This is a prime time in Utah to make substantial inroads into criminal justice and policing reform. The tragic police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American man in Ferguson, Missouri along with the police shooting of a 22-year-old African American man in Saratoga Springs, Utah have become flash points raising serious questions about racial bias in policing. In the days following Mr. Brown’s death and the resulting protests, it was revealed that in Ferguson, where the police force is almost all white, over 85% of all traffic stops involve motorists of color and over 90% of all those arrested are African American. Here in Utah, we’re also looking closely at how racial bias may impact our policing.
In September, an Associated Press analysis found that Hispanics are more often underrepresented in police departments around the country than are blacks. Using 2007 figures, the study cited West Valley City as having one of the nation’s least representative police forces for Hispanics: while one-third of the city’s population is Hispanic, only 6 percent of its police officers are Hispanic. Another issue highlighted by recent events is a statewide lack of civilian oversight of law enforcement; only West Valley and Salt Lake maintain independent civilian review boards.
The events in Ferguson also brought to light the nationwide trend of militarization of police. Images of military vehicles, tanks, and police officers in body armor confronting peaceful demonstrators startled many. The ACLU of Utah has been actively educating the public and public officials about police militarization here in Utah. Last year, we worked with coalition partners to help pass two state statues limiting police forced entry and gathering information around use of SWAT. In September, Marina Lowe, our legislative and policy counsel, testified before a Utah legislative committee studying police militarization.
We have also combated racial and ethnic profiling of Utah public school students by police and school officials. We have fought dress codes that we believe result in teachers and the police disproportionately labeling students of color as gang members for their apparel choices. We are also actively litigating what we assert is a police practice of entering juveniles of color into databases as gang members or gang associates at disproportionate rates. Further, recently available statistics show that students of color are more often “pushed” into the criminal justice system for breaking school rules than their white counterparts, who are more often disciplined within the school. We’re working alongside public school, county and state employees and the S.J. Quinney law school public policy clinic to bring awareness to this issue and to develop better practices and policies for schools and student resource officers.
We’ve also pushed this year for meaningful criminal justice reform. Two real opportunities for this to happen have arisen this year with the Pew Re Investment’s efforts aimed at helping Utah reduce its prison population and an ongoing study and upcoming report by the Sixth Amendment Project involving Utah’s indigent defense system. We have actively worked to make our voice heard in these efforts, and will use the momentum gained from them to advance our goals of a criminal justice system in Utah that fully lives up to the Constitution’s promises.
This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2014 Fall Newsletter >>