Members of the Utah County major crimes task force badly beat two suspects in separate incidents just days apart last year, sparking an excessive force investigation.
The encounters are laid out in detail in internal reports written by the county attorney’s investigator, Sgt. Richard Hales. These documents, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a public records request, shed new light on the violence and show how the investigator felt stonewalled by officers who saw what happened.
The Iron County Attorney’s Office, which reviewed Hales’ investigation to avoid a conflict of interest, has declined to file criminal charges, leading the Utah County Sheriff’s Office to announce that its deputies have been exonerated.
Both cases involved Utah County Sgt. Doug Howell and the major crimes task force, which is made up of deputies from the sheriff’s office and officers from other police departments. Task force members Utah County Detective Phil Crawford and former Salem Officer Cullen Carter were also investigated in connection with one of the cases. Carter left Salem police during the investigation and now works for Spanish Fork’s department.
Both Howell and Crawford were given a written reprimand, sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Spencer Cannon said, and Howell was told to stay home from work for one day without pay. Another member of the task force, Lt. Dennis Harris, was removed as task force director and assigned to a position at the sheriff’s office. He retired shortly after, Cannon said, adding that the sheriff’s office doesn’t consider the move a formal “disciplinary action.”
Iron County Attorney Chad Dotson said in announcing his decision, “While I recognize that some of Sergeant Howell’s conduct may be outside of policy, the burden under which the state must prove any criminal case is high,” and the facts of the case don’t rise to that level.
That might not be the final word on this case. Peter Sorensen, a lawyer, representing one of the men who was hurt, intends to file a civil lawsuit. “The decision to decline pursuit of criminal charges against the officers won’t keep us from holding them accountable civilly for their actions,” he said.
Mistaken identity and ‘hush money’
Sorensen’s client is a Payson man who got arrested for allegedly stealing from a Home Depot in American Fork. But instead of hauling him to jail, American Fork Detective Shawn Lott, who works with the major crimes team, offered him a chance to “work the charges off” by becoming an informant. The man agreed.
The next day, Jan. 30, 2019, the major crimes task force was gearing up to arrest a wanted person, who was known to be “very dangerous” and had threatened to shoot at police.
It was an elaborate sting, the internal affairs investigator noted, involving “numerous plainclothes officers, unmarked vehicles, uniformed officers, marked vehicles and an airplane.”
They planned to track the man to a gas station and box him in with police cars. The airplane was the backup plan. They could follow him if he got away.
The team tracked the man to the Last Chance gas station in Orem. Just as planned, Lott stopped in front of the car, and Sgt. Doug Howell stopped behind it, as other detectives surrounded them. Howell and Lott then went off script. Instead of calling for the man to get out of the car, they approached with their guns drawn.
Lott recognized the man. It wasn’t their wanted fugitive, it was his new informant. Yet, the sting continued. Lott didn’t tell anyone they’d made a mistake, according to the investigative report. Instead, Lott opened the informant’s door and took a closed knife off his lap. The informant said later he had the knife because he was going to use it to cut up heroin. Howell then tried to grab the man from the car, tearing his shirt. The investigator noted the man was still buckled in. Once Lott unbuckled him, he was pulled from the car.
Witness statements from other members of the task force differ about what happened next. But Howell said he struck the informant with the butt of his assault rifle because the man wasn’t complying. The strike caused what Howell described as a “small bleeding cut.” Medics needed four staples to close the wound. Police also used a stun gun on the man and kicked him.
At the end of the ordeal, Lt. Dennis Harris made the informant yet another deal: Since police mistook him for someone else, they’d give him $2,000 and forget about the drugs and paraphernalia in the car. They’d pay for his medical bill, and he would stay on as an informant. The man agreed to take the cash, which he later told investigators he considered “hush money.” Police never paid his medical bills, the report notes.
Police took no photos of the scene and never asked for the gas station security video, which was deleted 14 days afterward. No officers had “viable” body camera footage.
Hales, the internal affairs investigator, concluded: “There was a lack of investigation” into what happened by major crimes and the sheriff’s office.
He also wrote, “one thing became clear. Some witness officers were not telling the whole story in terms of what they observed.”
A use of force review board — which Cannon said routinely looks into all such incidents involving sheriff’s deputies — unanimously voted that Howell violated policy by striking the man with his rifle. The board is made up of two sheriff’s office lieutenants, two sergeants and one deputy, all selected by the enforcement division chief deputy.
Utah County Sheriff Michael Smith also said that in giving the man cash, Harris wasn’t violating department policy because exchanging cash is “not uncommon in narcotics investigations,” but he was defying a supervisor’s orders.
Undersheriff Shaun Bufton had instructed Harris not to give the man the money.
A chase and a beating — this time on camera
Five days after the sting operation at the gas station, members of the major crimes task force saw a suspected dealer leave a drug house and get into a car.
Police tried to pull him over for a minor violation, but the man didn’t stop. He drove onto Interstate 15 and took off at over 90 mph. A Utah County patrol deputy ended the chase, heeding department policy. Howell and others didn’t.
The man wrecked the car in American Fork and then Utah County Detective Phil Crawford, driving an unmarked minivan, rammed the suspect’s car on the driver’s side to pin it and to “prevent him from further evading,” Hales wrote in his investigative report.
As police tried to pull the man from the vehicle, the suspect was flaying and kicking. He hit Howell in the face, knocking his glasses off.
The investigator noted this could have happened unintentionally, although Howell and others believed the man purposefully hit him in the face
Several officers held the man on the ground. Officers said the suspect wouldn’t comply as they tried to handcuff him. So, Howell grabbed on to his fellow deputies to stabilize himself and kicked the man. He continued to do so until another deputy stopped him.
