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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that bans a municipality from creating an independent civilian board that oversees a city’s police department passed through Utah’s Legislature during the final day of the 2019 session Thursday despite heavy criticism from multiple activist groups.
HB415, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, and Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, cleared through the Senate with a 20-7 vote Thursday afternoon and passed through the House with a 61-12 vote a few hours later. The House had passed the bill on March 5 before it was amended in a Senate committee.
The bill states a municipality may create a civilian board, committee or other entity that looks into law enforcement services, but those groups wouldn’t have authority over a police chief or policies. Boards could not overrule a hiring or appointment proposal made by the chief or be required to review or approve a police department’s budget, rules, regulations, policies or procedures.
A board wouldn’t have the ability to veto a new policy or strike down a current policy established by a police chief. The bill previously included county sheriffs as well, but that portion was amended out of the final bill. Ipson said that was changed because sheriffs are elected officials.
In short, the bill doesn’t change the current procedures in the state.
So why was the bill brought up?
Ipson said it’s a “pre-emptive thing” against "anti-law enforcement activist" groups rising in Salt Lake City.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, added that he believed elected officials have “the responsibility and accountability to answer back to the people,” not an independent board.
“We haven’t seen this come to Utah yet. There is a movement across the country to have unaccountable groups who have an agenda that is anti-law enforcement establish these authoritative boards to investigate,” he said. “They want to be the judge, jury and executioner, and condemn our law enforcement.”
The groups who opposed the bill argue it wasn’t necessary because those types of boards haven’t been created in Utah yet. They hoped to at least have those discussions in the future to combat any problems related to police violence.
Earlier in March, David Newlin, an organizer for Utahns Against Police Brutality, told KSL.com he thought the measure was “a solution without a problem.” He and Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, said their groups would like to a “democratically elected” community-controlled civilian review board similar to one created in Chicago but adjusted to Utah laws and standards.
While those independent civilian groups could still meet to discuss policy, they wouldn’t ever be able to force change if HB415 passes.
“This is what oversight needs,” Newlin said. “You’re supposed to have an independent body — somebody who is fundamentally removed from the body you’re overseeing otherwise you’re running into problems and running into conflicts of interest.”
Scott also opposed the bill for the same reasons. She thinks it will hinder police accountability and transparency.
“It is complete and total government overreach. It takes away power from municipalities to have any power over their own police departments,” she said. “This bill was created to combat something that has not even happened.”
Speaking on the Senate floor before the bill passed, Ipson criticized activist groups as the reason the bill needed to be passed.
“What we’re having is anti-law enforcement activist groups trying to take over these community councils and be negative toward the police department,” he said. “This simply gives it a clarity on the line that the city council and the mayor have the jurisdiction to do it. … There isn’t a problem now, but we feel like there is one coming if we don’t do this.”
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, was among those who voted against the bill.
“I’m going to vote no because I cannot restrict something that hasn’t happened yet and we don’t know what the outcome would be,” she said during the roll call vote.
The bill eventually passed Utah’s Senate and House without much struggle. It now sits on Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk to be signed into law. He has until April 3 to decide whether to sign it, veto it, or allow it become law without his signature.
Contributing: Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com