The former police chief and only law enforcement officer of a small, central Utah town is suing the city, alleging the mayor fired him earlier this year as payback for writing the politician’s son a traffic ticket.
Robert Hill’s firing in February set off a chain of events that left the city of Moroni, roughly 60 miles south of Provo, without anyone patrolling the town and residents split on how to proceed.
City officials presented two options in March: retain a police department — with one, ideally two, officers — or contract with the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office for a deputy to patrol an average of five hours a day in the town, which has a population of about 1,400 people.
The city council opted for the first, posting a job listing that garnered just three applicants, Mayor Paul Bailey said at a June council meeting. During that meeting, councilors reversed course and instead made a deal with the sheriff’s office. Bailey retired from the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office in March.
The city will now spend $125,000 a year for a county deputy to patrol the town part time, though the county has been responding to 911 calls since Hill’s firing. Sheriff Jared Buchanan said the price was “honestly pretty dang cheap” for what the office would provide the city.
Hill said he’s skeptical, and so are residents who’ve spoken up at city council meetings since February, or signed an online petition to reinstate Hill.
That’s ultimately what Hill said he and his family want from this lawsuit: his old job back.
“What we want to do is serve our community,” Hill said. “And for a one-man department — one person — to make a big difference in a community like that.”
The chief’s firing
Nestled in Sanpete Valley, Hill said Moroni and the county “isn’t just rural. It’s remote.”
Crime typically consists of “small town stuff,” Hill said — mostly speeding and other traffic issues, but also domestic violence, sex crimes and drug offenses. People knocked on his door at all hours when he was chief. It was hard, near-constant work, but he liked it.
In January, city officials, including Bailey, told Hill they were happy with his performance and indicated that he could get a raise or a second officer, according to the lawsuit filed in August. Everything was OK until the day he pulled over the mayor’s son in February, he said.
Hill remembers it well. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and the Los Angeles Rams were playing the Cincinnati Bengals.
“My priority at that time was more like looking for DUIs and keeping parties down to a low ruckus,” he said.
He decided to patrol one of the town’s main roads, where he saw a pickup truck driver rev his engine and blow exhaust as the vehicle left town. Hill didn’t think much of it at the time, but when the driver returned, Hill saw him blow exhaust again, then make a sharp, fast turn and drive erratically, he said. He began to suspect that the driver may be impaired and pulled him over.
“I didn’t know who it was,” Hill said, “but he made it very clear who he was, and made it clear that he better not be getting a ticket.”
Hill wrote the man, Mayor Paul Bailey’s son, citations for an alleged seatbelt violation and two turn signal infractions. (He later pleaded guilty to an infraction; the other offenses were dismissed, court records indicate).
Later that night, Hill pulled over another driver with a “severely smashed windshield.” He arrested her on outstanding misdemeanor warrants.
The lawsuit alleges that the next day, the mayor asked Hill into his office and put him on administrative leave because of a complaint from the woman. On Feb. 18, Bailey fired him.
“I felt horribly betrayed and wronged, and it came out of nowhere,” Hill said. “I did not see this coming.”
Moroni city officials declined repeated requests for comment. But Bailey told FOX 13 that he fired Hill because two women accused him of using unnecessary force, including the woman Hill arrested Super Bowl Sunday.
“Females usually don’t need to be handled that severely by the police,” Bailey told FOX 13. “With two people telling you similar stories, and then the officer telling me something different, it makes me wonder.”
Hill’s attorney Erik Strindberg said his office often represents police officers, and residents frequently file complaints against them. It normally doesn’t result in their firing. He said neither complaint against Hill has been substantiated.
“The mayor was pissed because his son got a ticket,” Strindberg argued.
A split city
More people have voted in these petitions than residents did in 2021 for all three mayoral candidates, though the online petitions do have lower barriers for participation.
At city council meetings in the wake of Hill’s firing, some residents worried that without Hill, they may wait longer for help, or that they wouldn’t get the same proactive enforcement they got from Hill, who knew the town, its people and its problems.
Some looked to the future, wondering how much it would cost to reinstate the police department as the city grows, or to contract additional deputies.
Others, including the mayor, felt contracting with the county made more sense. They have more resources, like a detective division and evidence technicians. They have working body cameras — something Moroni has lacked since it failed to replace a computer and other technology damaged in a power surge, Hill said.
The sheriff’s office also would be liable if one of its deputies did anything wrong, such as use excessive force, Bailey said.
How best do you police a small town?
Moroni’s police department hasn’t submitted crime data to the Department of Public Safety since 2016, but that year, the city’s only documented index crimes — a federal designation for serious crimes — were four motor vehicle thefts.
It had the second-lowest index crime rate in the state that year, following only Lindon, a city in nearby Utah County with 15 police officers and a population more than seven times larger than Moroni.
Fountain Green, a city about 8 miles north of Moroni, also lost its police chief and lone officer earlier this year and weighed similar options: find a new one, or contract with Sanpete County.
Mayor Mark Coombs said the city received one application for chief, but that person couldn’t pass a background check. He said officials also worried that if they hired someone and paid for their training, they could lose out on their investment if that officer left for better pay elsewhere, forcing them to start the cycle over again.
“We felt like the county was our best option,” Coombs said, “because, unfortunately, a one-man police department is not good for somebody’s personal life. ... You can’t expect somebody to be on call 24/7.”
Sanpete deputies began responding to 911 calls in Fountain Green and patrolling the city in March. So far, Coombs said he’s happy with the contract.
“Right now, it is working,” he said. “It will get better.”
Buchanan, the Sanpete sheriff, said he’s hired two new deputies to add to a patrol rotation for cities contracted with the county, based on each city’s allotted average of police hours. The first recruit is expected to graduate from the police academy next month, but will then need three months of field training before they can patrol on their own.
Hill still hopes that he’ll be rehired, or that the city will reinstate its police department, even if he’s not in charge of it.
“It’s my community. ... If the mayor can’t get past things and says, ‘No way. I don’t want to hire you,’ let’s get our own police department,” Hill said. “We need our police back.”
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