The Utah Sheriffs’ Association has given two of its top annual awards to sheriffs who were investigated, but never convicted, for violent behavior while on the job.

The association, which is made up of members from all 29 of the state’s counties, named San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge as its “Lawman of the Year” and Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel as one of its two “Sheriffs of the Year” at its 23rd annual Law Enforcement and Corrections Training Conference and Awards Banquet in September.

The awards were announced in the association’s newsletter, which went out last week.

Dave Newlin, an organizer with Utah Against Police Brutality, called the awards “a slap in the face” for those who organize against police brutality in Utah.

“To go out of your way to specifically find two people who have been investigated for the sort of misconduct that we fight against every single day is… I mean, it’s hard to say it’s anything other than purposeful,” said Newlin, a former Salt Lake Tribune employee. “There’s no other police officer you could have possibly found who you thought did a good job?”

Eldredge last year was charged with third-degree felony witness retaliation and misdemeanor reckless endangerment for an incident where he was accused of “dry-firing” a gun at a deputy in 2015. Noel was under investigation for more than two years for allegations that he had choked a potential witness following a May 2014 homicide.

Neither Noel or Eldredge responded to a request for comment. But Peter Stirba, an attorney who represented both men, reiterated that the investigations into their alleged behavior had closed without convictions and said a story reiterating those would be “pointless.”

“We live in a society, remember, where people are accusing other people all the time,” he said. “And the system works. And when the system has an adjudication where there is nothing there or somebody is fully exonerated, we don’t perpetuate that as some sort of negativity with respect to that individual person. That makes no sense.”

A 7th District judge tossed Eldredge’s case in November 2017, citing a lack of evidence at an earlier preliminary hearing.

In the other case, the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) determined in 2014 that there wasn’t enough evidence that Noel choked a man and declined to pursue administrative action. A criminal investigation of Noel passed through the Millard County Attorney’s Office, the Utah Attorney General’s Office, and the Davis County Attorney’s Office before the FBI took over. That investigation was the last and most serious inquiry he faced into the matter and was closed in the fall of 2016 without criminal charges.

“These are sensitive issues, and it would be grossly unfair to create any innuendo about either one of them when they went through what they went through and were fully exonerated,” Stirba said.

The outgoing president of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association chooses the Lawman of the Year unilaterally, and Grand County Sheriff Steve White said he chose Eldredge this year because he has been “a great partner.”

“He just always keeps his head up high," White said of his choice. "He never really gets in the mud with anybody. He’s always been a true, outstanding sheriff.”

White said the investigation into Eldredge’s conduct didn’t enter into his decision. Because the sheriff was never convicted, White said, he deserves to move forward with a clean slate.

“I never [heard] him badmouth anybody," White said. "He was always very positive and said the system is there in place, it will work itself out. You know, he said, ‘I’m on the side of justice.’ He was always very admirable. Very professional about it.”

Tooele County Sheriff Paul Wimmer, the incoming president of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, said the Lawman of the Year award traditionally goes to the outgoing president of the organization. Because of a mixup, Wimmer said Noel, the outgoing president in 2017, didn’t receive his award. So the association issued this year’s to both he and White.

“When you’re the president, you end up at a lot of meetings representing the Sheriffs' Association, and so it’s extra work,” he said. “So [the award] is more a token of the association’s appreciation for you serving as the president of that year.”

Wimmer said the investigation into Noel was “far enough in the past” that he doesn’t believe it should have contributed to the decision.

David Corbett is the attorney who represented the Beaver County deputy who alleged Noel had retaliated against him for reporting that the sheriff choked a man. He said that just because someone isn’t convicted doesn’t mean the allegations against them should never be reviewed.

“There are some crimes that are not prosecuted because the proof is insufficient,” Corbett said, speaking generally. “And in those situations, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it just means there isn’t enough evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. And of course those cases should be considered when people are applying for jobs, when they’re considered for awards. And they should be evaluated on the available evidence.”

Cody Allen, the deputy who sued Beaver County, said he thinks allegations of misconduct should be enough to keep Noel and others from receiving awards among their peers.

“These are people enforcing law at the highest level,” he said. "It seems as though Utah really takes care of their own when it comes to politicians and elected officials, regardless of what their behavior may be.”

OTHER UTAH SHERIFF ASSOCIATION AWARDEES: 
2018 Correction Officer of the Year: Deputy Jessica Moore, