Responding to a national wave of demonstrations for racial justice and police reform this summer that included a local rally of Moab citizens, the City of Moab issued a proclamation on June 4, 2020, recognizing the need for reform in law enforcement nationwide and mourning the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis in May.
The statement, signed by Mayor Emily Niehaus and Moab Police Chief Bret Edge, advocated for multicultural awareness and equality and included a pledge to review the Moab City Police Department’s current use-of-force policy by engaging community members and to report those findings to the public.
Edge announced the formation of that use-of-force policy review task force at an Oct. 27 Moab City Council meeting. The review group includes representatives from Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center, Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, the Department of Workforce Services, Full Circle Intertribal Center and Moab PRIDE.
“These are folks that the police department has worked with in the past and that we have a really good working relationship with,” said Edge.
As of Jan. 12, the group has been in contact over email but has not had a meeting. Any formal meetings and details of how and when findings will be published have not been established. Edge said the group’s report will likely be published in the form of a press release, but he indicated that the review may take some time.
Task force members have been reviewing the MPD use-of-force policy and communicating through email. Edge provided the Moab Sun News with a copy of the current use-of-force policy, but noted that “it is fluid and there may (or may not) be changes to it as a result of the review.”
“The goal of the review is to ensure that our use-of-force and associated policies are consistent with community expectations, state and federal law, and current best practices within the industry,” Edge told the Moab Sun News in a Dec. 8 email.
“This won’t be a quick, short term project—I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would be,” Edge said at the Oct 27 council meeting.
On June 23, Edge gave a presentation at a Moab City Council meeting addressing policy reforms proposed by an advocacy group called 8 Can’t Wait. Some of the group’s recommendations are bans on chokeholds and strangleholds, a requirement that officers exhaust all other alternatives before resorting to force, the imposition of a duty to intervene for officers witnessing inappropriate use-of-force by other officers and the implementation of comprehensive reporting of instances of use-of-force, among other policy recommendations.
Edge said that he believed that MPD’s existing use-of-force policies were in-line with most of the reform goals. However, MPD policy uses “should” language that is flexible towards officer conduct, rather than strictly mandating officer behavior standards.
Edge defended use of the word “should” rather than the more rigid “shall” in existing policies, with one exception: the duty of an officer to intervene when observing another officer using excessive force.
“I don’t think this is something that an officer should have any discretion on,” said Edge, adding that officers have a duty to report any misconduct or violation of policy by another officer, not just in use-of-force cases.
Current MPD use-of-force policy provided to the Moab Sun News says an officer observing a department member using excessive force “must, when in a position to do so, intercede to prevent the use of unreasonable force.” It goes on to say an officer “must promptly report” such an incident to a supervisor.
Edge also expressed interest in incorporating de-escalation guidelines more explicitly into the use-of-force policy, another recommendation from 8 Can’t Wait.
The MPD contracts with a Texas-based company called Lexipol to create policy rather than writing its own. The private, for-profit company provides boilerplate policies to public safety departments and law enforcement agencies, which those agencies may then customize.
“Before we implement any policies we go through and review them and decide whether or not they’re workable as is, or if we need to make adjustments to those,” Edge said.
An analysis called “Lexipol: the Privatization of Police Policymaking,” published in 2018 in The Texas Law Review, a respected legal journal, examined the growing dominance of Lexipol in the private policymaking market. The authors found that Lexipol focuses on liability risks to a department, rather than focusing on effective practices and protection of citizens.
The analysis also concluded that using policies created by private contractors reduces transparency and public participation in the crafting of those policies.
Lexipol has attracted criticism from legal reform advocates specifically for its use-of-force recommendations, which are vaguer and allow more latitude to officers than recommendations within the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force, a model policy developed by law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In a blog post in 2017, a Lexipol founder strongly warned police departments against using words like “shall” and “necessary” in policy.
