‘Unacceptable’: Utah police departments ignored their own policies, left deadly force uninvestigated

At best, not conducting internal investigations in police shooting cases goes against professional standards, experts said. At worst, it’s dangerous.

(Screenshot) Dashcam video records a Utah County Sheriff's deputy and the driver of a vehicle who shot at officers on Dec. 20, 2017. The driver suffered survivable injuries and was arrested. The shooting involved the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and Spanish Fork police. The Spanish Fork Police Department conducted an internal investigation into the use of force; the Utah County Sheriff's Office did not, an official confirmed.

Raziel Rodas pulled over on the dark shoulder of Interstate 15 near Springville.

He and a friend had just run out of gas. It was a December 2017 evening, about 6:40 p.m., but they had extra fuel in their vehicle. Rodas climbed into the truck’s bed to pour it in the tank, leaning over the edge to avoid being hit by speeding traffic.

While awkwardly pouring the gas, however, he was hit in the back by something else: a bullet. He and his friend took cover, and the friend dialed 911.

A few lanes over, Brody and Erin Lambert were driving on the freeway with their four children when the back window of their pickup truck shattered, covering the kids in glass. The Lamberts quickly pulled off at a truck stop to call police.

The family and Rodas didn’t know they were in the middle of a police shooting, in which officers from the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and Spanish Fork police opened fire — some with high-powered assault rifles — and shot a total of 72 rounds during a traffic stop.

Their intended target, Arturo Gallemore-Jimenez, had shot out his truck window earlier that day in Nephi after locking himself out of the vehicle. He fled before police got to the scene, and as officers tried to pull him over on I-15, he fired three rounds at them. He was wanted out of Aurora, Colo., on suspicion of attempted murder from the day prior, though officers didn’t know it when they returned fire.

Gallemore-Jimenez suffered survivable injuries and was arrested shortly after. The Utah County Attorney’s Office decided it would not bring criminal charges against the officers. Still, the Spanish Fork Police Department decided to do what most Utah police departments do when an officer uses deadly force: investigate it internally, comparing the officer’s actions to department policy to determine if any policies had been violated.

A review concluded that the Spanish Fork officer’s actions were within policy, but the Use of Force Review Board recommended that future training should stress that officers be aware of their surroundings — especially nearby civilians — when utilizing lethal force.

The second agency involved, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, did not conduct an internal investigation, an official confirmed. The office, which has a budget 12 times larger than Spanish Fork’s, also did not present a report to a Use of Force Review Board. And there’s no evidence any steps were taken to stress awareness of civilians in future use-of-force situations.

Deaths left uninvestigated

When a police officer in Utah shoots someone, a state law passed in 2015 mandates that a separate law enforcement agency conduct a criminal investigation that’s presented to county prosecutors. That’s what happened in the Gallemore-Jimenez shooting before the Utah County Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute.

But there is no requirement for internal use-of-force investigations in Utah.

Some departments conduct internal investigations anyway. Others have relied only on the compulsory criminal investigation for certain cases, and did not initiate an internal review process.

Between 2015 and 2020 — the timespan for which The Salt Lake Tribune has been able to compile the most complete data on internal disciplinary findings — there were 127 police shootings in Utah, the Tribune found. At least six of those cases went uninvestigated by at least one involved department, amounting to about 5% of police shootings within that time frame.

In four of those cases, the person shot died: Utah County sheriff’s officers killing of Daniel Edwards in 2016 and Cody Evans in 2015; Roy police’s killing of Aaron Griffin in 2020; and the 2016 Lehi and Utah County Sheriff’s Office-involved shooting of James Dean Smith — whom medical examiners determined ultimately died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound — did not result in so much as a one-page document of reasoning as to why these uses of deadly force fell within the department’s policies, an official with each agency confirmed.

In response to Tribune records requests, a few agencies refused to acknowledge whether an internal investigation exists. The Ogden Police Department rejected multiple attempts to obtain information regarding their eleven shootings between 2015 and 2020. Federal agencies, too, have thus far ignored records requests regarding their two shootings within that time frame.

In addition, several police departments that previously told The Tribune that they do not conduct internal investigations, or did not have any responsive records or information to provide, backtracked when contacted again for comment.

A records clerk with Layton police was mistaken when she wrote that the department “only conducts an independent investigation if there is a complaint regarding the officer’s conduct,” according to Lt. Travis Lyman, who said a policy review is conducted for all of its shootings.

Police chiefs in Roy and Lehi both walked back their departments’ previous statements that no internal investigations take place or exist. It is true that no internal use of force investigation was opened to review each agency’s most recent shootings: those of James Dean Smith in 2016 for Lehi, and Aaron Griffin in 2020 for Roy; however, prior cases for both departments did undergo an internal investigation, Roy Chief Matt Gwynn and Lehi Chief Darren Paul wrote in emails.

Both confirmed that their departments will review shootings for policy compliance in the future, whether or not issues are raised in the mandatory criminal investigation.

‘We’d better know that’

At best, not conducting internal investigations in police shooting cases goes against professional standards, experts said. At worst, it’s dangerous.

“If we have a police officer on our hands who is not psychologically hearty or emotionally resilient, or is reckless, then we’d better know that,” former Seattle Police chief Norm Stamper said. “And we’re not going to know it simply by reading a D.A.’s decline [to prosecute] letter.”

An internal policy review “is at least as critical” as an external criminal investigation, which are much more narrow in scope, Stamper said. Rather than solely looking into an officer’s decision to shoot, internal reviews consider the events that led up to a shooting to better understand if the officer, or their training, may have been at fault in escalating a situation.

“Not having a definitive answer as to whether [a use of lethal force] was justified, either legally or administratively, is just unacceptable,” he said, and may signal to officers that “it just doesn’t matter” whether use of deadly force is within policy — “as long as it’s not a crime.”

