In shadow of Utah national parks, police juggle high call volumes, high-profile cases

Understaffed agencies in Utah’s destination towns say exorbitant costs of living make recruiting first responders a challenge.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Park City Police Department, in Park City, on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

The understaffed police department of Moab was thrust under a microscope in September — weeks after Moab officers stopped Florida woman Gabby Petito and her fiance near Arches National Park.

The couple were on a cross-country road trip at the time, passing through Utah’s Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks before making their way to Arches in their camper van in mid-August. Petito would disappear weeks later. Her remains were found near Grand Teton National Park on Sept. 19 and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, is considered a person of interest in the case. He disappeared after returning to Florida alone.

The Aug. 12 police stop followed a call from a witness, who reported an argument and apparent altercation between the couple near a Moab food cooperative. Body camera footage showed Petito “crying uncontrollably” as she spoke with police, an officer noted in a report — a stark contrast to her cheery Instagram posts and video updates. An officer opted to separate the couple for the night so they could “relax their emotions” and later categorized the incident as a report of “disorderly conduct.” Neither was charged and the case was closed — a response that’s now the subject of a formal investigation.

Investigators haven’t produced any findings yet. But the interaction also happened days before newlyweds Kylen Schulte and Crystal Turner were found shot to death Aug. 18 near their Moab-area campsite. The Grand County Sheriff’s Office has not identified a suspect in the case. For weeks, Schulte’s father set up a clue booth at a community park in town, pleading for tips to pass along to investigators.

The high-profile cases highlight the challenges that police in Utah’s destination towns face, working with understaffed departments as streams of passing tourists like Petito and Laundrie pour in and out at the same time authorities are tasked with serving a relatively small population of area residents and regulars like Schulte and Turner.

Officials throughout the state say such staffing issues are compounded by the towns’ typically exorbitant costs of living. The result is constant triage as available authorities and community advocates grapple with a high volume of calls, language barriers and even intoxicated individuals as tourists take on a “vacation mindset.”

‘It would require a significantly larger police force’

Assistant Police Chief Braydon Palmer said the Moab Police Department is currently understaffed by four positions. That leaves the city of Moab, which has a population of about 7,000 residents, with a police force of about 11 personnel. Compared to similarly sized communities throughout the country, that is fairly common, Palmer said.

But calls for service significantly increase from the end of March through the start of October, when droves of tourists visit Arches and other outdoor area attractions. The police force goes from taking on a standard caseload to trying to be everywhere at once, Palmer said.

Moab has two officers available through a reserve program to help assist with calls. Rangers from the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management respond to calls within the Arches boundary or on area trails and campgrounds, along with Grand County deputies, who also help respond to calls in town during the busy season. But the Moab department is still overwhelmed by the amount of calls it receives.

“If you take into account the amount of visitors that we see, and those visitors do generate calls, it would require a significantly larger police force to handle that call volume,” Palmer said.

He estimates that the department would need around 30 total officers to better address each summer’s high call volume, which ranges from reports of property crime to disorderly intoxicated individuals to domestic violence.

In Park City, known for its ski resorts and the Sundance Film Festival, the idea of a “slow season” is disappearing as youth sporting tournaments, arts festivals and other large events continue taking place year-round, police spokesperson Phil Kirk said.

The Park City Police Department currently employs 32 full-time officers. A group of them speak Spanish, but the department’s understaffing still presents a general language barrier, which can make it difficult to adequately serve both locals and visitors who don’t speak fluent English. Responding to calls that involve people who are in a “vacation mindset” and would rather avoid police also can make officer interactions challenging, Kirk said.

Another 15 officers from Summit County serve as a reserve staff for the resort town. In 2019, Park City police implemented a mobile crisis outreach team, which consists of therapists trained to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis. And in a pinch, the department can call on a rotating group of 75 officers from around the Salt Lake Valley to help out part time — a luxury Moab doesn’t have.

Still, providing security for large Park City events and alleviating the town’s near-constant battle with traffic is a logistical headache, Kirk said. The department has had to ask officers to cancel vacations and work holidays on some occasions.

The pricey cost of living in Park City also makes it difficult to recruit, Kirk said. The Park City Council offers a housing subsidy to first responders so they can better afford rent in town, but Kirk said it’s still hard to persuade people to move there.

