Bill looks to prevent ‘bad’ officers from easily jumping departments in Utah

SB196 was spurred by an officer’s misconduct in University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s case.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather for a memorial walk on the track where University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey used to compete on the two-year anniversary of her murder on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. A bill spurred by the officer's misconduct in handling her case is moving through the Utah Senate.

A state lawmaker wants to open up communication between police departments across Utah to talk about poorly performing officers or those accused of misconduct and prevent them from easily jumping from agency to agency.

Under SB196, sponsored by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, departments would be protected in discussing a former officer’s discipline, competence or other issues with any law enforcement agency looking to hire that individual. Currently, by state law, they are restricted from doing so for privacy reasons.

“We want them to feel like they can tell the truth if there’s a police officer that’s not acting in a good way,” Iwamoto said during a committee hearing on her bill Friday.

The measure was spurred by the misconduct involving the officer assigned to investigate student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s case at the University of Utah.

In October 2018, McCluskey had sent campus police Officer Miguel Deras explicit photos of herself as evidence of her concerns that she was being extorted by a man she briefly dated. Deras showed off those pictures to at least three male co-workers without a work-related reason, according to a later investigation from the Utah Department of Public Safety, and some commented on her appearance.

None of the officers shown the photos reported the misconduct at the time. And shortly after that display, McCluskey was killed by the man she was trying to report.

The U. began a brief investigation into the matter in September 2019 after receiving a public records request from The Salt Lake Tribune, which had talked to a former officer about what happened. But the U. didn’t immediately find anything and closed its inquiry when Deras resigned that same month.

Deras was then hired by Logan police, but that agency was never told about the issue.

Logan later fired Deras, though, after The Tribune’s reporting last year on the officer’s behavior was confirmed by the Utah Department of Public Safety in a report made public in August.

After that case, Iwamoto’s bill would offer immunity both to departments and officers if they discuss or raise concerns about possible misconduct.

“We want this to be open and transparent,” the senator said. “It gives law enforcement the ability to talk freely with each other, especially when officers move departments.”

Iwamoto said current law stands in the way, not allowing departments to discuss concerns and facing the possibility of a lawsuit or fines if they do; individual officers, too, can be penalized, especially if they’re implicated in the misconduct they’re reporting. And many worry, Iwamoto said, about being ostracized by their department or co-workers for speaking out.

The U., for instance, fired the three officers there who Deras showed the photos to but who never reported anything to their superiors.

But all of that lets bad officers easily escape to another department, Iwamoto added, without accountability. She wants to protect those who come forward and share information so that doesn’t happen. That could include keeping the name of an officer private when they report issues.

It’s not meant, though, she added, to let rumors spread. Any accusations of misconduct should be thoroughly investigated.

The legislation passed in committee Friday. It also was supported unanimously in a second reading on the Senate floor and will have one more vote there.

Iwamoto said she sees it as a companion piece to her other bill, SB13, that focuses on internal reviews of police officers.

Currently, if an officer leaves an agency in the middle of an internal investigation, that investigation is dropped — like it was at the U. with Deras leaving. SB13 allows those to continue on; and it has passed both the House and Senate, now awaiting approval from the governor. Several other bills related to McCluskey and police misconduct are also making their way around Capitol Hill this year.

Maj. Scott Stephenson, who is the director of the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Council, which reviews cases of officer misconduct in Utah, said he supports both bills. With SB196, in particular, he added Thursday, he hopes it will “make sure good players stay in the system and bad players are removed.”

Now, most departments looking to hire an officer only receive from that officer’s former agency their start and end dates. Stephenson said hiring agencies need more than that to make informed decisions on the people they employ to keep the public safe.

Chad Soffe, the chief of police for Woods Cross, agreed. He said he had an officer who had resigned from their previous department apply to work for him. Soffe reached out to that former department for information on why and the administration there refused to say anything.

Soffe said he eventually asked, “Yes or no: Should I hire this officer?” and was told only, “No.”

“It is a problem,” Soffe said.

The bill also has the support of the Utah Sheriff’s Association and the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, whose leader said Thursday that the bill protects “law enforcement officers and their commanders as they transmit honest information.” And the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter spoke in favor, too.

“We appreciate the transparency,” said Rae Duckworth, the group’s vice president.

The measure moves next to the full Senate for consideration.

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