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Salt Lake County DA Says When It Comes To Use-Of-Force, Change Should Start With The Law

KUER file
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill this week released a list of 18 proposals to overhaul Utah's use of deadly force laws.

In his decade in office, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill estimates he has reviewed nearly 100 uses of deadly force by police officers. In his most recent review, he cleared the officers who shot and killed Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal on May 23. Gill has ruled only a few of the killings unjustified though.

This week, Gill’s office released a list of 18 proposals to overhaul the state’s use of deadly force laws. Those include mandating de-escalation training and requiring officers to give a clear verbal warning when they plan to use deadly force. He joined KUER’s Caroline Ballard to discuss why he thinks taking a hard look at the state’s laws is necessary.

Caroline Ballard: You’ve suggested 18 proposals to change Utah’s use of deadly force laws, as well as four recommendations to change training and policies at local agencies. 

Sim Gill: We ask law enforcement to do a very difficult job. And so what is it that we do want to empower them [to do] in those critical situations? We need to come to some sort of consensus, because it is a dangerous job. What conditions [do] we want to use? Then we have a standard with some clarity, because there is no doubt in my mind that law enforcement will rise to the standard that we give them. They may object to the standard we create, but ultimately, if that's the law, they will rise to that. And they need that clarity as much as anybody else. When should the idea of justification for defense be made available? We think it's worthy to have a conversation about if the police officer contributes to the emergency, which then becomes the rationalization for the use of force, then maybe that shouldn't be available because you contributed to that. If you don't de-escalate, maybe that's something that we should be looking at as an expectation that we have.

CB: Attorneys for Bernando Palacios-Carbajal’s family said last week that even within the law, as it's currently written, you could have charged the officers who shot him. Why are you presenting these recommendations after your ruling on that case?

SG: First of all, this is not something that was driven by just the Carbajal matter. This is something that looks at a systemic issue. I take an oath and a duty to enforce the current law. I know that it may rub some people the wrong way, but the idea is to say, well, use the position of your office to ignore the law and file criminal charges and let the jury figure it out. Right. Well, first of all, you're asking me to not follow the law. Second of all, going forward — our concern is that if there's an affirmative defense, we're not going to make it to a jury. And while we can give each other a high five and feel good temporarily, we're not going to make the systemic gain that we want about really changing a culture, a practice and the outcomes. So it's an empty, hollow victory.

CB: Considering the concerns from protesters and these recommendations that you've made, are you still confident in all of your rulings or would you have done anything differently?

SG: I have made the rulings that I did based on the facts that were available and the law that I have an obligation to apply. If these reforms were in place, would we have a different outcome? Absolutely. Are there there incidents that will always stay with me because we could not provide the kind of justice that I think was needed? Absolutely. These are things that I will carry with me for a long time. But I really believe that if we want different outcomes, then we need to go to the source of this issue, because that will impact practices. It will impact procedures. It will impact training. It will impact transparency and ultimately the kind of accountability that our communities are crying out for.

CB: Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, thank you so much. 

SG: Thank you. 

CB: KUER politics reporter Emily Means has been listening in to our conversation and joins us now to break down the response to Gill's proposals. What does the Palacios-Carbajal family think of these?

Emily Means: An attorney for the family said they're grateful for Gill's proposals and they're very detailed, but they also feel like it's too little, too late. They think Gill could have done more in the Palacios-Carbajal case.

CB: These are still just recommendations. They are not law. For that, they have to go through the Utah Legislature. What's the likelihood of that happening?

EM: I did speak with Democratic State Sen. Derek Kitchen about this. He serves on the Senate's criminal justice committee. One proposal Gill mentions is ending qualified immunity. Kitchen said that's better suited to be addressed at the federal level. But he did say that Democrats and Republicans are interested in police reform and there has been some legislative action around this in recent years. But he said he wants to see some sort of movement on this issue in the 2021 session, even though he thinks it won't end there.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Emily Means covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @Em_Means13

Correction: 2:50 p.m. MDT 8/17/2020: This story's headline was corrected to reflect District Attorney Sim Gill's jurisdiction accurately.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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