Former Salt Lake County sheriff’s academy instructor sexually assaulted female recruits, lawsuit alleges

The trainer resigned amid an internal affairs investigation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Jail on Friday, March 20, 2020. A Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputy is suing her workplace, alleging that one of her law enforcement academy instructors sexually assaulted her multiple times and that his colleagues enabled the alleged misconduct.

A Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputy is suing her workplace, alleging that one of her law enforcement academy instructors sexually assaulted her multiple times and that his colleagues enabled the alleged misconduct.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation, still works for the sheriff’s office. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify alleged sexual assault victims without their consent.

The complaint, filed in Utah’s U.S. District Court in November, alleges that the abuse started soon after she joined the sheriff’s office’s academy in April 2021. Former Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputy Brandon Hartley is listed as a defendant in the complaint and worked as an academy instructor at the time.

According to the complaint, the woman alleges that Hartley would pull her from trainings, or ask her to stay late, then sexually assault and degrade her, calling her “worthless and nothing but a slut,” the filing states.

Before the woman graduated the 2021 academy, Hartley resigned following an internal affairs investigation into whether he sexually assaulted another woman in the academy a year earlier, according to the complaint.

During the complainant’s own internal affairs interview, she was told that she “was not [Hartley’s] only victim,” the complaint states. After the interview, she also was told by a chief deputy that her case “slipped through the cracks,” according to the complaint.

Tyler Todd, one of the attorneys representing the complainant, argued that the department’s “good old boys’ club” knew what was happening and “turned a blind eye.”

“I have a lot of respect for law enforcement,” Todd said, “but this is a pervasive problem that is getting swept under the rug for way too long.”

A database from the nonprofit Utah Criminal Justice Institute shows that out of the 676 alleged misconduct cases heard by the state’s Peace Office Standards and Training organization since 2009, 73 involve officer sexual misconduct with an adult, including allegations of rape, lewdness and other related offenses. Those cases resulted in 32 license revocations and 44 suspensions.

POST heard 23 of those cases in 2009 — the most of any year in the database. Last year, POST heard eight.

Through a spokesperson, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office said that the agency can only share “limited information” in response to the complainant’s allegations because of the pending lawsuit.

In a provided statement, Sheriff Rosie Rivera said she placed Hartley on administrative leave and began an internal affairs investigation “as soon as we became aware of allegations against him.”

“The findings of that investigation would have resulted in his termination, [but] before the termination process was completed Mr. Hartley resigned,” she said.

Attorneys for the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office, who are representing Hartley, declined to comment. They denied the lawsuit’s allegations in court documents filed Nov. 14.

Crossing a line

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, the woman said that academy instructors told recruits that working in corrections was difficult and that many struggle with their mental health, noting the job carries a high rate of suicide.

That’s why instructor Hartley and others stressed the importance of camaraderie and leaning on each other when times got rough, she said. And that’s why she didn’t think it was alarming when Hartley added her on Snapchat and messaged her.

At first, they talked about work, the woman said, and then her children. But over the next two weeks, the woman’s attorneys wrote in the complaint, “messages slowly began to cross a line from being professional to extremely personal and inappropriate.”

He later asked the woman if he could come to her house. Once he arrived, he transformed from “professional” to “flirtatious, the complaint states.

“This put [the woman] in an extremely uncomfortable and awkward position as he was her direct supervisor,” the complaint states.

A few days later, at the academy, Hartley asked the woman to meet him in a classroom. There, he “signaled to her to follow him into his office,” the complaint states. But as they approached, he “abruptly turned” and they entered a closet, according to the lawsuit.

In the closet, the lawsuit alleges Hartley assaulted her — the first of several reported assaults throughout the 13-week academy, the complaint states.

Soon after the first assault, the woman said that Hartley made a comment in class that cadets could be fired “at any time and for any reason.”

The complaint states that he looked “directly” at the woman when saying this, “and she felt he was intimidating her and manipulating her to perpetuate his abuse of her.”

About a week later, the woman said Hartley pulled her into the closet again and forced her to perform a sex act. This time, the lawsuit states, he had “set up the closet in such a way to prevent anyone from unexpectedly coming in,” using a chair and bike to block the door.

At the time, the woman didn’t know what to do or who to report the abuse to, the complaint states, so she “succumbed” to further assaults over the next several weeks. She said she didn’t feel like the academy’s other four supervisors had her “best interest at heart,” and argues that she didn’t feel comfortable confiding in them.

The sheriff’s office said Thursday that three of those four other academy supervisors still work for the agency. The fourth does not. The sheriff’s office declined to answer whether any of the four were investigated in connection with the woman’s case.

There is a protect-your-own mentality in policing, the woman told The Tribune, but as a recruit she was “bottom of the barrel,” so she felt it didn’t apply to her, she said. Others were aware Hartley was pulling her from class, she said — “and nobody questioned it.”

Eventually, the sheriff’s office opened the internal affairs investigation into Hartley and he left the agency.

The aftermath

Since the assaults, the woman said she has tried to get the sheriff’s office and other local police departments to investigate Hartley for criminal charges, but none will take on the case. She also filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim against the department, which paved the way for filing the lawsuit.

The sheriff’s office offered her counseling, but the woman said it’s hard to take the office’s mental health support seriously. She said seeing the agency’s April social media posts for Sexual Assault Awareness Month also stung.

In one post, the agency shared a photo of a teal ribbon with the hashtag “#StartByBelieving.” The caption read, “We Believe. We Support. We Prevent. Will You?”

“They claim that they care about people’s mental health and that they do all these things,” the woman said, “and I’m here as proof that they don’t care, and I really feel like they will do what they need to to cover that stuff up.”

Sometimes, she pulls into the parking lot before work and fights to force herself to go inside, she said. She has exhausted all her vacation and sick days, she said, so unless she finds another job, she said she has to keep reporting to work.

There, she said people have called her a “rat” for reporting Hartley, or have suggested that she got too “emotionally involved” with him and retaliated.

The woman said the experience has been “extremely hard,” but she keeps pushing because of the other women she saw in the academy, some of whom were as young as 19, she said.

“I’ve always thought that I was a strong, independent woman, and if this could happen to me, look what these other girls could possibly go through,” she said.

Records show no upcoming court hearings scheduled in the case.