Utah House passes bill to ban police from using ‘knee on neck’ holds

Police maintain a line as they move to end protests over the death of George Floyd, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Daylong protests moved across the city Saturday after a peaceful demonstration against police brutality turned violent.

Police maintain a line as they move to end protests over the death of George Floyd, in Salt Lake City on May 30. the Utah House on Thursday passed a bill prohibiting police from kneeling on a person’s neck when restraining them. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Bill in wake of George Floyd’s death only ‘beginning of the conversation,’ sponsor says

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House of Representatives passed a special session bill on Thursday to ban Utah police from using a “knee on the neck” restraint like the one a Minneapolis officer used in the death of George Floyd.

It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, passed on a 69-5 vote, overwhelming support but not without a handful of House lawmakers arguing the bill was a “knee-jerk” reaction to something that didn’t and doesn’t happen in Utah.

But to Hollins, Utah’s only black lawmaker, SB5007, “sends a very powerful message” from Utah’s Legislature and law enforcement, telling minority communities “we hear you and we’re going to do something about” police violence.

“This is just the beginning of the conversation around what we need to do in this state to assure that this never happens to anyone,” Hollins said, her voice cracking with emotion as she addressed her House colleagues from a web camera. “Not to my kids, not to your kids, and how do we make sure that our police officers are not put in a position that they would have to go to court and defend the use of this.”

Hollins, in her closing remarks before a vote on the bill, said it was negotiated and agreed upon by members of Utah’s minority communities and law enforcement as simply a first step to dealing with a deeper, generational issue between police and minority communities.

“Our communities have been in fear for a long time,” Hollins said. “This is just a downpayment for them to say, ‘We hear you, we want you a part of our community, and we are going to make sure that you feel safe in this community.”

The bill, co-sponsored by a long list of lawmakers on both sides of the Democratic and Republican aisles.

The bill is likely to find support in the Senate, according to Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who told reporters he hopes the bill will pass in the Senate without any dissent.

“There is broad support for that bill and quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do,” Vickers said.

HB5007 would also prohibit peace officer training that includes the use of chokeholds or other restraints that may cause unconsciousness. It further would ban training in the use of carotid restraints or other methods that may impede breathing or blood circulation and cause unconsciousness.

While Utah’s Peace Officers Standards and Training does not teach those restraints, some police agencies in the state do.

Under the original version of the bill, an officer using knee pressure on someone’s neck or throat could be charged with aggravated assault, but the House voted to pass a substitute to the bill presented by Hollins that would make it a third-degree felony. If it results in serious bodily injury or loss of consciousness, it would be a second-degree felony, and if it results in death, it would be a first-degree felony.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, balked at that amendment, opposed to creating a “brand new crime” for that act. He also voted against the bill as a whole, arguing the Utah Legislature doesn’t “do knee-jerk reactions” and “rush to create criminal code in 24 days.”

“I think we should have deliberate discussions over the summer, and come back in the general session with a bill that does real reform,” Thurston said.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield; Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding; Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Bluffdale; and Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, all joined Thurston in voting against the bill.

Albrecht, who said footage of Floyd’s death “sickened him,” argued Utah is passing a bill that’s “maybe not necessary at this time” since Utah officers are not trained for knee-on-neck holds.

“I hope we’re not knee-jerk reacting to this bill,” he said. “I think the attention has already been drawn to law enforcement.”

But others, like Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said the Legislature is the “right body” to create this policy, and it’s a “law that needs to be passed.”

“The deeper, more chronic problem of racism we continue to struggle with,” Nelson said. “I would like to make a plea, as mother’s breathe reverence for the law, that they also breathe respect for individual rights and equality under the law. We are all equal — equal under the law and under heaven.”

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a retired Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, spoke in support of the bill, saying it sends a clear message Utah law enforcement does not condone or use knee-to-the neck restraints.

“Utah law enforcement is a different breed,” Perry said, noting that police don’t want unethical cops among their ranks. “That’s why Utah law enforcement leadership has stepped forward and supported this particular bill … The worst thing for a good cop is a bad cop.”

Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Salt Lake City, urged support for the bill, describing how Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” while the officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

“This is not who we are as a society,” Wheatley said. “This is not who we are as Utahns. And I say we need to have this bill codified so it never happens.”

A House political heavyweight, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, also backed the bill, saying it was the product of careful negotiations between minority community leaders, law enforcement and lawmakers.

“They came to the table and said, ‘We can make some changes, and we can do better,’” Schultz said. “This is wrong.”

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Sahalie Donaldson

Katie McKellar