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The City Journals

Who’s in the ‘driver’s seat’ when it comes to police policy?

Jun 24, 2020 11:38AM ● By Zak Sonntag

(Justin Adams/The City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by suffocation under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, has catalyzed a groundswell of public protest and ongoing demands for reform. Floyd is just the latest in a spate of racially implicated police killings across the country in recent years, but the lurid nature of his demise, caught on camera and gone viral, seems to have pushed the collective conscience past a point of no return, as protests have become a feature of daily life.

Cities, states, and even the federal government have responded swiftly with new laws and regulations. In June, Utah legislators passed a law outlawing the use and training of “knee-on-neck” restraints in policing. Salt Lake City Police Department clarified guidelines that disallow the application of direct pressure to the neck or throat of a suspect “unless…necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death [of an officer],” Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown told reporters.

Even municipalities without histories of misconduct, like Holladay, are having to grapple with the issue, as residents call for assurance that their city’s policing policies reflect the community values.

“What initiatives are in place to make sure it’s fair toward people of color? Are there trainings, and what processes are in place to make sure there are open and internal accountability, to make sure that the people of color are safe?” asked Allie Teller, a Holladay resident speaking during a June public hearing before the City Council. “We cannot assume that our neighborhood is immune to the discrimination that we’ve seen across the nation, and it’s your job to make sure that we feel confident in our police.”

The heightened public scrutiny has brought to light overlooked aspects inherent to the city’s contract-model of policing, and city officials were caught flat-footed by some of the residents questions, and themselves had to ask, “What influence do we as a city have on police policy when we’re not really in the driver seat the way we would be with our own police force? It’s important for us to review,” said Paul Fotheringham, in response to the public hearing.

The review is underway. As the shape of the city’s relationship to its police department comes into relief, we come to understand there are limits to the city’s ability to oversee the department. So where, exactly, does the buck stop?

Unified Police Department

The Unified Police Department (UPD) of Greater Salt Lake is a police department that serves over 200,000 residents in communities across the county. It’s overseen by a 12-person board comprised of representatives from each of the participating cities and townships. Mayor Robert Dahle represents Holladay on the UPD board.

“UPD is actively looking at its policy. I don’t think this problematic behavior is in UPD. But that has been out there and in some places its obviously rampant. We don’t want that or to be involved with an organization that has policies or leadership that would condone that type of behavior. So we could have a policy to make sure that bad behavior has checks and balances.” said Dahle at a June 18 council meeting.

At UPD, policy is set by board members along with the executive branch, a six-person body headed by Sheriff Rosie Riviera. But many decisions are left to the executives, who enjoy a certain latitude and can only be overruled with a majority vote by the board.

During Holladay’s City Council meetings in June, members expressed interest in establishing a independent review board to deal with potential officer-involved incidents at UPD.

“We want to have a review process that’s outside of the chain of command. We need to know what the accountability path is, and be informed if there are complaints, rather than hearing about it in the newspaper, which is too late for us,” said Councilmember Paul Fotheringham.

Trouble here, albeit, is that state law denies cities this power of immediate oversite. HB 415, which passed into law in 2019, “Prohibits a municipality from establishing a board or committee with certain powers over a police chief.” The language of the bill limits the authority of civil service commissions meant for direct oversight. Therefore, the type of review board the council envisions would not be legal.

Contracting with UPD is efficient for small- to medium-sized cities because it allows them to pool funding for comprehensive police resources, including an array of special services—from forensics, to violent crimes investigation, to SWAT and Collision Reconstruction Analysis. This dramatically lowers the city’s cost, but also minimizes their role and authority at the policy level. The model may be a little too hands-off, however, given the city does not appear to be abreast of its own role and authority over accountability in the ranks.

Nonetheless, the council categorically applauded its precinct leader, Police Chief Justin Hoyal. According to Hoyal, UPD plans to release updates to its training curriculum this month, which will include increased training on de-escalation tactics.

“De-escalation is mostly being able to talk to somebody. It’s just communicating well and talking somebody whose noncompliant into being compliant,” Hoyal said.

“Anybody that has a complaint can call and speak to a supervisor, and aside from that there is a separate internal affairs unit. If there was a major complaint, it’d go to internal affairs and then it would go to management. So, there is quite a process when it comes to major complaints. There are several different layers. UPD has been pretty progressive in its policies, but anytime we’ve had a major incident, we always go back and see how we could do it better.”

Generally, residents expressed confidence in leaders for their willingness to address systemic issues in policing.

“I’m grateful you’re looking at this. Maybe we require anti-bias training. It makes me happy to hear that you are open to having a dialogue,” said resident Teller.