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Meet The Activist Who's Bringing Conservatives On Board The Police Reform Movement

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CONNOR BOYACK
Libertarian activist Connor Boyack is pushing a police reform bill in Utah. | Libertas Institute

This article is the third in a six-part series about the drug war and police reform. Read Part 2 here.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah is one of the reddest and most culturally conservative states in America. The statehouse would seem to be about as fertile ground for reining in the drug war and curbing police abuse as the briny marshes and salt flats just outside the capital. But if anyone can bring Utah's conservatives on board with police reform, it's probably Connor Boyack, a clean-cut Mormon with a Republican background who is also pushing the state to nullify the Affordable Care Act.

Boyack, 31, is the founder and president of the Libertas Institute, a state think tank with a libertarian bent. "Utah politics is basically a debate between conservatives and libertarian-minded conservatives," he says. "We help conservatives hone their free-market ideas, but we also want to persuade them to be more deferential to civil liberties. That I think is our niche."

Boyack wrote about public policy for several years on his personal blog, built up a readership, and in August 2010 was hired to lead the Utah chapter of the Tenth Amendment Center, an advocacy group that pushes returning federal power to the states. The boyish-looking student of political philosophy also worked on the 2010 campaign of Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee. His credentials on the right are sound.

But he felt that more could be done on the state level, and in December 2011, he founded Libertas.

"One thing I noticed at the Tenth Amendment Center is that while liberty-minded Utah legislators could join arms to push back the federal government, they weren't nearly as skeptical of the government here in Utah," Boyack says. "But if the government violates your rights, you haven't been any less violated if it came from state or local government instead of the federal government. The thing we try to stress at Libertas is consistency."

He ran the organization part-time for about a year, but by January he had attracted enough funding that he was able to commit to it fully.

"What makes Connor unique -- and most effective -- is that he's willing to take on issues that the mainstream political right is generally afraid to touch," says Michael Boldin, executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center. "They might even agree with him on the issues, but don't want to upset the status quo, so they do and say nothing. Connor, on the other hand, recognizes that it takes risk to get things done. And he certainly takes risks."

Boyack gradually became interested in police reform as he was exposed to police abuse stories on social media. "You can't really be active on Twitter or Facebook without seeing these stories, really on a daily basis," he says. "And it isn't just the misconduct, it's that bad police officers are so rarely held accountable."

After law enforcement officials raided the Ogden, Utah, home of Matthew David Stewart in response to a tip that he was growing marijuana plants in his basement, leading to a gun battle that left one officer dead and five others wounded, Boyack watched closely to see whether that type of scenario would play out.

"That case really catalyzed my focus. I watched at first from the sidelines -- followed the story closely. I'm not an activist or a protester. I tend to come at things from an education or legislative angle," he says.

"As it unfolded the way that it did, I was really disappointed. Once again, the police weren't being held accountable. The media narrative was that Matthew was this evil cop-killer. My concern was with the underlying policy, from a legislative standpoint. The police should not have come in to Stewart's house the way they did, all over a few plants. The law just shouldn't allow that to happen."

As Stewart's supporters -- led by members of his family, as well as progressive activist Jesse Fruhwirth -- protested at Ogden city council meetings, Boyack took a broader view.

"I think what the protesters were doing was important," he says. "But my thinking was that this wasn't just happening in Ogden. Police militarization is happening everywhere. So we were more interested in looking at the state as a whole."

Boyack began reaching out to legislators, police organizations and activists to craft a bill that would restrict the use of SWAT teams to emergency scenarios, ones in which lives are at risk.

The policy he's pushing is relatively straightforward. Currently, police in Utah may forcibly enter any home, at any time, so long as they've obtained a search warrant. Under Boyack's proposal, officers would be permitted to break into a home only when there is an imminent threat of a violent crime.

