Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon urged the Utah Legislature on Tuesday to toughen criminal penalties against rioters.
Arbon said he and several other county sheriffs want legislation that would protect law enforcement officers and raise the stakes for people who choose to riot.
“We have had some concerns with the riots and some other situations going on around this nation, and some locally,” Arbon said during testimony to the Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
The committee conducted a video hearing, with Arbon and others participating remotely.
Arbon said he and other county law enforcement personnel went to help police in Salt Lake City after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Most people there were truly there to protest peaceably,” Arbon said. “But there were lone wolves who were interested in exploiting the protests or taking the opportunity to do criminal behavior.”
Dozens of people were arrested, many for disorderly conduct. Some were charged with more serious crimes, including a Hill Air Force Base airman and four other people now facing federal arson charges in the destruction of a Salt Lake City police car.
Arbon said sheriffs and legislative staff members have been studying tougher rioting laws recently written in several other states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma.
In Tennessee, lawmakers imposed a 45-day mandatory minimum jail stay for the charge of rioting, said John Feinauer, a policy analyst for the Utah Legislature.
Utah’s current riot charge does not have mandatory jail time, he said.
The basic riot charge here is a class B misdemeanor, Feinauer said, although riotous conduct can be raised to a third-degree felony depending on severity.
Tennessee also boosted fines for rioting and widened the restitution structure to cover all costs of repairing or replacing damaged property, he said.
Other offenses such as criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and failure to disperse are other areas being looked at, the analyst said.
Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen said he supports the study to give greater protections to first responders.
On a motion by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the committee voted to open a bill file and have legislation developed for consideration this fall and in the 2021 legislative session.
“We want to encourage protesting but we don’t want to encourage rioting,” said the committee chairperson, Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry.
No others testified on the issue Tuesday.
Earlier this year, Utah lawmakers passed a bill banning police chokeholds. Floyd, a Black suspect, died under the knee of a white Minneapolis officer.
Protests and rioting occurred around the country after Floyd’s death.