Four years after West Jordan police officers shot and killed 23-year-old Michael Glad, a judge has decided that the public may finally learn why officers pulled the trigger.
The Salt Lake Tribune has been fighting since 2021 for internal police interview records from the shooting, known as Garrity statements. Such interviews are conducted as part of an agency’s own review of a police shooting, and cannot be used against officers in criminal court. But in some instances, they have become public.
Despite winning access to the documents in May 2021 from the State Records Committee, West Jordan declined to release the interviews to The Tribune. Instead, the city took the news organization to court, asking that a judge determine whether the interviews are public record.
In a ruling filed Friday, 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease found that the the public’s right to access the records in this case “substantially” outweighed the privacy concerns West Jordan raised.
“Citizens entrust law enforcement officers with the authority to use lethal force in maintaining public safety and order and defending others,” Trease wrote. “Because of the significant trust placed in law enforcement officers and the severe consequences associated with the use of lethal force, there is a clear, strong public interest in ensuring that officers only use lethal force appropriately and within the confines of existing law and policies.”
“Disclosing the Garrity interviews would further that interest,” she continued, “by enabling the public to assess the use of lethal force here.”
Trease also was unconvinced of West Jordan’s argument that the interviews should be classified as private employee records, and that releasing the records would interfere with a “hypothetical” future court or administrative proceeding.
Tribune attorney Michael Judd called the ruling a “win for the public.”
“We thought that these records never should have been withheld. That’s been The Tribune’s position, and we’ve pushed hard for that,” Judd said. “And, unfortunately, it takes a long time sometimes to get to that conclusion...but better late than never.”
When asked for comment, West Jordan public affairs director Tauni Barker said in a statement on behalf of the city that, “We appreciate the steps state leaders took during the 2022 legislative session to provide additional clarification to [the Government Records Access and Management Act] to avoid this type of litigation in the future.”
Utah law states all records not expressly deemed private or protected are considered public records. The 2022 law change specified Garrity records as protected records.
Barker said that the city hadn’t yet decided whether or not to appeal the court’s decision. She said officials “will continue to analyze each GRAMA request it receives individually and release records based on current state statute.”
Arguments ‘at odds’ with public records laws
Garrity statements are named after the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Garrity v. New Jersey. That decision protects government employees from being criminally prosecuted based on information given during these interviews, which can be compelled, ruling that doing so would violate employees’ Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
In the Glad case, West Jordan officers Tyrell Shepherd and Josh Whitehead cited their Fifth Amendment rights and declined to explain their actions to Salt Lake County prosecutors reviewing the shooting in 2018, so little is publicly known about what exactly caused them to open fire.
Glad had robbed a convenience store and pointed a gun at police before getting behind the wheel of a police truck that day, authorities have said. Officers fired at him after he started driving.
Four shots hit the truck, and one hit Glad in the neck. He later died. His family has said he struggled with mental illness and they think it played a role in how he behaved the day he was killed.
The Tribune requested the officers’ Garrity statements from West Jordan as part of a larger police shooting data collection project called Shots Fired.
That request set off a series of back-and-forths between The Tribune and city officials about whether or not the records should be released, leading to the hearing at the State Records Committee.
West Jordan rejected that ruling and sued in June 2021 to prevent their release. The city made a number of arguments throughout the litigation, including that:
The records were “akin to to performance evaluations because the interviews were used to review the officers’ performance.”
The disclosure of the records would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” because they “included deeply personal thoughts and feelings associated with the shooting” that officers were told would remain private.
Releasing the records would “create a danger of depriving a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial hearing” if this case resulted in a civil suit.
The judge wasn’t persuaded by those arguments, agreeing with The Tribune that they were “overly broad.” Trease did concede that the two parties should work together to redact some of the officers’ personal information from the records before they are released.
But she noted that, under the city’s reading of state law, a government record could be categorized as private simply because the record either includes a statement from an employee, or because it refers to an employee’s statement or actions.
“In practice, this would be no limitation at all and would make most government records private,” she wrote.
West Jordan’s argument that releasing the records could impact a “hypothetical” future proceeding would end similarly, she wrote — effectively making all records subject to protection each time the government “speculates that civil litigation might be brought at some unknown point in the future.”
That is “at odds” with the purpose of the state’s open records laws, she wrote.
Challenging to get, but not inaccessible
The Tribune’s pursuit of Garrity documents from West Jordan and other police agencies prompted a law change earlier this year to restrict public access to these documents. Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, sponsored the bill, which Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law in March.
The bill’s supporters argued Garrity statements contain personal information and worried that government employees would be less truthful in those reviews if they feared the information could later become public.
“Ask yourself,” Wilcox said during the lone February committee hearing discussing the bill, “how likely is an employee to open up about a difficult issue, perhaps one in which they made a significant mistake, if, after the interview, the content of that crucial conversation is going to be used to sell newspapers?”
Approximately 60 people attended the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting, some in law enforcement uniforms. Among them was West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine, who said he was up until 2:30 a.m. the night before, crying with an officer about his K-9 who was killed.
“That’s the kind of content that many of these interviews hold,” he said.
Tiffany James, the mother of a 19-year-old shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018, argued against the bill. The Garrity statements in her son’s case, revealed during the course of her family’s civil litigation against the city, showed officer Casey Davies had used deadly force twice against her son, striking him with his car before shooting him.
Prosecutors, who are required by law to investigative police officers’ deadly uses of force, didn’t know about that first deadly use of force, since that officer declined to speak with prosecutors after the shooting, and no one else was on scene. The department says no footage of the shooting exists.
“It is simply unacceptable,” the mother said, “for government and law enforcement to expect that they can have a crisis that occurs and not be held accountable for it, not have to share all of the information or be selective in their information.”
Since those Garrity statement details were released in her son’s case, another officer revealed he knew about the crash, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office reopened their investigation into the 2018 shooting. Prosecutors ruled in May that the first, previously unknown use-of-force was unjustified but declined to file charges. The office had already found the shooting justified.
At least seven others prepared to speak against the bill were not allowed to testify because the committee moved the bill to the end of the agenda and ran out of time. The bill never received another public hearing and passed out of the Senate, under suspension of rules, on the penultimate day of the session.
Wilcox didn’t return a request for comment as of Tuesday afternoon.
Judd, an attorney for The Tribune, said the representative’s bill follows a tradition where “every time the public comes and tries to get some information that somebody doesn’t want to be accessible, GRAMA is amended and another category of documents is added to the list of exceptions that make it harder to get to certain documents.”
This ruling, however, shows that Garrity records are accessible — although getting them now will be more challenging, he said.
“Entities still have to recognize that just because they can affix a [protected] label to these under the new bill, [it] doesn’t mean that they can keep them from the public forever,” he said, “particularly when they show something that really is about the public’s business and when the interest keeping it secret is pretty minimal.”
Judd said this ruling may not, however, prevent someone from going through a protracted and expensive legal process, like The Tribune did, for access to these records. The news organization spent about $100,000 fighting for these records.