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Salt Lake County DA suggests major changes to police shootings laws
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Salt Lake County DA suggests major changes to police shootings laws

(DA Sim Gill speaks at a press conference on his decision of the Bernardo Palacios Carbajal shooting. Credit: Steve Griffin, July 9, 2020, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE COUNTY – The top prosecutor in the county says if the public wants to see changes when it comes to police shootings, it needs to happen at the Utah State Capitol.  He’s suggesting over 20 different things lawmakers should take a closer look at when they reconvene for the next legislative session.  He’s getting praise from some former police leaders, but harsh criticism from community activists.

The office of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office was heavily damaged after Sim Gill announced the shooting of Bernardo Palacios Carbajal was a “justified” use of deadly force.  He understands that decision angered many people looking for criminal charges against the officers who opened fire.

“I know there’s a log jam and people are asking, ‘What do we do?’  This is a way to try to break that log jam so we can have the productive conversation we need to have,” Gill says.

Gill says his office has been working on police brutality cases for over a decade, and without significant changes to Utah’s laws, people shouldn’t expect things to change on the streets. 

“You need to go beyond just protesting to actually help change the law,” he says.  “Our answer is going to have to be more than just creating listening tours and creating committees and giving platitudes which we do every 20 or 30 years.”

SLCo DA Proposal Officer Use of Deadly Force (July 13 2020)

There are 22 different suggestions about police shootings in Gill’s memo to lawmakers.  First on the list is for police to be held to the same standards for self-defense as non-officers.  That means officers wouldn’t be able to claim the shooting was justified if they were the aggressor and they would be limited in the number of crimes where they could use deadly force.

Also, Gill says officers should be required to use less lethal force if it’s available to them.  If they don’t the shooting can’t be deemed as justified.  Plus, Gill wants lawmakers to codify an “imperfect self-defense” clause, which would reduce the penalty if an officer had a reasonable belief of danger where there actually wasn’t one.

“We get into scenarios where the officer says, ‘Well, I thought he was reaching for a gun,’ and it turns out there was no gun,” Gill says.

Other recommendations include…

  • Amending the use-of force statute to define when deadly force is “necessary”
  • Requiring officers attempt to use de-escalation or non-escalation whenever reasonably possible
  • A shooting won’t be justified when the suspect doesn’t pose “imminent” danger to an officer or a third party
  • Prohibit the use of deadly for when someone is only threatening themselves
  • Authorize prosecutors to convene grand juries as an investigative tool
  • Create a database for officers with sustained charges of excessive force, dishonesty, discrimination or misconduct toward a protective class, and make their disciplinary records public


High praise from law enforcement

Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank says he applauds Gill for trying to tackle an issue that has been plaguing police departments for many years.

Burbank says, “We do not, as a profession, have the trust and confidence of the communities that we serve and a big portion of that is ‘use of force.’”

He says there have been several instances when officers put themselves in a dangerous situation under his watch, and those actions led to shots being fired.  If lawmakers enact Gill’s recommendations, Burbank says situations like that could be avoided. 

He says when it comes to the topic of police use of force, people on the far ends of the political spectrum fail to recognize the humanity of the other side.

“Unfortunately, what we have done is that anyone who is a centrist at all, on any issue, is shouted to death by either side.  At some point, we need to say there’s a better way to do business,” Burbank says.

Black Lives Matter Utah leaders “less than satisfied”

Some community advocates say Gill’s recommendations are nothing more than a deflection.  Black Lives Matter Utah Founder Lex Scott says Gill has the legal authority to charge police officers connected to shooting deaths, but he has mostly failed to do so.  She says if lawyers only argued what was legal in the 1800’s, African-Americans would still be considered only 3/5 of a person.   

“Sim Gill is doing what he always does.  He blames laws and statutes and says that he can’t prosecute police who break the law,” she says.

Scott also says there do need to be stronger excessive force policies, but she claims Gill is avoiding police prosecution be saying laws are getting in the way.

“I’m also saying that we need to pass laws for civilian oversight of police because, at this point, police are investigating themselves and finding themselves innocent.”

Moving forward with the recommendations

Lawmakers say they’ll take a close look at what Gill is suggesting.  Representative Lee Perry sits on the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, and he says other legislators already have bill files opened on some of Gill’s recommendations.

“I like the fact that we shouldn’t shoot somebody who I suicidal.  Law enforcement, overall, has a heavy policy on that.  They don’t want to shoot somebody who is suicidal an only threatening themselves,” Perry says.

However, there are other things that make him nervous, as a lawmaker.  He says they don’t want to have any knee-jerk reaction to any specific officer-involved shooting.

Perry says, “It’s horrible that people are dying on the street, but the thing people don’t realize is we have even more law enforcement officers being murdered every day [nationwide] than we have the public.” 

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