According to Dean Esserman, who led police departments in Providence, R.I., and New Haven, Conn., “The industry standard is that there’s always an internal investigation, whether or not there’s a criminal complaint or criminal indictment.”

In an internal investigation, the burden of proof for a policy violation is lower than in a criminal case, making misconduct easier to prove, according to Sharon Fairley, a law professor at the University of Chicago who studies civilian oversight of police departments nationwide. She previously led Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which conducts administrative investigations of police shootings.

Prosecutors have to meet the far heavier burden of proof beyond all reasonable doubt, and, for that reason, sometimes decide not to file criminal charges even in cases they do not find justifiable.

In Utah, there have been just a handful of criminal cases brought against police officers in shootings, and no convictions.

“Not pursuing potential administrative remedies just because a prosecutor declined a case does not seem to be best practice,” Fairley said. “So that does sound concerning.”

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said departments should be able to articulate why they’re not conducting an internal investigation, and it surprised him that some Utah County agencies had declined to.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said that while it’s each department’s call, he believes it is “the wrong call if they don’t do an independent internal review.”

“It’s not our role to decide if the officer was within policy or not,” Rawlings said. “That’s the role of the city themselves.”

Internal policies were disregarded

UCSO’s failure to conduct an internal investigation to determine whether the 2017 highway shooting was within policy or not appears to not only violate best practices, but the office’s own directives. Were those to be followed, an investigation would be initiated after every use of deadly force “to determine conformance with all department policy,” UCSO’s officer-involved shootings policy states.

Spanish Fork’s investigation, for one, questioned the decision — largely made by UCSO officers, records indicate — to approach Gallemore-Jimenez’s vehicle in what it termed a “high-risk” traffic stop without fully clearing nearby lanes of civilian traffic first.

“All officers on the scene would have provided better cover and provided more protection for themselves by not advancing on the vehicle and remaining behind their patrol vehicles,” Sgt. Phil Nielsen, the department’s internal investigator, wrote. “Also, traffic continued to flow past the felony stop and put innocent bystander vehicles at risk.”

After exchanging gunfire with police, Gallemore-Jimenez led officers on a low-speed chase through southern Utah County until he got to the exit for Utah Valley University in Orem — which also is where UCSO Sgt. John Luke had positioned himself to intercept Gallemore-Jimenez before he made his way into the highly populated area.

When Sgt. Luke saw him begin to pull off the exit, he fired 30 rounds into the front of the truck with a submachine gun — the entire clip. Gallemore-Jimenez lost control and crashed into a barrier on the side of the offramp, where he was arrested. He was later sentenced to five years to life at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.

UCSO’s policies, like most police departments, discourage firing at a moving vehicle. They state that should only occur when an officer “reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the imminent threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the deputy or others.”

“Deputies should not shoot at any part of a vehicle in an attempt to disable the vehicle,” the policy continues. Disabling the vehicle, however, was the exact justification provided by Sgt. Luke in his interview with criminal investigators.

“This happened with the previous administration and I can’t find any answers on why this was not investigated at the time,” Lt. Rhett Williams of the UCSO’s Administrative Services Division wrote in an email to The Tribune. UCSO internal investigations are “conducted at the discretion of the Sheriff, or the Under-sheriff,” he wrote in a response to follow-up questions.

In total, four of UCSO’s seven police shootings since 2015 have gone uninvestigated by the department. And the Gallemore-Jimenez shooting is not the only time where multijurisdictional responses in Utah have resulted in varying levels of internal oversight.

In 2020, Roy and Clinton Police officers killed Aaron Griffin by hitting him with a squad car, then shooting him after he led officers from different agencies on several pursuits through Davis and Weber Counties and shot a police K-9.

Clinton convened a review board, which exonerated its officer, while Roy took no action — something that Chief Matt Gwynn, who also is a member of the Utah House of Representatives, admitted in an email was a violation of department policy.

Will Utah require internal use-of-force investigations?

Despite the flurry of police reform legislation filed in Utah over the last two years, no lawmakers have proposed requiring that police departments internally investigate uses of deadly force for policy compliance.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Gill has recommended that the state require departments to conduct internal reviews of all shootings as an improvement to current police use of force laws.

“There’s an opportunity out of that tragedy to learn, to re-examine how faithful we were to our process and procedure, and to emphasize that the agency takes [police shootings] seriously,” he said. “What’s the point of having policies if you are not willing to critically look if you follow them?”

In California, lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 — supported by police departments and unions throughout the state — that required law enforcement agencies to have policies on the books that contain “factors for evaluating and reviewing all use of force incidents” — essentially, a strong encouragement, if not mandate, for internal use-of-force investigations or reviews to occur.

Legislators there were pushed by critical reporting, such as an investigation from KQED, a public radio station in the Bay Area, which found that some departments in the state were declining to conduct even basic policy reviews of police shootings. This was made possible by a significant opening of the state’s public records laws, which for decades had blocked public access to police misconduct records.

In Utah, lawmakers in the last legislative session went the opposite direction. Following a successful public records appeal filed by The Tribune for internal statements taken in a West Jordan police shooting, state Republicans and Democrats passed a bill this year that impedes public access to certain statements officers give in internal investigations, including those given during internal police shooting reviews.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill into law in March, citing its bipartisan passage, despite opposition from media, good government groups and families of police shooting victims including Zane James.

Rae Duckworth, the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, said police shootings going uninvestigated internally — and apparent attempts to conceal investigations that do occur — only serves to increase community distrust in police.

“How did we get to a place where we so willingly just trust this policing entity to do the job of protecting and serving, but nobody bats an eye when a body is dropped?” she said. “That’s a big concern.”