ST. GEORGE — In a sign of the times, the two Republican candidates running for Utah’s Office of Attorney General fielded questions from the Washington County Republican Women via a Zoom internet conference meeting Thursday.
It was the second time the incumbent Sean Reyes and challenger David Leavitt presented their campaign platforms to Republican voters prior to the primary election on June 30. The first debate was held Tuesday by the Utah Debate Commission and is available to view here.
With less than one week before mail-in ballots are scheduled to be sent out to registered voters, Reyes and Leavitt presented their arguments as to why they are the best candidate for the job.
Leavitt emphasized the importance of jury trials.
“Our founders gave us the Constitution with the legislative branch to make laws, the executive branch to enforce them and the judiciary to keep those two (branches) in harmony with each other,” Leavitt said. “One power the founding fathers never gave was to determine the guilt or innocence of fellow human beings.”
That power, Leavitt added, is provided through a jury trial.
A relatively modern extension of justice, dating back to the Civil War, Leavitt said the process has become watered down with criminal cases often resolved through plea bargains that circumvent jury trials.
“This means 99% of the time the government doesn’t have to prove the allegations that the government makes,” he said. “This is simply too much power for the government. I am running for attorney general so that we can restore our freedoms.”
Leavitt said another motivation to run is that the criminal justice system is in “such a state of disrepair.”
The state, he added, needs an attorney general who will focus their efforts on finding solutions to fix a broken system.
“We have to do it without more money,” Leavitt said. “We have to find a way to keep violent and dangerous people in prison while finding ways to help our nonviolent offenders come back into society.”
In Reyes’ opening statement, he said he is seeking another term as attorney general because of his love for the state of Utah and its residents.
After 6 1/2 years in office, he said he has “stood watch over this state, protected your kids from sex trafficking and abuse and protected your teens from drugs, vaping and suicide.”
Standing tall on his record, Reyes said that he has fought to protect consumers from scammers, ensuring private information remains private against hackers and criminals, and as attorney general he has aggressively sought the prosecution of white-collar corporate fraud.
He also cites his collaboration with the federal government in the war on opioids, elder abuse and school violence.
“But I have stood up to the federal government when they have tried to encroach on our rights,” Reyes said. “It hasn’t been easy working 12-15 hour days … traveling to Washington D.C. … to bring back wins and resources for Utah. But I’ve got more to give. I want to finish what I’ve started and build on the successes and momentum that my team and I have created.”
Both candidates said their extensive backgrounds as attorneys make it an easy fit to be the top law enforcement official in the state.
Of the handful of questions presented by the Washington County Republican Women, one that had particular relevance to the current environment in the state and country at large centered on improving race relations with law enforcement, police brutality and the safety of first responders.
“This is such an interesting balance because you are dealing with the front lines of law enforcement,” Leavitt said. “You never know, every day of your life if you are a police officer, how you put yourself in harm’s way.”
Leavitt said police officers are “trained” and need to “on their guard” so they can be safe.
However, Leavitt added, a society needs to feel safe as well.
“Not only safe from crime, but safe from the police. We are dealing with a situation where there are large amounts of people who do not feel safe in our country and feel victimized by the government.”
It is a balance that has to be found, but it will not be found through violence, he said.
“We will find it through peaceful protests and peaceful dialogue. Someone needs to be a check on the police,” he said, adding that it is what he currently does as the Utah County Attorney.
By definition, the state’s top law enforcement official needs to be a check on the police, Leavitt said, while adding that he will vow to support responsible police as well.
“We need the police and the police need us,” he said.
Reyes rebuttal began with solidarity for the “vast majority” of professional law enforcement, but he also said those who break the law need to be held accountable for their actions.
“I have investigated and prosecuted a number of law enforcement officers in Utah, but everyone knows that I am fair and care about the process,” he said. “This is why I am in the best position as attorney general to bring about needed change.”
The public’s best power, he said, rests with the police and that power must never be abused.
“George Floyd’s case is so tragic … it deepens the racial divide in our nation,” Reyes said. “The officers responsible for it do not represent the majority of cops who are honorable public servants, like officer Nate Lyday in Ogden who was just killed responding to a call for help.”
The key is better training, especially on the use of force and conducting mental health screening for law enforcement officers and staff, he added.
Reyes cited the August 2014 fatal shooting by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man.
Following the shooting Reyes said that he sat down with leaders of the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
What came out of that meeting, he said, was a Utah state program similar to programs used in other states that utilizes virtual simulators that places police officers in high-stress, confrontational “shoot or don’t shoot” situations.
Some states employ reality-based stress training that involves human contact in real-world, face-to-face confrontations.
Although there is some debate which approach is more effective, according to recent research conducted by Winona State University, a “virtual” training system developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory has merit.
Where rewinding and repeating is not possible with real people, simulations can exactly reproduce any event for technique practice and assessment.
By repeating the scenarios, the research said, police officers can and will change the outcome through guidance, practice and approach selection.
The program, Reyes said, interweaves cultural awareness, de-escalation of violence techniques and instruction on how to avoid the use of violence whenever possible.
“Repetition helps officers react more calmly, predictably and confidently,” he said. “We’ve trained more than 3,500 Utah officers in this program. The second thing I’ve done (as attorney general) was to mandate (mental health) therapy and find private funding to cover my officers and other officers in other agencies as well.”
To limit the spread of COVID-19, the primary election will be conducted by mail, and some polling locations may not be available. In addition, some counties may offer drive-up voting on Election Day.
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