Proposals by Salt Lake County’s district attorney to further regulate police use of deadly force are meeting ferocious opposition from defenders of law enforcement.
Sim Gill on Monday offered a 22-point list of potential changes in state law that among other things would put police on an equal footing with the general public in justification for use of deadly force.
“The laws justifying deadly force in Utah are more generous to law enforcement officers than to other members of our community,” Gill said.
Existing law gives an absolute defense to prosecution whenever an officer, having used deadly force, reasonably believed the subject posed a serious threat to the officer or others, Gill said.
Gill released his proposal a few days after Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency due to civil unrest that erupted after Gill announced that Salt Lake City police officers had acted legally in May when they fired more than 30 times at Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, 22, as he ran away.
“This is the ‘Sim Gill don’t become a police officer’ proposal,” Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said in an interview Thursday.
“We continue to ask police officers to do an incredibly dangerous job on a relatively low salary scale, and now we’re going to make it much easier for you to be sued civilly and prosecuted criminally,” Rawlings said of Gill’s proposals.
And the Utah Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement condemning Gill’s proposals.
“Enacting such measures will cripple Utah law enforcement and the public will pay the price,” the FOP said. “Crime rates will skyrocket because many cops will leave or refuse to enter the profession, not because they desire to be bad cops, but because the profession will become unworkable and even more fraught with risk.”
The FOP added, “Cops that do stay will not be proactive and will simply take reports after a crime has been committed.”
Rawlings questioned whether there have been many cases in Utah that rise to the level of the George Floyd and Breanna Taylor deaths that have generated national controversy and criminal charges against officers involved.
“Those are egregious killings of human beings,” he said. “You can see why people are mad about it, but something is being done about them. Those officers crossed that line and those cases are being prosecuted.”
But enacting “disincentives” to police officers to enter or stay in the profession is not the answer, Rawlings said.
“We’re going to make it easier for them to get killed, sued, prosecuted,” under Gill’s proposals, Rawlings said.
Rawlings said he’s prosecuted more than a dozen law enforcement officers during his tenure, although none in use-of-force cases.
He said his opposition to Gill’s proposals “does not mean I’m condoning police misconduct.”
Rawlings said he favors greater training and funding of police rather than changing use-of-force laws.
“Let’s have that debate and see what the community thinks,” he said.
Rawlings and the FOP both questioned Gill’s motives.
“Our desire to protect the communities in which we live goes beyond Mr. Gill’s desire to create a political platform in a run-up to an attorney general race in 2024,” the FOP said.
“He’s pandering to the protesters outside of his office, but what he’s really saying is, ‘I really wanted to go after these cops,’” Rawlings said.
Gill responded Thursday to the FOP’s criticism.
“The proposals are recommendations and blueprint for a conversation, to change laws, if we wish to, through participatory democracy,” Gill said. “The FOP seems less willing to engage in constructive dialogue rather than seek to collaboratively establish standards that would provide clarity to both our community and law enforcement.”
He said balancing the difficulty of police work with the expectations of the community “deserves a hearing, a debate.”
“I have faith that police officers will rise to the standards given to them,” Gill said. “They too deserve clarity to what the community of citizens expect.
“Our goal in preparing this list of policy proposals was not to dictate, but to inform and engage our policymakers and communities in a conversation that is both long overdue and vital to our very existence as a nation.”
A similar debate is occurring in Ogden, where Police Chief Randy Watt last month issued an extensive statement on his department’s use-of-force policies.
Watt and other city leaders have so far rejected demands by Black Lives Matter and other protesters to significantly rein in use of deadly force.
Utah Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he skimmed Gill’s proposals, “and some of those looked good to me.”
The Legislature in June passed a law banning chokeholds, “which was a step in the right direction,” Weiler said.
That’s probably just the beginning.
“In one form or another, we will have a bunch of George Floyd-related legislation next session, and that’s not a bad thing,” Weiler said.