What Happened to the Push for Police Reform in Utah?
When the marching paused, the legislating began
By our count, the Utah Legislature considered 34 bills related to law enforcement practices and reform during the 2021 session. 21 of those bills became law, with 18 of that subset making a “positive” contribution to police reform according to our analysis.
Pretty good results, right?
So why does the aftermath of the 2021 Utah Legislative Session seem like a failure when it comes to holding law enforcement accountable?
Probably because the clamor from last summer’s marches and rallies for substantial police reform, which echoed from city streets to corporate boardrooms to celebrity tweets, resulted in only modest changes by Utah lawmakers. The quantity of the bills, it turns out, is less important than the quality of the reforms they contain.
Equally important is the continuing trend of Black, Indigenous people of color being killed by law enforcement across the county in 2021, adding more outrage and sorrow to the 2020 deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, as well as the near-record 19 individuals killed by police in Utah last year. As we said after the April 20 guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, “Justice is More than One Verdict.” We believe justice requires significant changes to law enforcement policies, training, and accountability that is best realized through comprehensive and effective legislation. Continue reading for our explanation on how Utah lawmakers have started on the pathway to police reform, but still have much distance to travel before claiming real progress.
Some of the most promising bills introduced this year at the Utah Legislature failed to advance, such as H.B. 74 (reestablish local control over civilian review boards), H.B. 245 (restrict no-knock warrants), and H.B. 367 (allow lawsuits against police agencies that violate a person's constitutional rights).
Bills that passed and became law, such as H.B. 345 (places limits on contracts for school resource officers), were altered through multiple amendments that made their eventual impact far less than their initial promise. While amendments are often necessary to craft better legislation and gain crucial votes, they can also gut bills with too many compromises. That’s what happened with two police reform bills that were amended so heavily they shifted 180-degrees from being positive legislation to being bills that we might have opposed if they had advanced further in the legislature (note: neither bill passed).
Other successful bills were designed to set the groundwork for future reform efforts, such as H.B. 84’s requirement for statewide data collection on use of force incidents, or H.B. 290’s framework for reforming the state’s probation and parole system. Another bill, H.B. 62, made administrative reforms to the discipline measures the state’s law enforcement certification agency can issue against officers under investigation.
Stopping Bad Bills
It is also important to remember that not all law enforcement bills being considered in 2021 were positive. Last summer’s protests and rallies also encouraged some conservative lawmakers to propose bills that sought to chill free speech activities by enhancing penalties for “rioting” and other crimes. Utah was not immune from this pushback against police reform, and the ACLU of Utah and our allies expended considerable energy to block these bills during this year’s session. But while Utah lawmakers introduced a half-dozen anti-protest bills, only one of them become law: H.B. 58. Under this new law, a person arrested for rioting must appear before a judge before being released and pay restitution if convicted. The worst of Utah’s anti-protest bills, which fortunately did not pass, was S.B. 138. We dubbed this proposal the “license to kill” bill as early versions of the text shielded drivers from civil or criminal penalties for killing or injuring protestors with a motor vehicle.
Looking back, the Utah Legislature made small but promising advances towards police reform in 2021. While the high-profile reforms we championed, like restoring civilian review boards or limiting qualified immunity, failed to pass out of a single committee, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were able to convince their colleagues to make moderate changes in areas like data collection on use of force incidents, increased training, and administrative discipline. We can hope, and will demand, that these initial changes lay the groundwork for more and deeper reforms in future years.