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How is state doing with justice reforms nearly year after summer of protests?

Discussion is part of three-day conference for Utah attorneys

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Jeanetta Williams speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Jeanetta Williams, president of NAACP Salt Lake Branch and the NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho-Nevada-Utah, speaks during a press conference on proposed police reform legislation at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 5, 2020. On Tuesday, Williams was part of a panel discussion on the use of physical force by police, part of a three-day symposium hosed by the Utah State Bar.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As a federal probation officer, Steven Kelly crisscrossed the state to check on defendants facing criminal charges.

He used to recount to colleagues how police routinely pulled him over on suspicion of “DWB” — driving while Black.

Each time, the officers’ demeanor changed when they learned the late Kelly was a sworn law enforcement officer, his friend and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Sam Alba recalled Tuesday at the start of a three-day symposium on the use of force by police, hosted by the Utah State Bar.

Kelly’s experience isn’t unique, Alba and fellow attorneys noted Tuesday. But for others, a traffic stop can end much less peacefully, like it did most recently for 20-year-old Daunte Wright, killed by police in a Minneapolis suburb; and U.S. Army officer Caron Nazario, who is suing a Virginia police department after he was pepper-sprayed and knocked to the ground.

It’s important for officers to know that Black and Hispanic Utahns as well as other people of color have families they want to return home to, said NAACP Salt Lake Branch President Jeanetta Williams.

“They shouldn’t be stopped just for little things,” Williams said at a panel discussion on the use of physical force by police.

Civilian review boards that evaluate an officer’s conduct against a police department’s policies are “critical,” Williams said. Just two Utah cities, Salt Lake City and West Valley City, currently have them.

Williams noted that while Utah lawmakers took other steps to prevent unfair policing, they failed to take action on a proposal that would have granted such boards independent authority over police chiefs. Williams said she’s encouraged that more cities in the state are now considering creating the review panels on their own.

Utah Department of Public Safety Chief Brian Redd said the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year and the nationwide protests that followed made clear that Utah leaders needed to find the right ways to respond. The department held a series of meetings last year, and some of the discussions led to new laws.

One measure passed in the 2021 Legislature mandates more detailed reporting on instances of physical force by police, including the race of the officers and those apprehended. Another requires police departments to send reports of misconduct to Utah’s police academy if officers quit before an investigation is completed, an effort to make sure they won’t skirt accountability.

“We don’t want bad officers within our ranks, and we don’t want them to be able to jump from agency to agency,” Redd said in the discussion held by videoconference.

Redd, who is retiring this month, said his department is looking at whether its existing policies will help it diversify its ranks to better reflect Utah’s population.

Pamela Vickrey, executive director of Utah Juvenile Defenders, said the way police and school resource officers interact with young Utahns leaves a lasting impression.

“We’re going to be looking to law enforcement to say, ‘You’ve got to be the grown up. You’ve got to be the de-escalator, you’ve got to be the one that recognizes that these young people maybe aren’t going to handle situations well,’” Vickrey said. “We have to make sure that those situations do not escalate and harm our young people as well as harm their view of the whole system in the long term.”

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said it’s often seen as easier in schools and the wider community to rely on law enforcers instead of bringing in others who can help address the root causes of a situation, like a counselor or social worker.

“It’s easier to ask our police officers to step in, and that sometimes creates a wrong interaction,” Gill said.

Gill, a Democrat, said a long history of racism, bolstered by Jim Crow-era laws, has helped shape a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color.

The phrase “Black lives matter” is sometimes met with “All lives matter,” and many who respond that way “can’t seem to understand why that’s so offensive,” Gill said. “Historically, politically, economically and socially, Black America has never been part of the ‘all’ in the statement.”

Utah’s streamlined expungement process in 2019 has helped address the problem, along with drug courts allowing a person’s charges to be dropped or dismissed after treatment, Gill said, but he said gaps remain because policymakers have failed to address them.

Attorney Abby Dizon-Maughan, a member of West Valley City’s review board, said she often finds herself wondering why the panel is one of only two in the state. There are some law enforcers who believe everyday people shouldn’t have a say in reviewing their behavior, she said, but that’s simply not accurate.

Alba, the judge agreed. He pointed out that juries are tasked with reviewing not just criminal cases, but also civil allegations, and reaching a determination.