Lawmakers approve a ban on police officers putting their knees on a person’s neck

Utah Capitol 14

If voting for a new law that prohibits a police officer from kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed person is showing “we get it,” as one legislator said Thursday, then what is voting against it?

Not getting it?

The Legislature, in special session, passed HB5007 on Thursday by a 69-5 vote in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate. The bill is a clear legislative response to the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man who died when a white police officer, now charged with murder, knelt on his neck for over eight minutes, killing him.

The bill by Rep. Sandra Hollings, D-Salt Lake, the only African-American in the Utah Legislature, had a lot of debate, some of it emotional.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who has led criminal justice reform in Utah, said he’s proud to be joining in “a historical moment” where minorities are leading the way for all people, including a white Republican guy like himself, to be better protected in their civil rights.

He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham jail, where the civil rights leader bemoaned the fact that more Americans weren’t standing up and rallying to the cause.

Utahns — through this bill and their protests — are showing they are rallying to the cause now, said Hutchings. It is great that minorities are feeling empowerment, he added.

Those voting no were Reps. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield; Phil Lyman, R-Blanding; Marc Roberts, R-Salem; Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City; and Norm Thurston, R-Provo. Several said since Utah law officers don’t use the kneeling restraint now, never have, there is no need for this law. And more time should be taken to deal with concerns of law enforcement restraints, that are used by Utah cops, of those arrested.

Hollins said: “Our community fear for their lives.” The bill “sends a powerful message that we hear you, we are going to do something about it.”

The law will ensure that no one in Utah dies from a police officer kneeling on their neck, she said.

“This will not happen to anyone; not our kids,” said Hollins. People of color “have been dealing with” unequal treatment “for a long, long time; this is not new to us. We want you to feel safe in this community.”

The bill passed quickly with no debate in the Senate. 

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill was a landmark piece of legislation for Utah.

“Is this bill the entire solution to 400 years of racism? No. But it does send the right message,” she said.

“For the many moms of black and brown children out there who heard George Floyd call out for his mother, this is a big first step,” she added, referencing the wrenching video of Floyd pleading for his life for 8 minutes and 46 seconds before he died.

The bill makes it a third-degree felony to kneel on a suspect’s neck. That penalty increases to a first-degree felony if the action results in death. 

Lawmakers said Utah police officers don’t use the knee-on-neck method of restraint right now, but the bill will prevent the adoption of such tactics in the future. 

The legislation also prohibits training new police recruits to use chokeholds, but does not ban their use.