police. They don’t have the power to bring charges against police. They conduct an investigation and they make a recommendation to the chief of police.”

She said Utah needs to allow cities to create their own oversight boards because under the current system, police are found innocent far too often.

“This is about transparency and accountability. And to the public it looks like police are allowed to investigate their own crimes and find themselves innocent. This is about accountability and transparency and letting an elected group of people conduct independent investigations.”

But Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, who works in law enforcement, opposed the bill, calling it “discriminatory” because it wouldn’t allow police officers or their family members to serve on the board. He also said it would create a board that would have dueling powers with existing city councils and undermine police chief authority.

“So let’s make no mistake,” he said. “This bill is discriminatory. It will create a board that will act in direct opposition of a city council and creates a chief that is in name only.”

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, also came down hard against the bill, saying it would lead to police officers leaving their jobs in “droves” if it were to become law.

“It’s just wrought with ‘Let’s go after the police officers,” he said. “I have full faith in our law enforcement, and I trust them with what they do. I do not trust what they’re trying to put together here because this is straight out anti-police.”

Ray then moved to table the bill in committee. The motion passed on an 8-3, party line vote.

Body camera footage

Wheatley also sponsored HB133 to require the release of police body camera video within 10 days.

Scott urged lawmakers to support it, describing how in some cases police body camera footage won’t be released for months on end, leaving families in the dark on what happened to their loved ones in a police shooting.

“When people are shot by police, their mothers call me,” Scott said. “They want to know what happened to their son or their daughter. And sometimes they have to wait up to a year to get that footage.”

She said Salt Lake City’s policy to release body camera footage within 10 days, which has been in place for two years, is “important” for accountability and transparency, and argued it should be a standard required for all cities across the state.

“If police have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear,” she said.

But prosecutors and police groups urged lawmakers to spend more time working on the bill, arguing 10 days is far too fast, could adversely effect a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and a lack of “context” around the footage could leave key details unknown to the public.

Ian Adams, executive director of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police, pointed to the Salt Lake City police shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal as an example.

“Salt Lake’s experiment with this policy has born ill fate,” Adams said, noting that when the body camera footage was first released it gave “incomplete information,” leading it to be reported he was shot in the back “unarmed,” Adams said, “and it turned out later the subject had indeed pointed a gun at the officers.”

When the Deseret News reported the release of that body camera footage, it reported it did not appear in the videos that Palacios ever pointed a gun at police nor did he fire any shots, but also reported police did say a gun that Palacios was believed to be carrying was recovered from the scene.

“So this bill is predicated upon the assumption that the body worn camera provides transparency,” Adams said. “But it does not. It’s simply one piece of that. And it puts both our police officers and our communities at risk when you release that information absent or before an investigation.”

Lawmakers, prosecutor and police groups discussed perhaps a compromise to lengthen the amount of time before a release would be required, perhaps to 60 or 90 days, but a compromise wasn’t specified. The bill was held in committee, leaving the door open for it to be considered at a later date.