SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to police operations that have raised questions and made headlines in Utah, there's a lot to talk about.
A panel of legal and law enforcement leaders referenced high-profile incidents in Utah — including the death of Utah County sheriff's deputy Cory Wride and the botched 2012 raid that killed Ogden police officer Jared Francom — while fielding questions about police militarization and criminal justice reform in front of a skeptical crowd of about 150 people Tuesday at the Red Lion Hotel.
The panel discussion, put on by the Libertas Institute as a conversation about the Fourth Amendment, addressed the role of forcible entry and military-style vehicles by law enforcement, as well as transparency and reporting advances in the state.
Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy took an early opportunity to contend that the military-grade vehicles used by law enforcement, such as the armored vehicle in his department, have been stripped down to make them strictly defensive.
"My question to the people is what is militarization? Is it the things that we use that make us look like military, or is it our policies, our practices?" Tracy asked. "What we have taken from the military is a demilitarized, armored vehicle. It has been stripped down to a chassis with an armored plate."
Kara Dansky, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke out against SWAT raids that she believes heighten the risk of danger to the public rather than decreasing it.
"This is an extremely traumatic situation for the people who are subjected to it, and the risk of the destruction of evidence doesn't justify the use of potentially deadly force," Dansky said.
Dansky also questioned the practice of sending armored vehicles in response to potentially suicidal individuals, possibly frightening them into taking drastic action.
"It's cold comfort to learn after some tragedy that that vehicle was not in fact armed," she said.
All on the panel praised SB185, which the Utah Legislature passed this spring requiring Utah law enforcement agencies to publicly report their operations starting next January, including details about reason for the operation, what kind of warrant was served, whether a threat assessment was done, whether firearms were discharged, if anyone was injured or if any property was damaged.
"It really does let everybody know, especially law enforcement, that they're required to document certain things," said Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill. "The power and the authority they have they get in relationship to the laws, and they're there to serve the community."
Attorney General Sean Reyes called on Utah to lead the nation in criminal justice reform, promising to fight against warrantless cellphone reviews and administrative subpoenas.
"If you want to put a bad guy away, that's great. You work hard. You do it the right way, and you don't cheat, and using those electronic searches, in my mind, was cheating," Reyes said.
Chris Gebhardt, a former SWAT team leader and 15-year police veteran, recounted several experiences weighing his safety as an officer against the well-being of the people in the homes he was entering. That safety breaks down, he contended, when teams are not thoroughly and effectively trained.
"The single most important thing we can do for law enforcement starts with you all. It is to empower a trained and independent citizen review process for warrants and use of force," Gebhardt said, his comments met with applause.
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