Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill suggests 22 ways to change Utah’s use of force laws

Saying that Utah laws are “more generous to law enforcement officers than other members of our community,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill released a list of the proposed changes on when on Monday. the police are justified in using deadly force.

He wrote in the letter, which was sent to state legislators, the attorney general, the governor, and the candidates for governor, that the time has come to reexamine and change those use of force laws.

“The use of deadly force by the police has been under scrutiny for years,” he wrote. “As evidenced by the past two months of protests, both here and across the country, the application of current legal standards for the use of force by officers has produced reasonably questioned results by many people in our communities. . When community expectations collide so strongly with what the law requires, a reexamination of what the law is and a thorough discussion of where it could go is not only timely but crucial. ”

He is one of several local leaders who have proposed changing the laws after protesters took to the streets almost every day for two months since the death of May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed in Minneapolis during an arrest. . Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she “would support changes to the state code on the use of deadly force and the legal standard for what is ‘reasonable’.”

On Monday, he thanked Gill for what he called a “thoughtful review and first step” on the question on the use of force.

“You are absolutely right: if we want different results, we need different laws,” said the mayor. “I look forward to digesting these proposals and discussing them with our stakeholders, including the Racial Equity Commission and our law enforcement officers.”

Utah lawmakers have already banned knee-neck strangles, such as what the officer who killed Floyd used, and promised new reforms. Six state lawmakers, who identify themselves as racial or ethnic minorities, said last week that they continue to have “serious concerns” over the death of Palacios-Carbajal, but acknowledge that prosecutors are operating under a restrictive law, one that makes it “be very unlikely that the police officer – The shootings involved are always criminally prosecuted, even if they unreasonably use lethal force. “

Gill said he hopes his suggestions will generate discussion and engagement among stakeholders. These are some of the changes it proposes.

Utah law says officers can legally kill someone if they “reasonably believe” that they must do so to prevent death or serious bodily injury to an officer or another person.

For those who are not police officers, the law differs: A citizen can claim self-defense only if there is a reasonable belief that the “imminent use” of the other person’s force could cause death or serious injury.

Gill suggested that the law be changed so that officers, like citizens, need to observe “imminent danger” before using deadly force.

Gill suggests amending the laws so that prosecutors and courts can consider whether non-lethal force was reasonably available and effective, rather than lethal force. He also suggested that the police be required to try to scale down or not scale up whenever reasonably possible, and to make a justification defense unavailable if the officer escalates the situation.

“Many police uses of lethal force involve suspects with mental illness who threaten to harm themselves, are alone in a place with no reasonable chance of escape, or threaten to harm third parties with improbable or unavailable means (eg, threats cutting with a butter knife, threats from a significant distance, threats of serious harm without the means to do so), ”he wrote. “In those cases, both common sense and human empathy dictate that de-escalation and self-containment should be used whenever possible.”

The district attorney also suggested that the law be changed to prohibit the use of lethal force when people pose a danger only to themselves.

Gill suggested several changes that would make police disciplinary records more available to the public. Noting that some police officers withdraw or resign before internal investigations are completed, she suggested requiring police agencies to complete those investigations, even if the officer has left the department. He also suggested that those investigations be considered public records if the allegations are sustained.

In addition, he proposed creating a statewide search database that is publicly available to officers who have suffered charges of excessive force, dishonesty, discrimination, or misconduct towards others based on any protected class.

Current law says police must give an oral warning before using deadly force “if possible.” Gill suggested changing the law so that officers must identify themselves as police and warn that he or she intends to use firearms or other deadly physical force before doing so.

He also suggested improving officers’ physical training on the value and effective uses of non-lethal force.

“When it comes to split-second decisions, as is often the case when law enforcement protects the public, there is significant evidence that muscle memory plays a crucial role, perhaps the crucial role, in fitness the officers respond to, “he wrote. “This means that the physical and practical training of an officer, both for certification and for later years, probably plays a much more important role than, for example, classroom instruction.”

He also suggested that police departments order significant and implicit biased evidence-based training.

Reaction to the changes proposed by Gill

Nathan Morris, an attorney representing the Palacios-Carbajal family, endorsed many of Gill’s proposals, such as imposing the “imminent danger” standard on police and narrowing the scope of crimes that would justify his use of lethal force. . If they were in place, he reasoned, such reforms could have caused officers to stop before repeatedly firing on Palacios-Carbajal in May.

“Legislation, policy reform, and training are really important. Mr. Gill has been very thorough in his analysis, so [are] appreciates the work you have put into this, ”said Morris. “While welcome, we continue to maintain that even under the standards set forth in current Utah law for the use of deadly force, Mr. Gill had every right and opportunity to press charges against officers.”

Current law allows officers to shoot a suspect who attempts to evade arrest if the person is suspected of committing a serious crime involving a threat to inflict death or serious injury. Morris highlighted Gill’s proposal to limit the use of force in these situations to crimes “involving extreme violence.”

“That’s really valuing life on property,” said Morris. He also liked Gill’s proposal to convene grand juries to weigh possible charges against police officers, a move that would bail out prosecutors for making these difficult and politically difficult decisions and putting them in the hands of citizens.

“We want the public to see what happened,” said Morris. “We are comforted by the fact that Mr. Gill says changes must be made.”

A representative of a police officer organization was much more cautious in his reaction to the use of force reforms suggested by the district attorney.

“There is a great national conversation and a strong ongoing local conversation between the police, the legislators, the civic rights organizations. This is just another entry to consider, ”said Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah State Fraternal Police Order. “Unilaterally redefining ‘imminent threat’ is not going to work. We have to have a broader conversation about the legal structures that govern the use of force and how they interact with community expectations.”

Police officers want to be part of any debate about changing the legal parameters for lethal force, and they don’t want to see him kidnapped by any official or driven by a single high-profile case, according to Adams, who had not had a chance to Fully read Gill’s 22 proposals on Monday night.

Police are a responsive industry. He is constantly being challenged. It’s a healthy conversation, but it has to be more than a DA and his vision, “he said. “We must not approach the reform of the use of force as a way of doing [a specific officer-involved] shooting illegally. That is myopic.

Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this report.

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