OGDEN — Advocates and supporters of police reform and racial equality held another peaceful gathering Saturday outside the Ogden Municipal Building.
But while participants displayed none of the behavior sometimes seen in other protests that have taken shape across the country, the atmosphere was often punctuated with moments of strong emotion.
Ogden’s first large public gathering since May 30, the assembly was organized to bring attention to a set of eight proposals for law enforcement that backers across the country say are crucial to reducing fatal interactions with the public.
The “8 Can’t Wait” reforms cover a range of suggested police practices, such as a ban on the use of chokeholds and strangleholds, more attention to de-escalation of situations, a requirement that officers give warning before firing their weapon, requiring officers to exhaust all other options before shooting, empowerment of officers to stop or report excessive force, prohibiting gunshots at moving vehicles, adherence to a “use of force continuum” and comprehensive reporting of all incidents in which an officer uses or threatens to use force against civilians.
“Shooting is not the answer to everything,” said Malik Dayo, a local activist who helped organize Saturday’s protest and many previous ones in the city.
Dayo told the crowd that the reforms being sought are not about police “bowing” to demands, but rather bringing department policies to a level that serves everyone fairly.
“This country is supposed to be about freedom and justice, and not everybody is living that right now,” he said.
SPEAKING FOR VICTIMSDayo dedicated the event to the memory of “all the victims who have died at the hands of police.” His and other speakers’ turns behind the microphone often invoked the names of Ogden and Weber County residents who have been killed through such interactions, including Jovany Mercado, Christopher Parrish, Fredrick Atkin and Matthew Stewart.
Stewart was hurt during a shootout with police on Jan. 4, 2012, that fatally wounded officer Jared Francom and injured others. He later died in jail of an apparent suicide while awaiting trial.
Stewart’s parents, Mike and Sonja, were in attendance Saturday with a sign adorned with photos of their son. They said Matthew was “attacked by the police” from the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, who were responding to a tip that marijuana was illegally being grown in the basement of a home.
Their son, they said, served in the military and had post-traumatic stress disorder, and was only acting on his instincts when his door was broken down that night.
“We’re just here to support the community,” Mike Stewart said. “We’re not against the police, but they need to look at the priorities.”
Mercado died Aug. 16, 2019, when police — responding to reports of a man looking inside vehicles — fired on him after repeated requests to drop the knife he was holding.
His sister, Ruby Mercado, was one of the featured speakers Saturday and said many of the people police encounter during dangerous situations are experiencing a “crisis situation” and feel they don’t have control over what’s happening to them. De-escalation practices, she said, can help give a person a sense of control and calm them down.
“Officers are there to apply the law. They are not the law or above the law,” she said. “They are not judge, jury and executioner.”
Dayo said that if Ogden police had been better trained in de-escalation tactics and following 8 Can’t Wait behaviors, “Jovanny Mercado would still be alive.”
In addition to the reforms spelled out in the 8 Can’t Wait platform, Dayo said there are several other changes he and others desire to see implemented. They include the abolishment of “no-knock” warrants like the kind used by police in Louisville, Kentucky, that led to the death of Breonna Taylor; tracking data on traffic stops by ethnicity; pulling police officers from schools; not allowing officers to fire at fleeing suspects; more racial bias training; training of officers in nonlethal use of force methods like beanbag guns; and the hiring of more Black cops.
Currently, Dayo said, Ogden PD does not have a single Black officer. That must change, he said, issuing a public call for 100 people of color to apply to join the police force.
Protesters did not ask to defund local police departments, another request that has been made on the national stage.
SOME REFORM IN PROGRESSPreemptively responding to the reform proposals, Ogden Police Chief Steven “Randy” Watt sent a press release Wednesday to city staff and the media addressing the points and what his department has done, will do, or, in some cases, will not do about them.
“We have had meetings with local Black Lives Matter, NAACP, ACLU, and other groups and their key leaders,” Watt said in the statement. “These interactions and discussions have been productive for us and have caused us to extensively review our policies and procedures to see what, if anything, is outdated and needing to be changed.”
However, he continued, national and local calls overhauling police methods do not fully take into perspective the dangerousness of the job, resulting in “knee-jerk reactions” from “(w)ell meaning, but misinformed, community leaders and politicians.”
Watt’s statement continued to say that the Ogden Police Department “prides itself on its ongoing relationship and interaction with the members of our community,” citing 2019 survey statistics that indicate 57.7% of the public is “satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of police services.”
Further, he said, OPD has reduced serious crime in the city by 27.7%, to the safest point “in over 30 years.”
After reviewing its practices, two changes have already occurred, Watt states: temporary suspension of the use of the “Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint,” or “Carotid Control,” maneuver for “further review”; and updated language in the department’s policy regarding officers’ duty to intercede if they observe “another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances.”
Cautioning the LVNR suspension, however, Watt said the removal of that particular tool “may well create a situation where a suspect is shot instead of being subdued” and that it may result in “more officers injured or potentially killed by suspects during a fight.”
All other points of the 8 Can’t Wait proposals are already covered by departmental codes or state law, Watt said, with a couple of exceptions.
Relating to the request that officers exhaust all other options before firing their gun, Watt said OPD’s current protocols, which break down what kind of force is approved for different situations based on a person’s actions or level of resistance, are better suited to assessing threats and giving officers a starting point for engagement.
Use of force continuums, Watt said, “have fallen out of vogue with law enforcement agencies as they infer a step-by-step process which is impossible to conduct.”
Similarly, a ban on shooting at moving vehicles isn’t feasible, according to Watt, because that could put the public more at risk. He offered as an example cases in which a driver has used a vehicle to purposely harm others.
“By banning the shooting ‘in all cases,’ the Officer simply becomes a witness to the events which, I would argue, runs counter to the expectations of the general public and their expectations of police officers when someone is feloniously injuring and killing others with a 2000 pound weapon,” he wrote.
Watt concluded his statement by saying the department will “continue to monitor its use of force, comply with applicable laws, and develop and enforce quality policies,” but that it’s equally important to “create as safe an environment for our officers.”
NOT GIVING UPDayo said it’s clear from Watt’s response and the reactions of other city leaders he’s spoken to that this will be an uphill battle.
“Their reforms are not in the same spirit or to the same level as the 8 Can’t Wait,” he said.
Although he is buoyed by the diverse turnout among the crowds at recent protests, Dayo said he isn’t optimistic about the future, at least until those of like mind are appointed to positions of influence.
Several members of the Ogden City Council, he said, as well as Mayor Mike Caldwell, are “not at all” receptive to the changes he wants to achieve, or are sitting on the fence.
But, as Dayo told the audience Saturday, this isn’t an issue people can ignore or abstain from taking a position on. “You have to pick a side,” he said.
“That’s why we’re going to continue holding these rallies,” Dayo said.