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Amid the polished wood and leather at the Utah Capitol, Steve Unger popped on a pair of headphones and started sliding and twisting in a legislative committee Wednesday afternoon, just as he was on a sidewalk on Aug. 24, before he spent more than an hour handcuffed in a hot police car in Cottonwood Heights.
Unger's dance-break-turned-criminal case has raised eyebrows among some members of the Legislature's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, which invited Unger to speak in a hearing Wednesday as part of the committee's study of officer conduct and use of force in Utah.
Unger recounted the conversation he had with the officer who stopped him while he was dancing on the sidewalk on Highland Drive near the Van Winkle Expressway and eventually handcuffed him after he refused to identify himself because he said there was no reason for officers to suspect him of a crime.
"I asked: 'Am I a danger to myself?'
'Am I a danger to you?'
'Am I a danger to the community?'
'How about taking the handcuffs off?'
'No. It's against policy.' "
Unger said his brush with the law, which ended last week after charges were dropped, have not changed his "utmost respect for law enforcement." But he said he is concerned that the lessons of nationwide controversies over police have not filtered through the rank and file.
"I listen to these talking heads talk about reasonable approach to citizens, de-escalating situations and I was the one who was trying to de-escalate the situation," he said. "I said to her, 'Look inside your heart. Look inside your mind. Look at your spirit. You cannot justify what you're doing to me. This is bullying.' "
De-escalation training was one of several use-of-force issues the committee has been tasked with studying before the 2016 legislative session begins this winter.
"The current regimen in Utah is not absolutely state of the art in minimizing use of force," said Ken Wallentine, police consultant and former law enforcement chief for the Utah Attorney General's Office. "As I have looked around the country … I am convinced that with the breadth of talent we have in this state, we can do better and we will do better."
De-escalation and communication skills are emphasized throughout Utah's four-month police academy, said Scott Stephenson, the academy's director. Responding to questions from Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, about diversity competency, Stephenson said, "That's the start of de-escalation. People are not always like us; they're not you. As an officer going into a situation, you have to respect that."
Legislators also are reviewing mechanisms for investigating residents' complaints and collecting data on use of force by officers. Stephenson said he was working with a software company to explore an interface for departments to load information when force is used. Agencies already are required to report details to the state whenever they deploy SWAT teams or enter forcibly while serving a search warrant. About 75 percent of Utah's police agencies complied with the order; among the 25 percent that did not were 10 drug task forces, according to a report presented to the committee by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Nonetheless, drugs were the matter under investigation in about 80 percent of the 559 incidents reported to the state.
Agencies presently investigate their own officers in the event of complaints, involving county attorneys when the alleged infraction would be criminal. But Paul Boyden, director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors said conflicts of interest are a problem when the county attorney's office mounts a criminal case against an officer with a department the same office is required to defend in civil cases. Earl D. Tanner, R-West Jordan, asked whether a statewide organization to investigate complaints against officers would improve transparency and prevent conflicts.
Bountiful police Chief Tom Ross objected to the proposal.
"I'm the one individual responsible for Bountiful police," said Ross, the president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association. "My job is on the line for it. My integrity is on the line for it. There is nobody motivated more than the men and women who lead these departments to solve these issues."