The police would no longer be permitted to use battering rams or "dynamic entry" -- the term used to describe forcible entry, the use of flash grenades, and other paramilitary tactics -- to serve drug warrants. In Utah and across the country, drug investigations comprise the overwhelming majority of instances in which such tactics are used.

Last August, the Standard-Examiner ran an editorial in support of Boyack's cause. "Certainly, the use of a battering rams to combat minor offenses is something that should not occur," the paper wrote. "These raids, as conducted now, are too dangerous."

"We're interested in saving lives," Boyack says. "And we're as interested in saving the lives behind the gun as those in front of it."

Boyack uses that line often. It hints at the realpolitik that may help explain why his message is finding a receptive audience. A cop died during the Stewart raid, and several more nearly joined him. Particularly in conservative Utah, saving the lives of police officers is a more effective sales pitch than saving the lives of suspected drug offenders.

"I don't think there's any question about it. If this law had been in place in 2011, both Officer [Jared] Francom and Matthew Stewart would still be alive," Boyack says. Stewart committed suicide in his jail cell while awaiting trial.

Boyack says many of the lawmakers he's talked to about his bill have been supportive. Indeed, several told The Huffington Post that they see the need for police reform, though they would not say so for attribution.

"The response has been surprisingly favorable," Boyack says. "I think most lawmakers want to wait to see the final language, though. The bill should be collaborative, rather than combative. Few legislators will support a bill that's seen as anti-cop, but they're generally supportive of the higher idea."

Ideally, Boyack would like to get a conservative lawmaker who otherwise supports the drug war to sponsor the bill.

"I think drugs should be decriminalized, but this bill isn't about legalization," he says. "We can still keep drugs illegal, but enforce those laws in a way that doesn't put lives at risk. So I think it would be helpful to get a sponsor for the bill who has drug war bona fides, but understands that sending police officers to break into homes in the middle of the night creates unnecessary danger."

But he worries that many politicians may be reluctant to publicly embrace the bill, even if they think it's the right thing to do, because they fear retribution.

"A few years ago, we tried to outlaw DUI checkpoints, which I think are a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and really are more about issuing citations and raising revenue for police departments than keeping the roads safe," he says. "Law enforcement groups came out aggressively against the bill. But they also went after the bill's sponsor, [state Rep.] David Butterfield, when he ran for reelection."

That bill passed the Utah House, but died in the Senate in February 2012. State police groups organized to support Butterfield's primary opponent in the 2012 election, and Butterfield lost.

"They got their scalp," Boyack says. "I understand the concern about micromanaging police departments. I do. But everything police officers do is under authority given them by the legislature, through the people. It's the legislature's job to set the terms under which the laws will be enforced, and its the legislature's job to make sure our rights are protected, not just our safety."

Boyack is the bridge-builder in Utah's burgeoning police reform movement. His task is to forge ties between the state's legislators and other policymakers, and activists and the families of those killed by police.

"By sticking his neck out and taking on a golden calf, he's able to bridge the divide with traditional political opponents," says The Tenth Amendment Center's Boldin.

He's also the pragmatist. For the moment, the bill he and his organization have proposed addresses only forced-entry police raids. It would have had no effect on the police shootings, beatings, and other allegations of misconduct around Utah that weren't the result of drug raids.

Some activists want to go further. They would like to see police get more training in interacting with the mentally ill, and they have called for the creation of civilian review boards with the teeth to issue subpoenas and force the termination of bad cops. Some, including Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, think police need more instruction in conflict resolution, and that training and agency policy put too little emphasis on de-escalation, and too much on how and when to use force.

But Boyack says that for now, focusing on forced-entry is a more realistic goal.

"Our main goal here is to enact substantive reform. We don't just want a token bill that does more in name than in substance," Boyack says. "But we also need a bill that will pass, and that will be reasonable. So for now, I think it makes sense to focus on the one area that will do the most good, and that in my opinion will save the most lives."

Continue to Part 4: An Occupy Activist's New Cause: Drug Raids And Police Abuse

HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

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