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Despite new police reform laws, Black Lives Matter Utah leader says ‘game is not over’

Legislators laud reform bills, but activist says legislation fell short and will seek ballot initiatives

A protester speaks during a protest against police brutality at the Cottonwood Heights Police Department in Cottonwood Heights on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.
A protester speaks during a protest against police brutality at the Cottonwood Heights Police Department in Cottonwood Heights on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — To Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session fell short of enacting real, meaningful police reform.

The Legislature this year approved a slew of measured bills — some highly watered down, but many supported by community activists, minority community leaders and law enforcement officials — to implement incremental changes to increase de-escalation training, collect more data on use-of-force incidents and clarify rules around use-of-force standards.

But Scott wasn’t at all satisfied.

“We won some,” she said. “Hey, you win a few games. But you know, you want to win the Super Bowl. And I don’t believe we won the Super Bowl.”

To Scott, who expressed gratitude for some Utah lawmakers who advocated and pushed for police reform, it’s just the beginning. She said there’s still a lot of work to do, and she hopes Utah can keep riding a wave of momentum seen nationwide after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We’re still in the first quarter,” Scott told the Deseret News. “There’s four quarters, and we’re still in the first. We’ve scored some points, but we have not won the game. The game is not over. People cannot relax. People cannot let their guard down. People cannot forget. ... I need for people not to go back to sleep. I need people to keep in the fight.”

So Scott said she’s about to ramp up the effort — to push Utah’s lawmakers to do more.

Scott said she plans to run a ballot initiative — perhaps two — to force a statewide vote on two particular bills that didn’t survive their first hearing: one that would have allowed cities to create their own elected, independent civilian oversight boards, and one that would have required release of police body camera video within 10 days of incidents that result in death or bodily injury or whenever an officer fires a gun.

Lawmakers on the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee struck down those two bills: HB74 for police oversight boards and HB133, for release of body camera video within 10 days. Some expressed concerns that police oversight boards would have dueling powers with existing city councils and undermine police chief authority. Some worried a 10-day body camera footage timeline was far too fast, could adversely affect a defendant’s right to a fair trial and a lack of “context” around the footage could leave key details unknown to the public.

Salt Lake City already has a requirement to publicly release body camera video of police shootings after 10 days — a policy implemented in 2017 under former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. Since then, the city has successfully released numerous police body camera videos of critical incidents under the new policy.

But both HB74 and HB133 were not supported by law enforcement groups that watched closely over police reform legislation this year, including Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police and the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

To Scott, both bills were crucial to bring increased transparency and accountability to police departments. She said a 10-day body camera release timeline is a “big one” that makes common sense for transparency. And the oversight of independent civilian review boards is “the dream,” she said.

“It’s the dream that police officers are held to the same standards as the communities that they police,” Scott said, adding that lawmakers could pass “a million other bills” but they wouldn’t be able to bring real change without allowing civilian oversight boards.

The fact that the majority of the bills passed by the Utah Legislature were supported by law enforcement groups “should tell you a lot,” Scott said.

“Because the police fight independent oversight, it is their worst fear. It is their worst nightmare. And the legislators are afraid to move forward on bills that are not supported by police. Well, tough,” Scott said.

“The public wants independent oversight of police. The entire world rose up and screamed for real police reform,” she said. “And so we’re not going to stop.”

Like lawmakers did with Medicaid expansion and medical cannabis ballot initiatives, Scott acknowledged it’s possible that even if her group’s ballot initiative or initiatives gain enough signatures for a spot on the ballot, the Utah Legislature could still make tweaks to legislation to make it more palatable to lawmakers’ tastes.

“They can tweak what they want,” she said, “but we’re going to send a big message that the state of Utah wants independent oversight of police.”

But on the national stage, Scott said there’s “exciting” movement happening with the House’s passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last week. She called that sweeping federal policing overhaul the “dream police reform bill.”

The bill would be the most significant federal intervention in law enforcement in years, the New York Times reported. It would change legal protections that shield police officers from lawsuits, known as qualified immunity, and make it easier to prosecute them for wrongdoing. It would also impose a new set of restrictions on the use of deadly force, and effectively ban the use of chokeholds.

“Our hope is it will pass the Senate, and then that is the entire ballgame,” Scott said. “Everything that Black Lives Matter has awaited is in that bill, and then we won’t have to squabble with local leaders on a local level. It will be game over. Game, set, match.”

Leaders laud incremental but ‘significant’ police bills

Legislative leaders said the bills approved this year were well-vetted, important changes for police accountability — and just because there wasn’t big, sweeping reform doesn’t mean there won’t be an impact.

“The problem with the narrative that there needed to be sweeping reforms is that implies there are problems everywhere, and that’s absolutely not the case,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News on the last day of the session Friday. “There are absolutely opportunities to improve training, to improve the data we have, to improve transparency at times, but those are incremental changes because we are in a pretty good spot.”

Among the top bills that won approval from lawmakers are three of Rep. Angela Romero’s bills.

  • There was HB84 that, if signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, would require local law enforcement agencies to collect and submit data on use-of-force-incidents to the Bureau of Criminal Identification.
  • HB162 would require 16 of the 40 hours of training police officers are required to complete each year to be focused on de-escalation tactics and working with individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
  • And HB264 would require a law enforcement officer to file a report after pointing a firearm or a Taser at a person.

Those bills were lauded by legislators on both sides of the political aisle as important tools to hold police officers more accountable and increase transparency. Wilson also said he expects police reform to continue to be an issue lawmakers will grapple with in future sessions.

