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Why Rep. Burgess Owens opposed police reform bill named for George Floyd

Burgess Owens, Republican candidate in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, poses for a photograph during a campaign stop on, in Spring City, San Pete County, on Oct. 30, 2020.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens spoke against a sweeping police reform bill that passed the U.S. House late Wednesday mostly along party lines.

“Police reform is necessary. We need to give officers the tools they need to fairly enforce the law. But this legislation paints a target on the back of every police officer in America,” the freshman Republican said in a brief floor speech.

The Democrat-controlled House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which aims to combat police misconduct, excessive force and racial bias, 220-212, mostly along party lines. The bill is named for the Minnesota man who died in police custody last year after an officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Floyd’s death touched a wave of violent protests across the country, including in Utah.

Utah’s four Republicans in the House voted against the bill.

Owens said he spent the past week talking to Utah law enforcement officials about the bill. He said they told him police haven’t done anything to earn this type of distrust and that it would destroy public safety.

“These men and women are heroes. They are good, honest officers who risk their lives every day to keep us safe,” he said.

“This bill will make good officers flee the profession when we need them the most. Democrats won’t say it, but this bill simply defunds the police. Not in Utah’s 4th District. Not now. Not ever.”

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who led the push to pass the legislation, said 30 years ago Wednesday, Rodney King was viciously beaten by police officers in Los Angeles. She said she was hopeful that once people saw what happens in Black communities, policing in America would change.

“I was certain no one would deny what they saw with their own eyes and the officers involved would be held accountable for their actions,” she said in a statement. “I was wrong.”

Bass said the bill is a first step toward transforming policing in America by raising standards and holding accountable officers who fail to uphold the ethic of protecting and serving their communities.

The measure prohibits federal, state and local law enforcement from racial, religious and discriminatory profiling. It bans chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and limits the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement. It also ends qualified immunity for police officers, which would make it easier to pursue claims of misconduct and recover damages.

The bill has an uncertain future in the evenly divided Senate. At least 10 Republicans would have to cross the aisle for it to pass.