3 new police reform bills making their way through Utah Legislature

Three bills aimed at reforming how law enforcement handles use-of-force incidents and mental health calls are making their way through the Utah Legislature.

Bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said it shouldn't take up to two years for a police use-of-force investigation to come to its conclusion, as sometimes happens in Utah.

"We have so much information that it seems prudent to scale that back," Birkeland said during a House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting on Friday.

Expediting investigations

HB123 would establish a 180-day timeline for investigations into critical incidents, including when someone is killed by police. If an investigation will not be completed within 180 days, the bill would require the county or district attorney's office to post a public statement on its website with a "reasonable estimate" of when the investigation will be complete, as well as the cause of the delay.

Birkeland sponsored a similar bill last year, HB154, that passed the House but failed in the Senate on a 13-15 vote. Last year's bill required all investigations to be completed within 180 days, but the new bill says that the county or district attorney's findings need to be complete within that limit, except for cases when a notice gets posted on the attorney's website.

Based on discussions she's had with the law enforcement community, Birkeland said she believes they support it.

Often, an officer who is involved in a use-of-force incident is waiting for their name to be cleared if they performed their job correctly, Birkeland said, or there's a circumstance when a citizen is a victim and "there's no justice for them," while the investigation gets drawn out.

When the meeting opened for public comment, Rae Duckworth, president of the Black Lives Matter Utah chapter, said, "The fact that we are coming to this agreement that there needs to be a state standard for time after someone has been killed or shot or injured by police, this is a great bill."

She thanked Birkeland for working on the legislation and said she wants to work with her in the future.

"There is an issue in this state, and it's the allowance of police and the abuse that they have put on the community," Duckworth said.

Jeff Buhman, executive director of Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said he agrees that the sooner a county attorney can return an opinion about whether an incident was justified to the public, the better.

But sometimes use-of-force incidents take a "substantial" amount of time to investigate, Buhman said. Autopsy reports, especially when they include toxicology and other testing, can take many months to complete, he added.

"So this will enable us to notify the public appropriately what's going on and ensure that we are transparent as we deal with these very significant, serious matters," Buhman said.

Use-of-force recordings

Another bill that would change requirements after use-of-force incidents, is HB260. It would mandate the public release of law enforcement video recordings if a prosecuting agency declines to file a criminal action, or, if charges have been filed, the judge determines that the release "would not have a substantial likelihood of prejudicing" jurors.

It also would not be released if a victim or family member does not want it to be, said bill sponsor Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray.

Will Carlson, with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, said the bill addresses "when three different interests come into conflict with each other."

When a police officer causes injury or death to someone, there's public interest in what happened, Carlson said. There's also public interest in anyone charged with a crime receiving a fair trial. But there's also an interest in someone's privacy.

He said the bill works to balance all three of those interests.

David Spatafore, speaking on behalf of the Utah Police Chiefs Association, said Wheatley listened to chiefs' concerns about the bill regarding the impact that releasing recordings could have on victims and their family members.

He said the group hopes it will help get departments "on the same page moving forward" about the release of body camera recordings.

When the meeting opened for public comment, some questioned whether the bill goes far enough to promote transparency.

Duckworth — whose cousin, Bobby Duckworth, was killed by police who were responding to a mental health call in 2019 — said she supported a previous version of the bill but opposes the decision to release footage only to a judge. She said her family needed to "jump through hoops" to see the video of her cousin's death and that she ultimately saw it on YouTube.

Mental health first responders

HB325, based on a program in Salt Lake County, would create a pilot program to allocate $8 million to counties with 175,000 residents or more so they could hire social workers to respond to calls with law enforcement officers.

"A lot of the issues that law enforcement has to respond to are, in fact, mental health crises," and they don't have the training to deal with those types of situations, said bill sponsor Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy.

Salt Lake County Metro Mental Health Unit Sgt. Jodie Sampson said her team includes six agencies with 13 detectives and four mental health workers. She said the co-response model "provides a long-term solution to an immediate crisis."

The unit "has been able to reduce calls for service in our jurisdictions by 85%," she said.

New calls keep coming in, she said, but the team is getting faster at responding to them. The team has also decreased use-of-force incidents, largely through case management and building relationships with people who call 911 for mental health crises.

"The co-response model is extremely important for the safety of all that are on scene, not only the citizens, the individual who is in crisis, law enforcement and the mental health provider who is with us," Sampson said.

Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, questioned why the grant would only be available to larger cities.

Stoddard said that is due to the cost requirement. There's also a concern that smaller cities may not have social workers available for the program, he said.

All three bills received unanimous approval from the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, moving them to the full House for a vote.