“Garrity bill,” exempting some statements from public records requests, advances

Feb 18, 2022, 6:08 PM
garrity bill utah zane james police shooting parents...
FILE: Tiffany and Aaron James, the parents of Zane James, have repeatedly sought public records related to their son's shooting death at the hands of police. Tiffany James testified Friday against a bill that would exempt statements made by police officers in a similar internal investigation. Photo: KSL TV

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would make it harder for reporters and the public to obtain certain statements, known as Garrity statements, made by government employees during internal investigations advanced to the full House after a hearing Friday morning. 

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted to send House Bill 399 to the full House after a hearing in which the mother of a man shot by police testified. 

It targets the types of public records available through GRAMA, Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act.  

GRAMA and compelled testimony

Like the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public and the media to request records from federal government agencies, GRAMA allows the public and the media to access records from state and local agencies in Utah.  

H.B. 399 affects a small part of GRAMA. Specifically, it would impact official, compelled statements made by government employees as part of an internal investigation. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, says his bill would allow public employees to share their concerns and statements without fear of trial in the court of public opinion. 

“How likely is an employee to open up to you about a difficult issue, perhaps one in which they made a significant mistake, if after the interview, the content of that crucial conversation is going to be used to sell newspapers?” he asked. 

Garrity bill affects public, not just media

Others, however, argued that the bill would target more than just members of the media. Police officers shot and killed Tiffany James’s son in 2018. She’s been fighting for public records related to the case ever since, including body camera footage and Garrity statements. 

“It is simply unacceptable for government and law enforcement to expect that they can have a crisis that occurs and not be held accountable for it,” she testified. 

Sheryl Worsley, the vice president of podcasting for Bonneville International, which operates KSL NewsRadio, testified against the bill, saying its exemption for Garrity statements thwarts transparency. 

“When an officer is involved in the shooting of a suspect, internal investigations determining whether that officer complied with department policies to de-escalate, whether they followed the department training and other policies are well within the public’s right to know,” she said. 

The lawmakers on the House committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full House. It still needs approval from the House and Senate before it would head to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk. 

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“Garrity bill,” exempting some statements from public records requests, advances