Unlike the first case, this one was caught on camera.
A video taken from the dash of a deputy’s patrol car shows Howell kicked the suspect nine times in about 11 seconds.
In addition to the kicks, video catches what the investigator said appears to be Carter — the former Salem officer — striking the suspect in the head. Crawford also “knee slam[s]” the suspect in the chest while he’s on the ground. Crawford denied he hit the man in the head, saying, instead, “he was controlling the suspect’s head,” Hales wrote in his investigative report.
An American Fork officer who arrived later to investigate the minivan crash had his body camera turned on, and it caught snippets of conversation.
The suspect asks officers, “You guys think you can beat up anyone you want, huh?"
Crawford responds, "Only pieces of s--- like you, buddy."
Later, the suspect says, “That’s how you justify s---, too, just make it up." Crawford responds again, saying, “s--- yeah.” The American Fork officer also replies, saying, “Fake it till you make it.”
Later, after he’s approached by Crawford to talk, the American Fork officer mutes his body camera.
The suspect told the county attorney’s investigator that he thought police were trying to kill him. He said that if he’d done what they did — rammed a car’s driver side door and beat someone — he’d be in jail for attempted murder.
“I feel I have to pay for the things I do, and they should be held to the same standard,” he said. “Just because I’m a drug addict doesn’t mean they get away with it.”
The man was arrested and later charged with multiple third-degree felonies, including assault against a peace officer, failing to stop or listen to a police officers’ commands, obstruction of justice and drug possession.
After the internal investigation was launched, the Utah County Attorney’s Office requested all charges against the man be dismissed, and they were.
A use of force board ultimately voted 3-2 that Howell’s conduct didn’t violate policy. The report doesn’t say whether the board reviewed the other deputies’ conduct.
Smith, the sheriff, told The Tribune that the exchange the audio captured was “completely unprofessional and unacceptable,” and added that he’d addressed the issue with Crawford.
Still, he said, the deputies were not making things up that night. The suspect admitted he’d been to the drug house and ran from police.
“The suspect could have chosen to obey the lawful orders of a police officer at any time during this incident," Smith said. “He did not.”
As for the video, Cannon, spokesman for Utah County Sheriff’s Office, said, “There are things that are necessary in law enforcement and they look bad.”
What this video shows, he said, is one of them.
Smith said he asked the use of force board to review both cases as soon as he learned of them, which launched the sheriff’s office’s own internal affairs investigations into the encounters.
At the same time, the sheriff’s office asked the state’s police academy and Lone Peak police to review them.
The sheriff’s office internal investigation “did not substantiate any use of force violations, although violations of the... pursuit policy were substantiated.”
Lone Peak agreed that “possible policy violations may exist” but said the conduct wasn’t criminal, Smith said.
Hales, the county attorney’s internal affairs investigator, began looking into this in May 2019 and finished his report three months later.
He noted that both cases happened in the wake of the death of Provo Officer Joseph Shinners, who was killed working a case similar to — and involving the same informant — as the Jan. 30 sting operation.
Shinners was working a patrol shift Jan. 5, when he was called to help arrest Matt Hoover, a wanted fugitive. Officers found Hoover in a car at a shopping center in Orem, and he allegedly shot Shinners as the officer tried to grab him from the passenger-side door.
“[I]t’s possible police were on edge,” the investigator wrote.
Also, he said, “supervision was lacking” in both cases.
The report notes Howell was the supervisor in both cases. Hales said Howell didn’t follow his own plan in the Jan. 30 sting. And that Lott, who knew they’d cornered the wrong man then, didn’t immediately tell other officers.
In the second case, Hales said, “[a] series of poor decisions by officers and supervisor led to policy violations.” The investigator wrote that one officer — the man who stepped in and appeared to tell Howell to stop kicking — said he couldn’t remember what happened.
Even after seeing the dash camera video, the officer told the investigator he couldn’t remember the specifics. Hales wrote that the deputy “was intentionally omitting facts of what he observed.”
Carter maintained he didn’t hit or punch the suspect in the head, although the video appears to show that and Salem police came to that conclusion, too.
“It is very apparent the witness officers in both these cases are omitting information,” the investigator wrote.
Smith, the county sheriff, said any so-called deflections were his deputies' constitutional rights. He said, “In a criminal investigation, a police officer has the same constitutional rights as any U.S. citizen against self-incrimination.”
Sorensen, the civil attorney representing the man who Howell hit with the gun in the Jan. 30 sting, said his office has also been “repeatedly stonewalled” in trying to get more information from the sheriff’s office and the task force.
He said, “It is disappointing that criminal charges will not be sought against the officers who were involved in the senseless and brutal attack on [our client]. We have always felt in our office that the officer’s actions should be criminally punished.”
After Hales finished his review, he briefed the Iron County Attorney’s Office and the FBI. Iron County Attorney Chad Dotson ultimately didn’t file charges. But he said, “Our declination does not mean that this office believes the use of force exhibited in these incidents were wise or justified.”
Dotson declined to answer questions about his decision.
Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training, the state’s police academy, didn’t find any wrongdoing. According to the sheriff’s office, POST said this in declining to investigate: “Howell was found to have been operating within department policy, and his actions appeared reasonable under the circumstances. Consequently, POST does not have enough evidence to warrant an investigation.”
The case was also sent to the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit for evaluation. The FBI declined to comment.
Both Howell and Crawford are still members of the major crimes task force. Carter is a patrol officer for Spanish Fork police.