SALT LAKE CITY – Among the numerous police reform proposals now filed for future reference by the closing gavel of the 2021 general session of the Utah Legislature is House Bill 66.
Ironically, that missed opportunity suggested by Rep. Casey Snider, R-District 5, would actually have increased the authority of law enforcement officials in an emergency situation.
“Big policy shifts take time and good ideas need to be fully vetted before they can be come law,” Snider said philosophically when it became obvious late in the 45-day general session of the Legislature that HB 66 was going to languish in the House Rules Committee.
“That’s what we’re going to do with this proposal,” he explained. “I intend to work with the Utah Sheriffs Association and with prosecutors from various counties over the next 12 months to craft some version of this proposal that will be introduced again next year.”
As originally drafted, HB 66 specified that the authority of a county sheriff would supersede that of a municipal police chief in the event that those officials disagree over the employment of law enforcement resources during a riot, civil disturbance or other breech of the peace.
The rationale behind that determination, according to Snider, is that fact that a county sheriff is an elected official accountable to the voters, while a police chief is a hired civil servant.
“I think that we’re all in agreement that what we saw in Salt Lake City in May of 2020 is unacceptable,” Snider said, explaining his motivation for introducing HB 66. “We’ve got to make sure that law enforcement can be used in a way that preserves public safety and doesn’t get tied up in territorial conflicts between cities and counties.”
In the wake of the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police in late May of last year, civil unrest broke out in many American cities.
In Salt Lake City, angry protestors torched a police car, vandalized buildings, damaged TRAX facilities and pelted police officers with rocks, bricks and water bottles.
While city officials praised the “restraint” shown by local police officers in wisely avoiding confrontation with the demonstrators, deputies from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office stood fuming on the sidelines.
“That impasse was the result of a mayor putting political pressure on a city police chief to stand down in a time of crisis,” Snider argued in a recent virtual town hall sponsored by the Cache County GOP. “Meanwhile, we had sheriff’s resources at the county level in Salt Lake and other counties in the state that were ready to respond. They were prepared to punch back against those rioters that ultimately desecrated our state Capitol.
“The reason those resources were held back was purely political. It was not a question of public safety.”
“I really like the general idea (of HB 66),” said Rep. Dan Johnson, R-District 4. “What we don’t want to have happening is a police force and a sheriff’s department at odds, standing back in an emergency and nobody doing anything. That’s a problem.”
When it comes to being stalled in the recently concluded legislative session, HB 66 – which is officially entitled “Sheriffs Amendments” — is by no means alone. Fully 60 percent of the more than 1,200 bills introduced or requested by Utah lawmakers failed to pass during the 2021 general session. All of those lingering proposals have now been filed by the clerks of the Utah House and Senate as unfinished business.
Snider freely admitted back in January that passage of his proposal was a long shot in this session of the Legislature.
“But (HB 66) has already initiated conversations about this issue,” he added. “Whether this bill passes in the future and brings about a fundamental shift in policy, or it prompts debate that tends to reduce that kind of misguided political pressure in the future, I’d consider either of those outcomes a victory.”