Cushman: Utah Needs Police Reform. Rep. Angela Romero Has Some Great Ideas

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Ivana Martinez

Protesters paint the streets red, to illustrates all the blood that has been spilled by the police at the District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on June 27, 2020. (Photo by Ivana Martinez | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer

 

Police reform has moved to the forefront of many peoples’ political discourse over the past year, especially as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of color have shaken the American public. Many are demanding legislation to address police brutality. Here in Utah, Rep. Angela Romero is proposing three bills that would address police reform during this year’s legislative session. Passing them would be a step forward for Utah.

Police Brutality at Home and Nationwide

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died in police custody, just over two months after police shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her own home. For weeks after Floyd’s murder, protests rocked the country as people expressed their frustration and the need for police accountability. What has ensued is a national dialogue about how police treat Black, Indigenous and other people of color and people suffering from mental illnesses. Floyd’s death was far from the first instance of police brutality in this country, but it was a tipping point for many people.

It has become more than clear that police violence is a problem in this country, and, while we sometimes assume that such events only occur in big cities or in the South, the Utah police force is no stranger to excessive force. In May, Salt Lake City police officers killed a fleeing suspect, Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, by shooting him 34 times in the back. While the Salt Lake City District Attorney declined to file charges against the officers, many Salt Lake residents feel that the officers could have used non-lethal methods to apprehend Palacios-Carbajal.

Local police also garnered national attention when an officer shot a 13-year-old autistic boy after his mother requested help getting her son to a hospital. Police bodycam footage from the incident reveals that the officers felt uncomfortable handling the situation, with one officer even saying that their response to the incident would likely result in a shooting. Utah police are unprepared to engage in crisis intervention and de-escalation, as made clear by the uneasiness of the officers in this example and the fact that at least 40% of Utahns shot at by police in 2020 were experiencing a mental health-related event.

Time for Change

No one should have to fear for their life when they engage with police officers. No mother should call for police help only to end up with her teenage son lying injured on the ground, saying, “I don’t feel good,” and, “Tell my mom I love her.” Our state desperately needs police reform. To that end, Rep. Romero is sponsoring three bills that aim to minimize the use of excessive force by Utah police.

In an interview on why she felt compelled to sponsor these bills, Romero said, “Many of the people in my family [interacted] with law enforcement [in a way] that wasn’t always positive, and so when people did start protesting in Utah and they were calling for reform… I felt that I needed to be part of the solution.”

Romero’s first police reform bill, H.B. 84, would require Utah law enforcement to report all data on use of force to the Bureau of Criminal Identification. This would make national data on police use of force more complete, which is crucial for uncovering national trends. The second, H.B. 162, would require that 16 of the 40 training hours officers complete each year focus on crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics, especially since statistics about police shootings in Utah show that officers in our state are not equipped to handle mental health crises. H.B. 264, the third bill, would require officers to file reports when they point a weapon at a citizen. This step would create more complete local data and help hold officers accountable for how they act in tense situations. If passed, these bills could help officers actually save Utahns’ lives rather than jeopardize them.

We won’t solve police brutality and racism with a few pieces of legislation. It will require ongoing work as we learn how to be better. That said, the legislation Romero has proposed this legislative session could address the key problems we see in our state. Utah lawmakers should make passing her bills a top priority this session.

 

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@kcellenc