In Moab, Palmer said he doesn’t know of a subsidy available for local officers. He said many have left the department for offers at other agencies with more affordable housing options.

The same problem plagues area resource centers. Abi Taylor, executive director of Seek Haven Family Crisis Center in Moab, said she can hire seasonally, but finding full-time employees has become harder in recent years. The housing situation also makes it difficult for the organization to help domestic violence victims transition into temporary and eventually permanent housing separate from their abuser — especially if they have children or pets.

“So much real estate is used for overnight rentals or the second home for incredibly wealthy individuals,” Taylor said. “It used to be a conversation of affordable housing. And now it’s really just available housing. What’s even open for somebody to move into?”

Taylor noted that the high cost of living also can force people into unstable housing situations, where they can’t lock up their belongings or have a truly private, safe space. She pointed to the deaths of Schulte and Turner, who were living in Moab-area campgrounds, as an example of what can happen when people are unhoused.

‘Gosh, I hope that they’re safe.... But I’ll never know.’

Isolation is one of the primary tools that an abuser can use to gain more power and control over their victim, Liz Sollis, spokesperson for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition said. A campsite in the woods or a camper van can provide a setting that allows abusers to heavily isolate their partner.

But help can still be within reach. BLM Utah Spokesperson Diane Simpson said rangers undergo crisis training each year to help them better respond to domestic violence calls. Campers in crisis should call 911 if they have cell service, she said. If cell service is unavailable, she recommended contacting a fellow camper or the nearest BLM ranger, who can reach local law enforcement over radio.

Simpson advised that individuals also notify a “lifeline” friend or relative of their travel itinerary before heading out on a remote trip and plan for emergencies or inclement weather.

Taylor said she’s seen people end up at her center after being abandoned at national parks or in the wilderness. It’s a common occurrence in Moab while people are on vacation, she added.

The August argument and altercation reported between Petito and Laundrie unfolded as Petito feared that Laundrie was going to drive off in their camper van, leaving her in Moab alone, Petito told police. Laundrie had locked Petito out of their van, which prompted her to climb into the driver’s side window, a report states.

In that case, a witness prompted the police response. Sollis said it’s important that residents as well as visitors in destination towns or campgrounds consider keeping an eye out for others who may need help in absence of their neighbors, family or friends who may have noticed back home.

Sollis did that herself once. While on vacation, she called local law enforcement after hearing a man shouting inside a nearby home. She later found out that the man was caring for his mother and not treating her well, she said.

“It’s one step in making sure somebody’s safe,” Sollis said. “And if you’re wrong — and there isn’t domestic violence happening — that’s great, right? But if you’re right, and it gets those people resources? That’s amazing.”

Seek Haven in Moab offers emergency shelter and transition assistance for survivors of domestic abuse without involving law enforcement, though the center does work with police in situations where officers have already been called.

Utah law doesn’t require that a victim press charges for an aggressor to be arrested, but it can be difficult to assess a situation based on a passing interaction. A witness reported the “domestic problem” between Petito and Laundrie, but a responding officer surmised that the situation was more of a “mental health crisis” than a “domestic assault” before closing out the case, a report states.

Park City and Moab police both employ victim advocates to assist with domestic violence calls and other violent crimes.

Devan Bobo, a victim advocate in Park City, said her work can include taking a victim to an emergency shelter, ensuring their financial needs are met or coordinating with services in their hometown to better assist them after they leave. The department also issues no contact orders, helps survivors start therapy if they so choose and works to connect victims with local nonprofit organizations that can help cover the cost of traveling back home.

If victims leave town, the advent of video conferencing amid the pandemic has made it easier for Bobo to stay in touch. It also eliminates the need for people to return to Park City for potential court hearings, she said.

In Moab, the police department’s victim advocate position is funded through external grants, so “her purview is very limited,” Palmer said. It’s unclear if a victim advocate was involved in or aware of the call involving Petito and Laundrie.

Seek Haven helps fill those gaps, but the grant-funded organization still struggles to provide long-term support. If a resident or visitor leaves town after seeking services, advocates sometimes never hear from them again.

“That kind of tugs on our hearts to say, ‘Gosh, I hope that they’re safe. I hope that they’re okay. But I’ll never know,’” Taylor said.

Anyone can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) to be connected with resources in their area, Sollis said. The Domestic Violence Coalition also offers a 24-hour hotline at 1-800-897-LINK for people in Utah.