SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers voted to ban knee-to-neck chokeholds similar to the one used in the death of George Floyd during a special session Thursday, though the measure stops short of criminalizing the use of all chokehold methods.
Several police departments have banned the use of chokeholds amid nationwide protests against police brutality. At least one other state, New York, has also passed legislation.
The Utah bill would prohibit officers from placing their knees on the necks of people being detained. It would also bar law enforcement agencies from teaching officers how to use other chokeholds and carotid restraints, though it doesn’t outright ban them.
The measure now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who called for a statewide ban last week.
Under this legislation, officers who use knee-to-neck holds could face up to a first-degree felony if the violation leads to someone’s death.
Democratic Rep. Sandra Hollins, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation is only the “beginning of this conversation.”
“Our community is feeling unsafe,” said Hollins, the only black member of the Utah Legislature. “That’s why you’re seeing the protests. They are in fear of their lives. This bill sends a very powerful message as legislators saying, ‘We hear you, and we’re going to do something about it.’”
Hollins said there haven’t been documented cases of officers using knee-on-neck holds in Utah, but she hopes this bill will prevent it from happening in the future. Statewide law-enforcement training does not include training on other types of chokeholds, but the new measure writes that prohibition into law.
House lawmakers were largely supportive of the bill. But some, including Republican Rep. Carl Albrecht. voiced concerns that it was a knee-jerk reaction that’s “maybe not necessary at this time.”
Republican Rep. Norman Thurston said he didn’t think Utah law enforcement has done anything that could be considered “out of line.” He said passing this type of bill less than a month after Floyd’s death was “absurd.”
The measure had unanimous support in the Senate. Republican Sen. Majority Leader Evan Vickers said they may continue to address the issue beyond this bill.
“Quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do,” said Vickers, who is co-sponsoring the bill. “It sends out the message to the public that we really do care about these issues.”
Lawmakers worked closely with law enforcement in developing the proposal. While the use of knee holds like the one used on Floyd before his death are widely considered to be inappropriate, the use of other types of chokeholds proved too complex to deal with quickly, Vickers said. Some believe it can be a viable nonlethal restraint at times, though it’s not currently taught to Utah police officers.
“They haven’t found a good way to teach that and teach it appropriately,” Vickers said.
The House passed the legislation during a special session Herbert called earlier this week to address several issues, including the financial fallout from COVID-19 .
The special session marks one of the first times legislators have convened in person since Utah began experiencing a sharp spike in new coronavirus cases.
The majority of lawmakers in the GOP-dominated legislature wore masks during the session while a few abstained. Representatives and senators who were not present during the session were able to participate remotely via teleconference. Plexiglass barriers were also placed around the House floor.
In other developments:
— The Legislature passed a resolution extending Utah’s state of emergency because of COVID-19 from June 30 to Aug. 20. The bill is now back to Herbert, who had called for lawmakers to extend the order to Aug. 31.
— A bill that would allow health officials to mandate COVID-19 testing in long-term care facilities also passed in the Utah Legislature. The legislation gives care facilities the ability to discharge a resident who declines testing. Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, the bill’s sponsor, said people can refuse a COVID-19 test, but they would be putting other people’s lives at risk.
— Lawmakers voted to make government entities and employees immune from lawsuits in connection with people exposed to COVID-19.
Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.