Some members of Moab’s use-of-force policy review group see the task force as a chance not only to review policy but to deepen understanding between organizations.
Luke Wojciechowski is deputy executive director at Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center. Seekhaven and the Moab Police Department often work together and, in 2019, both organizations participated in a “lethality assessment” training to help identify dangerous situations early and prevent escalation. [See “Before it’s too late” in the Oct. 31, 2019 edition. -ed.]
“Because of the nature of the work we do, a lot of our clients have some sort of police involvement in their lives,” Wojciechowski said, “so it’s incumbent on us to have a good relationship with them.”
Wojciechowski said one of Seekhaven’s objectives in this effort is to give a voice to members of the community who feel their negative experiences with the legal system have been unheard.
“They feel as though those systems have failed them, or that they don’t know how to navigate those systems,” Wojciechowski said.
Rhiana Medina is the director of the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, which provides social services, translation services and other kinds of advocacy. She said she hopes to emphasize the need for clear, accessible and public information on law enforcement and legal procedures and policies.
“People come to the center every single day asking for help with things that are sometimes simple and sometimes extremely complicated,” Medina explained. Medina said that it’s difficult for even professional advocates to find correct, pertinent, understandable information about legal procedures or policies.
“If information isn’t clear and easy to obtain, it’s really hard for community members to advocate for themselves,” she said. She emphasized that the MPD review needs to be an ongoing effort.
“Demographics are constantly changing and the needs of our policing and community organizations are also going to move and change,” she said. “Having an attitude of always striving to do better is a good thing and that policy review should happen often.”
Civilian oversight elsewhere in Utah
In some other Utah towns, civilian oversight of law enforcement is much more formalized.
Salt Lake City established a Police Civilian Review Board in 2002 that serves an advisory role in evaluating citizen complaints of police misconduct. The board releases public quarterly reports on the cases it reviews; their last report, from October 2020, included 122 internal affairs matters, including administrative incidents, firearm discharges and pursuits.
This year, Salt Lake City created a separate body called the Commission on Racial Equity and Policing in response to the widespread law enforcement reform movement. Members include representatives from the Black Utah Roundtable and other human rights groups. Part of the commission’s mandate is to recommend policy changes to the Salt Lake City Police Department based on best practices and local needs.
The city of South Salt Lake, which has a population of about 25,000, is in the process of establishing its own Citizen Review Board, using West Valley City’s existing civilian oversight board as a model.
“All cities are eventually going to have to look into their policies and update them,” said South Salt Lake City Councilmember Corey Thomas. Discussions began in July and the council is still working on details of how the board will function.
“There’s been a lot of little things, like how do you determine who’s going to be on the board, how long do they serve, how often are they meeting,” said Thomas.
Thomas said ensuring that the board member selection process is independent is important.
“I know our residents would probably have an issue with our police chief picking the members,” she said. “That would be an issue that we would want to avoid.”
Civilian oversight boards have limited powers in the state of Utah under House Bill 415, which was passed in 2019. That legislation prohibits municipalities from establishing entities with authority independent of the chief of police. House Bill 74, which will be considered during the 2021 general session, would reverse HB 415.
Reform advocates continue to push for further changes at the Utah State Legislature, and several other bills reflecting that momentum will be considered in the 2021 general session.
House Bill 133 would require the release of police video footage of incidents involving death, injury, or firing of a weapon, as well as incidents that are the subject of a use-of-force complaint.
Senate Bill 13, sponsored by Sen. Jani Iwamoto (D-District 4), would require transparency between departments regarding any officer who is under investigation, and in some cases require those investigations be turned over to the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Division.
Senate Bill 68, sponsored by Sen. David Buxton (R-District 20), would create a funding program for the purchase of technology and equipment to assist investigations of police officer incidents involving a firearm, as well as appropriate $2 million for the Utah Department of Public Safety.
More reform bills may surface as the 2021 general session begins on Jan. 19.
No recommendations thus far from community task force