Cops who take drugs, have sex on the job or commit domestic violence face less punishment in Utah than in other states, audit finds

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Discipline for Utah police officers accused of misconduct is lower in Utah than other states, according to Utah's auditor. In this photo, Salt Lake County Sheriffs and Unified Police arrive in Riverton as part of Shop with a Shield program Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

A audit of discipline imposed on Utah police officers over the past eight years found that the state generally gives lesser punishments than other states — and warned that “unfit or untrustworthy officers could remain on duty.”

In cases where officers in other states would lose their licenses, such as for drug use, in Utah it was more likely that an officer’s license would be suspended, the audit showed.

The audit reviewed discipline meted out by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) — which regulates police in Utah — for misconduct such as driving under the influence, falsification of government records, illegal drug possession and use, domestic violence and on-duty sexual conduct. It found that in each category, “Utah’s discipline appears lenient."

For instance, over the past five years, the audit found that when police officers in six other states were caught using or possessing drugs, their licenses were either revoked and/or they were denied certification. In two cases, Utah revoked an officer’s license, but it chose to suspend the officers in the majority of cases.

POST hasn’t revoked an officer’s license for domestic violence in the past five years, the audit said. POST chose in every instance to instead suspend the officers' licenses for periods ranging between one and three years.

Over that same period in the other states, an officer’s license was revoked 89 percent of the time in domestic violence cases. A one- to three-year suspension was doled out 11 percent of the time, the audit said.

The audit compared discipline handed out to Utah officers to similar cases in Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For driving under the influence, losing certification is a “common discipline” in other states. In Utah, during the time period the audit covered, POST has never revoked a peace officer’s license for a DUI. Instead, the officers' licenses are suspended for varying amounts of time, and some officers received only a letter of caution.

For having sex on the job, the audit found, officers in other states would either lose their licenses or, more commonly, be suspended between one and three years. In Utah, punishments ranged from a letter of caution to suspensions ranging from less than one year to four years. In no cases over the past five years was an officer’s license revoked.

In cases where officers who have DUIs, used drugs or committed domestic violence remain at work or return after a temporary suspension, the audit said, not only is an officer’s credibility damaged, but it also could undermine that officer’s police department.

Auditors recommended that the POST Council reevaluate its standard baseline and ranges for discipline and align them to become consistent with other states. The current baselines, the audit said, are “broad and vary widely.”

For instance, for Category B misconduct — including Class A misdemeanors and on-duty sexual conduct — disciplinary actions can range anywhere from a 1.5-year suspension to revocation, which is permanent in Utah.

“Police officer misconduct tarnishes the reputation and credibility of all officers. Ensuring appropriate discipline strengthens the public’s confidence in our peace officers," auditor John Dougall said in a statement.

Dougall encouraged lawmakers and POST Council to work together to “ensure the highest standards of behavior among Utah’s police officers.”

In response, Maj. Scott Stephenson with POST wrote: “It should also be noted that while Utah’s disciplinary guidelines may be more lenient than those of other states in some categories, they are more severe in others. Each state’s disciplinary process varies based on community standards, rules, and laws.”

When asked if the audit came across any of these more severe disciplinary actions, Dougall told The Salt Lake Tribune that wasn’t the focus of the audit.

“We were not focused on the other side of the equation,” Dougall said. “And to a certain extent, from our perspective, that doesn’t really matter. It’s not like, OK, if we’re harsh here we can be lenient over here.”

Stephenson also wrote that the audit used the term revocation “inconsistently.” In Utah, revocation of an officer’s certification is permanent.

“In other states, however, ‘revocation’ has the same effect as Utah’s ‘suspension,’ ” Stephenson wrote.

The audit notes that in Arizona and Montana, revocation also is permanent. Idaho revocations stand for 10 years. Kansas revokes licenses for 5 years, and Oregon and Washington have the option to revoke them for five years up to a lifetime.

It noted that of states where revocation isn’t permanent, one state said said it’s uncommon for officers to reapply for certification, and in other states “only a handful of officers reapply.”

The audit also found six internal affairs cases in two agencies that likely should have been reported to POST for investigation but weren’t. These cases include improper access of Bureau of Criminal Identification information, lying during an internal investigation, being charged with a class B misdemeanor and an officer deemed unfit for duty.

Stephenson wrote that all cases of police misconduct that are brought to POST’s attention and meet its standards for requiring an investigation are investigated.

He didn’t immediately reply to The Tribune’s request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Other audit findings include:

• Under state law, it’s not always required to report officer dishonesty to POST — but it should be — as it can undermine an agency’s credibility and effectiveness.

• Information regarding an officer’s past misconduct and discipline isn’t easily accessible and could dissuade law enforcement from checking past discipline or delay the hiring process.

• POST has expanded training to accredit more police officers and accommodate hiring demands.