SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is joining other areas in the country in adjusting police protocols in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month, in which a Minnesota police officer was seen on video pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes before his death.
Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday called for a few new changes related to concerns brought up within Utah’s minority communities, including a statewide ban of chokeholds by law enforcement officials.
In particular, Herbert said he is directing the Utah Department of Public Safety and the Department of Corrections to adjust Peace Officer Standards and Training rules to ensure that no state public safety or corrections officers use chokeholds or restraints that pressure the neck or spine.
“I’m calling on all police agencies in the state of Utah, which there are many, to review their own policies to make sure they are in alignment with our POST training that we have for all our POST-certified officers,” he said during a press briefing that covered a wide array of recent topics impacting the state.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office said this essentially equates to a statewide ban.
The governor added he’s also working with the state’s public safety commissioner to find ways the state can reduce fear of police in minority communities in Utah because “nobody should have a fear of our police.” The commissioner was directed by the state to have a review of procedures that’s due July 1.
A special legislative session will also be next week that will mostly handle economic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic but would also look at ways that might add new laws to address police procedures and transparency. Herbert later explained he’s been in discussions with legislators to see what policies from POST training can be added into state law.
Other changes announced Thursday include that Utah’s director of multicultural affairs Nubia Peña and Utah’s director of Indian affairs Dustin Jansen have been “elevated virtually into a cabinet position” in the governor’s office. They will now report directly to the governor and participate in the state’s weekly leadership briefings, according to Herbert.
Herbert said new changes Thursday are just the beginning in an effort to take action when addressing inequality concerns in the state, adding that the events of the past couple of weeks have been a “sobering.” They’ve been a reminder that those in Utah’s minority communities continue to experience discrimination.
“I think everyone deserves dignity and I think we have far too many people in our society — even here in Utah — that do not enjoy the fairness of dignity that the law desires them to have and the ideal that’s set up by our United States Constitution,” Herbert said.
“We, in the state of Utah, can do better,” he later added. “I think, as a country, we can do better. Utah was founded as a place of refuge for those who were seeking an escape from persecution and those who had a hatred for them. We can do better to live up to the idea that our state was founded upon and what our country was founded upon by improving our actions and our interactions with those we associate with and in the policies that we, in fact, create.”
His chokehold announcement comes a day after the Salt Lake City Police Department announced changes to its protocol to ban chokeholds and also using tear gas on crowds. Similar calls have been made across the country. A Utah legislator and members of Utah’s NAACP chapter announced plans last week to file legislation that would ban the practice of chokeholds and knee holds.
The changes announced Thursday also come after Herbert had a “heartfelt” joint meeting with Utah’s Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission and Utah’s Multicultural Commission. The groups are expected to meet again next month to address state policies and impacts on Utah’s minority communities.
In explaining his decision for law enforcement changes, Herbert said he was “horrified” by how Floyd was treated prior to his death. The governor added that what made it even more difficult to comprehend is that Floyd's death came while within the custody of someone sworn to serve and protect others.
The officer who was seen pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck has since been charged with murder in the case and three other officers who were standing by during the incident were also charged for inaction.
Floyd's death sparked protests across the globe, including in communities all around Utah. Protesters have convened and marched nearly every day in Salt Lake City over the past two weeks. They've called for changes in policing and for state and local leaders to address racial inequality, especially within Utah's black community.
“Such an abuse of power is never acceptable,” Herbert said. “We have a social contract that’s designed to help us understand the rule of law, where everybody — no matter their ethnicity, the color of their skin, their background, religious or sexual orientation (or) gender — is held equally under the law to give them safe haven and know that they will be protected, and they’ll be served by those in law enforcement.”