ST. GEORGE — Utah Republican Congressman Chris Stewart recently met with police chiefs and county sheriffs from across southwest Utah to discuss challenges their agencies were facing and what sort of police reform they believe is needed to move forward.
During a breakfast hosted at Dixie State University early Wednesday, Stewart thanked the Southern Utah lawmen in attendance and their agencies for their service, saying they were the force that is saving people from the “absolute chaos” plaguing the county now.
“The vast majority of Americans recognize (the police) have a difficult job and are grateful for what they do,” Stewart told St. George News following the breakfast.
Nationwide calls for police reform and demands to “defund the police” have come in the wake of the May death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota. The incident has also sparked the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and has been accompanied by numerous protests against police brutality and racism that have been supplanted by subsequent riots in various locations across the country.
“Every law enforcement leader in that room is in favor of reform to help us,” Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said. “By and large, we have phenomenal officers that try hard, and reforms that are put in place shouldn’t be attacking those guys or painting them in a negative light.”
Among the primary concerns for the sheriffs and police chiefs that were discussed at length dealt with mental illness, training and funding for that training.
Mental health: ‘We’re not adequately trained in mental health issues’
“When you talk about reform – and we need some reform – that reform needs to take something like mental health away from law enforcement,” Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter said.
Due to a lack of mental health services in Southern Utah, individuals with mental health problems end up going to the county jail rather than a proper mental health care facility. Additionally, these individuals can also end up getting released, only to end up in jail again.
“That’s not a solution. That’s not an answer,” Carpenter said. “We need to have some place for these people to go.”
The call to “defund the police” by some has meant taking money from law enforcement budgets and putting it toward social services instead to help those experiencing mental illness through social workers rather than police.
It’s a catch-22 for Hurricane City Police Chief Lynn Excell.
“We’re not adequately trained in mental health issues, but what are people going to do? They’re going to call the cops,” Excell said.
An option proposed during the meeting that Stewart appeared to favor was the idea of having police and social workers work together when dealing with incidents involving mental illness, as they still have the potential to turn violent.
Training and funding
Many of the sheriffs and police chiefs in attendance Wednesday said that one of the best ways to deal with mental health incidents and learn de-escalation practices is through proper and consistent training. However, for rural counties and communities in particular, funding and manpower can be an issue.
“We get beat up pretty good by councils and commissioners who say, ‘Well, you’re sending all your people to these trainings, why do you need it? We haven’t had this type of incident in years.’ So we get beat up for it,” Sevier County Sheriff Nathan Curtis said. “Sometimes its hard to defend that funding.”
Additionally, Curtis said, when rural counties and smaller law agencies send an officer or deputy away for training for multiple days, it’s one less officer on hand, which requires others to cover duty and brings in the additional cost of overtime.
Excell added that due to the financial impacts of COVID-19 on the city of Hurricane, the police budget had been cut by 6%. This has impacted funding for training, he said, with city administration asking why the police spends more money on training than the city does on other services.
“In my opinion, my position on that is we’re the ones out there carrying the guns and are expected to keep the peace and safety and harmony within our community,” Excell said. “I have these people trained the very best they can be.”
Clarke said Southern Utah’s law agencies are in favor of up-to-date and consistent training. This was echoed by Curtis.
“We always want to do better,” he said. “Every day we try and find ways the do better. If we find something today that is a better way to react to a certain situation, we’re going to implement it… That’s what our duty is – to always do better.”
Stewart asked if federal funding for training would help, and while some of those gathered said it would, their response was somewhat tepid, as that funding can come with conditions attached.
Stewart responded by saying the federal government wants to “increase federal funding to help with trainings and so forth, but with federal dollars, there are always federal strings attached.”
“We want to minimize those, not expand them,” he said.
In relation to police funding and support in St. George, Chief Kyle Whitehead told St. George News following the meeting that the St. George City Council has been very supportive of the police department over the years.
“We have the full support of our elected officials and our citizens,” Whitehead said. “Generally, if we need it (training or equipment), we get it. It does take money to do police business.”
The Iron County Sheriff’s Office also enjoys community support, Carpenter said.
“It’s a very challenging time we’re living in, and personally, I’m very grateful to be living in Utah and Iron County specifically,” he said. “We have great support from our community,and I’ve got great deputies and we’re very fortunate to be where we are.”
Among the agencies represented at the breakfast with Congressman Stewart were the police departments from St. George, Hurricane and Washington; county sheriff’s offices from Washington, Iron, Garfield, Beaver, Kane and Servier counties; the Colorado City Marshal’s Office and Dixie State University Police.
“The only thing that saves us from the chaos is you guys,” Stewart said. “So again, thank you. I will always defend you.”
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