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Police reform in Utah: Out of protests, come conversations

Posted at 11:03 PM, Jun 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-09 01:03:36-04

As the death of George Floyd and protests around the nation spark discussions of change within police departments, agencies in Utah say it's leading to conversations on a local level.

Each police department in Utah dictates its own set of rules and best practices. Some agencies, including Salt Lake City Police and Utah Highway Patrol, are either part of larger accreditation organizations like CALEA or they work with private companies like Lexipol, which guide the departments in their policies.

But those policies have come into question, as protests nearly every night for more than a week in Salt Lake City continue to call for change.

Salt Lake City Police explain it is not falling on deaf ears.

"Police work is something that is a constantly evolving, learning-- and you've got to keep looking at yourself and seeing what can be done better," said Salt Lake City Police detective Greg Wilking.

Police reform group Campaign Zero released what it calls "8 Can't Wait," which is a list of practices the campaign feels will help reduce the number of people killed by police.

8 Can't Wait urges the ban of chokeholds and strangleholds as well as requiring officers to de-escalate situations by communicating with subjects and maintaining distance. Officers would need to give a verbal warning in all situations before shooting and using deadly force. Officers would also need to exhaust all other alternatives before shooting.

If an officer witnesses excessive force by another officer, 8 Can't Wait requires them to intervene to stop the excessive force, and report the incident to a supervisor immediately.

The last three on the list include a ban on shooting a moving vehicle, establishing a force continuum, and requiring comprehensive reporting of use of force, or a threat to use force against civilians.

Det. Wilking described how Salt Lake City Police already has most of the 8 points written into their own policies.

For example, he said they have a force continuum, they require detailed reporting on uses of force, they allow an officer to "tap-out" another officer and remove them from the call if they see something concerning, and they don't allow chokeholds or strangleholds.

They also don't allow knee restraints, he said, like what happened with George Floyd.

That said, he indicated their policies aren't set in stone. He said they continue to look at policies, and those policies can change.

"As we address each of those policies, do we need to do something different and change our policies to fit best practices?" he asked.

As part of answering that question, Det. Wilking said they solicit feedback from the community.

Just last week, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown met with leaders from the black community to discuss their policies in what was described as a "listening session."

"We want that feedback," Wilking said.

In addition to the 8 Can't Wait, the NAACP has come out with its own list of policies for police reform, and is urging federal legislation.

Like 8 Can't Wait, it includes a ban on knee holds and chokeholds, and requiring a Use of Force Continuum with at least 6 levels of steps with clear rules on escalation.

The NAACP wants each state's Open Records Act to ensure officer misconduct information and disciplinary histories aren't hidden from the public. The organization is calling for the implementation of Citizen Review Boards and if an officer's use of deadly force is determined as unwarranted by federal guidelines, the NAACP wants the ability for recertification credentials to be denied.

Utah Highway Patrol Colonel Michael Rapich said the NAACP recommendations, as well as the 8 Can't Wait list are all things that are on the table for discussion.

"Every law enforcement agency in the state, even across the country, are actively engaged in that now," he said. "Where are the gaps? Where are the gaps in policy versus practice? Where are the gaps in law, in legislation versus policy? Where are the gaps in training versus policy?"

He said the Commissioner of Public Safety is having open meetings with advocacy groups, including the NAACP, ACLU and Libertas Institute, to look at how to close those gaps.

Defense attorney and former prosecutor Greg Skordas, who often represents police, weighed in on what he thinks should happen within departments.

He joined a Black Lives Matter protest Monday, alongside other public defense attorneys outside Matheson Courthouse.

"I think everybody in the country wants to re-evaluate what we're doing," Skordas said.

He believes they do need changes in police policies, and he thinks police are receptive to that.

"I think that we need to have more training with police on the de-escalation of some of the problems that we're seeing, some training on sensitivity with respect to different racial groups, and profiling," he said.

Skordas also brought up the need for police departments to represent the communities they serve, by making sure they have a balanced network of officers in terms of racial representation.

He added that while it can be hard to lose old habits, he thinks they are headed in a good direction.

"Policing has to reflect the community," he said.

And as the community speaks, departments say they are listening-- and willing to make changes.