“We’ll see,” he said. “If there are opportunities to make things better, we’ll keep at it.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, agreed.

“I don’t think we’re done, and I think we’ll keep working on it,” he said.

Adams pointed to several Senate bills as important reforms:

  • SB13, which seeks to ensure a police officer can’t skirt an internal investigation simply by jumping to a new police department.
  • SB159, which would require a state agency to create a panel of experts to study and make recommendations to improve the collection and management of public safety data.
  • SB38, which would require annual certification of K-9 officers and their handlers.
  • And SB106, a bill seeking more uniform use-of-force standards to be established across the state.

“We’ve done a lot of stuff,” he said, noting those bills all came after the Utah Legislature banned police chokeholds in a special session last year. “I think we’ve had some significant reform. ... We want to get it right, and I think we will continue to get it right. I believe we have a balanced approach, and we’ll continue to find that balanced approach on this issue.”

While Utah saw no sweeping police reform this year, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers “made a lot of progress” on the issue.

“We haven’t seen what I would characterize as really dramatic movement, but we have seen incremental movement that’s very significant,” King told the Deseret News, pointing to Romero’s bills for use-of-force data collection, calling them “very, very good bills.”

“Just gathering of information sounds like a nothing burger,” he said. “But it’s incredibly important. With that information we can present compelling cases for more substantive changes in the future, and we will I’m sure.”

King said even though it wasn’t everything activists like Scott wanted, he is still surprised so many police reform bills passed.

“If you said to me in July (last year), ‘Look down the road to March 5 of 2021, what do you think will happen?’ and you’d given me the list of stuff we’d actually get done, I’d be pleasantly surprised,” he said.

King did say he “felt bad” that House Minority Assistant Whip Jennifer Dailey-Provost’s use-of-force bill, HB237, was “watered down” so much. Ultimately, in its final form, the bill seeks to prevent “suicide by cop” by clarifying in training requirements that when someone is threatening suicide, an officer should try to use “strategic withdrawal” rather than engagement.

Another watered down use-of-force bill, Rep. Kera Birkeland’s HB154, would have set a timeline for completion of investigations into an officer’s use of force and require that certain information be posted online. That bill won approval from the House, but failed in the Senate on a narrow, 13-15 vote.

King said he was disappointed his bill — HB367, which would have changed Utah’s “qualified immunity” law to allow police officers and police agencies to be sued if a person is injured or killed by the “unlawful, negligent or improper conduct” of a police officer while on duty — didn’t advance. But he said it came out so late in the session that it didn’t have the kind of input from all stakeholders it needed.

In order to successfully pass police reform legislation in the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature, King said Democrats need to work pragmatically with Republicans and law enforcement leaders to get their bills passed.

“We run into problems if we ever give our law enforcement officers a reason to believe we’re not supporting them or we’re not willing to recognize the tremendous sacrifice that they make,” King said. “These are hard jobs, and they’re not not well-paid jobs. ... They’re critically important and underpaid. We need to do a better job of making sure that they feel supported and public safety officers feel appreciated while at the same time helping them weed out some bad apples.”

Police reform ‘fatigue’

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, said Monday night that he sensed “as the session wore on there was some fatigue” among legislators with regard to all the police reform bills coming before them.

Some, Weiler said on a Monday night panel discussion to reflect on the Utah Legislature’s actions for police reform, “kind of felt like we were picking on law enforcement.”

“I personally believe that most police are good,” Weiler said. “I do believe that there are some bad apples out there. But I don’t believe it’s the majority or even a large minority. I think it’s a very small minority.”

Weiler joined Scott, Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Salt Lake City, and Steve Anjewierden, a retired Unified Police Department chief of police services, in the panel discussion. The panel was moderated by KUER’s Emily Means and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake, the Utah Black Roundtable, Better Utah Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and Journey of Hope.

During that discussion, Lex took issue with the “bad apple” and “good apple” characterization of the issue. She said it’s not about good or bad apples, but rather it’s about holding every police officer accountable.

Anjewierden said in order to find solutions, police officers need to be part of the discussions, but when the debate gets heated, some officers can “retreat away” and “feel attacked.” When that happens, he said “it makes it harder to bring them to the table without that defensive response” so stakeholders need to figure out how to break down those barriers.

Wheatley questioned why so many police reform bills ended up held in rules committees — where legislative leaders sift through bills to decide which ones advance on to either the House or Senate floors or committee hearings. Weiler, who sits on the Senate Rules Committee, said controversial and uncontroversial bills alike didn’t advance, and that’s just the legislative process.

“It’s kind of the nature of the session,” he said.

Scott said it was “disheartening to see police pushing fluff bills as if we aren’t smart enough to know, ‘Hey this bill does nothing,’” but she added it was also disheartening to see several bills to clamp down on “rioters.”

Several failed, including SB138, which would have toughened penalties on “rioters” while decreasing criminal penalties for drivers who injure or kill an individual while leaving the scene of a riot. So did a bill to give a county sheriff authority over a city police chief if they disagree during a riot, and a bill to make a city liable for any damage or injury caused during a riot if local police do not protect private property or people.

But the bill that did pass was HB58, a bill that requires anyone arrested for rioting to appear before a judge before being released and pay restitution if convicted.

Scott said those bills targeting rioters were a “slap in the face to Black Lives Matter” and other civil rights organizations that have “committed to remain peaceful at all costs.” She said those bills send a frustrating message to activists like herself, who has “protested peacefully for seven years and nothing changes.”