DESERET NEWS: Could chokeholds, knee holds be banned in Utah? New legislation to aim for police reforms

SALT LAKE CITY — A statewide ban on chokeholds and knee holds, like the one that preceded the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, could be in the offing for Utah law enforcement agencies under new legislative efforts.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he is about to begin work on three proposals that will be guided by demanded changes from the NAACP national organization. The changes the NAACP is seeking include:

  • A ban on the use of chokeholds and knee holds as an acceptable practice for police officers.
  • The Use of Force Continuum for any police department in the country must ensure that there are at least six levels of steps, with clear rules on escalation.
  • Each state’s open records act must ensure officer misconduct information and disciplinary histories are not shielded from the public. Recertification credentials may be denied for police officers if determined that their use of deadly force was unwarranted by federal guidelines.
  • Implementation of citizen’s review boards in municipalities to hold police departments accountable and build public confidence.

Thatcher said the four-point NAACP action plan will be a starting point for drafting the new legislation, which he said he expects to begin next week in collaboration with local NAACP representatives and other stakeholders.

He noted that unlike other legislative efforts he has led out on, like a historic anti-hate crime bill that was debated for a decade before finally finding legislative support in the 2019 session, he would be in the role of “facilitator” for this package of law enforcement-focused bills.

“On other issues, I have led ... and I have said, ‘This is what I want, this is how I want things to go,’” Thatcher told the Deseret News. “For this effort, I’m 100% running on the path of a 100-year-old organization, the NAACP. My plan is to facilitate those conversations and do my best to reach consensus.”

If successful, the legislative effort could make Utah the first state in the country to move forward with legislation called for by the NAACP aiming to address concerns over law enforcement excessive force and accountability mechanisms since Floyd’s death late last month touched off global civil actions protesting police brutality and calling for change.

Salt Lake City protests have been ongoing since last weekend. Following incidents of violence that broke out during protests on Saturday in the downtown area, demonstrations in Utah’s capital city have been largely peaceful.

The Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP hosted a media event Friday where the new legislative effort was announced.

NAACP Salt Lake President Jeanetta Williams said her organization’s call for legislative reforms was issued after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man in his mid-20s who was killed in late February while running through a Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood. A white father and his adult son have been charged with murder in that incident, which also spawned the NAACP’s #WeAreDoneDying movement. Floyd’s death has served to further underscore the importance of the proposed changes, Williams said.

Williams quoted NAACP leadership in their call for widespread reform of U.S. law enforcement policy.

“We need federal, state and local reforms which impose strict police accountability, limit the use of force, eliminate racial profiling, demilitarize law enforcement, track and report data, and ensure proper screening, education and training of all officers,” Williams said.

While some Utah police agencies, like the Salt Lake City Police Department, have long banned choke and knee holds and are also subject to a civilian review board, law enforcement policies differ widely across the state.

David Spatafore, speaking on behalf of the Utah Police Chiefs Association, pledged the participation of the state’s law enforcement leaders in working with Williams and Thatcher on legislative proposals.

“Speaking on behalf of the 110 chiefs that I work for, we have heard our communities, we have seen what is going on, and we look forward to sitting around a table with Jeanetta, the other members of our minority communities, Sen. Thatcher, and legislators and try to work on meaningful reforms,” Spatafore said.

While no Democratic members of the Utah Legislature participated in Friday’s announcement, Utah’s racial and ethnic minority legislators issued a statement following the event. They include Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City; Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City; Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray; Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray; Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City; and Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay.

“We are grateful that our allies and legislative colleagues are reaching out in support and partnership. Ending systemic racism begins with each one of us. It happens when individuals decide they will no longer see people of color through a deficit lens. We are confident that legislative political will is bending towards justice because of growing and powerful voices from the public. Our goal remains to uplift our constituents and Utah’s communities of color. We will be moving forward and talking more about specific legislation in the coming days.”

Earlier this week, the Salt Lake NAACP chapter also announced it is working with the Utah Fraternal Order of Police on a strategy to “foster dialogue and understanding between the police and the communities that they serve.”

“We have a relationship that goes back several years, and the trust that we’ve built is now being used to foster even more relationship building and shared progress,” read a joint statement released earlier this week. “To be clear, both the NAACP and the FOP denounce the actions of both the officer in Minnesota as well as those that have taken to extreme violence in the streets following that incident.

“Solutions are created in discussions of collaboration and understanding, followed by improvements. Rioting only pushes the important issues from the surface, allowing all sides to feel abandoned by the other.”

Utah’s top state law enforcement official, who said he was the only minority to ever be elected to statewide office in Utah, also weighed in at Friday’s press event.

Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes said as a kid growing up in Southern California he experienced firsthand what it was like to be treated differently, and more harshly, because he wasn’t white.

“I grew up in L.A. and had a love/fear relationship with cops,” Reyes said. “At one level, I knew that they protected me. But as a kid, I also saw how they treated me and some of my other friends of color — even worse, mistreated. That’s stayed with me to this day, that feeling of anxiety and fear.

“We’ve tried mightily in Utah to change that culture of cops from warriors to servants and protectors. We’ve done a good job but there’s much, much more to do and that’s why we’re here today.”

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