A month before he led Provo police, Baltimore paid $24K to settle a sex assault case against John King

Search process • Provo Mayor John Curtis said background check failed to reveal allegations against John King in Baltimore.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Former Provo police chief John King participates in a discussion about hate crimes in Salt Lake City on Thursday August 4, 2016.

When former Provo Police Chief John King resigned earlier this year after being accused of sexual assault, it wasn’t the first time such an accusation had forced him from a high-profile law enforcement position.

In 2012, a year before he was hired in Utah, King was investigated and forced to resign as the Baltimore Police Department’s director of education and training after a female staff member accused him of groping her in a patrol car, according to public records recently obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Five years later, in March, King was forced out as Provo’s top cop following a sexual assault investigation involving a department volunteer. Prosecutors declined to file charges in either case.

Provo officials, including Mayor John Curtis, said they were unaware of the Baltimore case — which resulted in the city paying the woman a $24,000 settlement — until a Tribune reporter told them about it last week. Officials said a background check conducted by a recruiting firm found nothing negative on King before he was named chief in late 2013.

“That’s very disturbing to know, if that’s the case, that we didn’t pick it up,” Curtis said of the Baltimore sexual assault allegation. “That clearly would have been a deal breaker.”

The news comes as Provo nears the end of a months-long search for King’s successor — a process that officials said they are pursuing with extra caution.

King’s case highlights the challenges cities and police departments face in trying to avoid hiring officers with troubled pasts — and also demonstrates the hurdles alleged victims must overcome in persuading prosecutors to bring charges in police abuse cases.

Baltimore allegations

A secretary in the Baltimore office told detectives she went to lunch with King on June 22, 2012. On the walk back to King’s police car, he “asked her if she could keep a secret,” then told her about “an inappropriate dream that he had involving her,” a detective wrote in a Baltimore County police report. 

On the return drive, King placed his hand on the woman’s thigh, she said, then began moving it under her dress. She said he then moved her underwear and sexually assaulted her with his fingers, according to the police report. The woman said she pushed his hand away.

Later that day, the woman said, she refused King’s request to kiss him in a supervisor’s office, and several days later he “touched her inappropriately on her back” while they were in the office, according to the report.

In a later interview with detectives, King denied assaulting or touching the woman inappropriately. Police continued their investigation until early 2013 and delivered their findings to prosecutors, who decided not to pursue charges.

The woman also was interviewed by Baltimore City Police Department internal affairs investigators in their probe of the incident, before she went to Baltimore County police. Her attorney did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

The allegations triggered a series of events.

• On June 27, 2012, a week after the alleged incident, King “abruptly resigned” after just six months on the job, the Baltimore Sun reported, adding that King was escorted from his office. The article, citing confidential sources, said King had been “confronted with a complaint from an employee” but did not mention the sexual assault allegation.

• On Nov. 16, 2012, attorneys for King sent a letter to the city of Baltimore claiming “constitutional violations” and mistreatment of King by the Baltimore police. Attached was a lengthy draft lawsuit, which was never filed in court, claiming King was terminated not because of any “misconduct with a subordinate” — but rather as retaliation for working to uncover time sheet fraud by some officers and staff members. He requested $2 million in damages.

• On Nov. 21, 2012, the woman’s attorney sent a letter to Baltimore officials notifying them of her intent to sue the city and police department over “illegal conduct” related to the alleged assault by King.

• On Oct. 15, 2013, a settlement deal was reached between the woman, King, the city of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department. The city agreed to pay the woman $24,000 and restore vacation days she took related to the alleged assault. No payments were made to King in connection to his claims of mistreatment, but under the settlement, he was released from any liability related to the incident. He also was included in a non-disparagement agreement preventing any of the parties from discussing the alleged assault or the settlement, according to a copy of the agreement obtained from Baltimore City officials.

A month later, King was named Provo’s police chief.

No red flags

King was selected out of more than 60 applicants for the Provo job thanks to a decorated 30-year career and a versatile skill set, city officials said at the time he was hired. He took over a department trying to recover from a series of cases involving officer misconduct and complaints about department leadership. 

“I’ve been impressed with Chief King and his ability to connect with people,” Curtis said in announcing his selection. “This talent was evident in the interview process. His name continued to bubble up to the top of everyone’s list.”

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Provo Mayor John Curtis

Curtis says now he was unaware of the Baltimore County Police Department investigation into King, which concluded several months before the longtime Maryland resident arrived in Provo. Provo Deputy Mayor Corey Norman said background and reference checks for King were conducted by Citygate Associates, a California recruiting company hired by the city.

“Nothing came back that raised a red flag,” Norman said last week.

Curtis said he also called several of his law enforcement contacts who knew King before offering him the job; he heard only “great reviews.”

A Citygate employee who led the King search did not respond to an email seeking information. Another employee referred a reporter back to Provo city officials for comment.

| Courtesy Photo John King

King held an impressive resume before moving to Utah: He served in top positions in several large Maryland police agencies, helped investigate the D.C. sniper in 2002, served abroad as an instructor for the U.S. Department of State’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, and testified before Congress. Between Baltimore and coming to Provo, he briefly worked as director of a police academy at a Maryland community college.

Still, several online news reports could have raised concerns. The Washington Post wrote about a 2009 federal investigation into King concerning abuse of Montgomery County’s disability retirement pension program; he was eventually cleared of the allegations. And there was the Baltimore Sun article about King’s resignation, and another by a Gaithersburg, Md. newspaper about King suddenly quitting as chief of that city’s department in 2010.

Even King indicated his abrupt and public termination in Baltimore had harmed his career prospects. In the draft lawsuit sent to Baltimore City, King’s attorneys claimed he “was not selected for numerous Chief of Police jobs after his termination by BPD.”

‘Imbalance of power’

A woman who was volunteering and conducting research with the Provo police department reported to authorities earlier this year that King had sexually assaulted her. The chief admitted to investigators that he had sex with her on several occasions — though the woman said the sexual contact was never consensual, according to a Unified Police Department report. 

She said King, 58, made suggestive comments and forced himself on her, and she was scared of him because he was a police officer in a prominent position.

Prosecutors with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against King in March. But Chief Deputy Blake Nakamura said last week that prosecutors recently met with the alleged victim and her attorney and reconsidered the case — again coming to the same conclusion. He said there wasn’t any more information presented “that was material to the decision” to initially decline to file charges.

Bethany Warr, the alleged victim’s attorney, called the meeting “disappointing,” and said they told Salt Lake County prosecutors about the previous allegations against King in Maryland. Prosecutors, however, had concerns about text messages sent between King and her client, Warr said, which could “create too much doubt” that the relationship wasn’t consensual.

Warr disagreed, and said she had hoped the woman’s account would have been provided more weight in the prosecutors’ decision. They haven’t given up on the case, she said, and are considering other options, including asking the attorney general’s office to look into the matter or pursuing a civil lawsuit.

Warr said it was “disheartening” and “frustrating” that Provo City did not do a more thorough search of King’s background.

“Probably the biggest thing for her is, he definitely knows how to groom somebody,” Warr said. “It wasn’t somebody who jumped out of the bushes and grabbed her. There was an imbalance of power and control that kind of led to something that is really damaging. He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again.”

The Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

King did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. His attorney in the Utah case, Loren Weiss, said he was uncertain if he still represented the former chief, so he could not comment.

Job to job

Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at St. Louis University who studies police licensing laws, said last week that it’s “very common” for officers to get in trouble with one police department, then get a job at another department out-of-state — even if an officer has had their policing license revoked.

It does not appear King’s license was ever decertified in Maryland. But he did relinquish his certification in Utah before an investigation into his conduct by the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Committee (POST) could gain traction.

Though King can no longer be a cop in Utah, Goldman said it’s possible that he could still work as a police officer in another state.

“He gave [his certification] up in Utah,” Goldman said. “But can he get a job back in Maryland? I think the answer is probably yes.”

Police agencies who hire cops with disciplinary issues often are unaware of the officer’s previous record, Goldman said, because they didn’t do a thorough background check or the previous department wouldn’t disclose the information. A patchwork of differing state police certification laws can also exacerbate the problem, according to Goldman.

There is a non-public National Decertification Index — run by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standard and Training — where police agencies can report officer misconduct and hiring agencies can check for decertification. Utah Peace Officers Standards and Training officials confirmed that King’s decertification was entered into the national database, which includes reports from 42 states.

Goldman, however, said some agencies might not check the database before hiring, or might proceed even if they know an officer had issues with a previous employer.

In Maryland, officers can lose their certification only if they are convicted of a crime. It’s rare for an officer to be decertified there — only two Maryland cops in 2015 had their certification stripped from them, according to a survey from the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

In contrast, 22 Utah police officers were decertified in 2015, according to the survey. Utah’s POST can discipline an officer for conduct — even if charges are never filed — if it finds “clear and convincing evidence” that a crime was committed. Officers can also be disciplined for behavior that is not criminal, such as having sex on duty, lying or being addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The next chief

Curtis’ selection of a new police chief could be approved this month by the Provo City Council. He said he has one candidate in mind after launching the search and interview process about four months ago, but declined to say who it was. A search firm — not the one the city used in hiring King or the police chief before him — is currently conducting a second, deeper round of background checks on the candidate, he said. 

Provo Capt. Rich Ferguson has served as interim chief, but Norman said nobody from within the department was a finalist. He said officials want to hire someone who is highly educated and has “an appreciation for the local culture.” They also want someone who easily connects with the community, he said, including Provo’s expanding immigrant community.

Curtis said he continues to grapple with whether he handled the local allegations against King appropriately.

“One of the most difficult things for me through that process was balancing the absolute need to take the allegations seriously, and being careful with [King’s] reputation, without knowing how valid the allegations were,” he said.

The result was that Curtis never informed the department’s four captains or others in the department that their boss had been placed on administrative leave in early February due to the allegations. King had already been on a leave in Maryland for family issues, and Curtis said he told him to extend the leave once the investigation began.

Back in Provo, apparently unaware of the allegations, police officials were preparing to nominate King for recognition with the Utah Chiefs of Police Association. They later drafted a news release saying King was resigning for family and health reasons, and planned a going-away reception for him March 15, hours before news got out that King had been under investigation for sexual assault, according to emails obtained by The Tribune.

The following day, Curtis held a news conference revealing he had requested the chief’s resignation due to the allegations.

In light of the King controversy, Curtis said he wants to check “every box” before hiring his next chief.

“We’re going so slow and careful,” he said. “We’re all paranoid with making a mistake and not getting this right.”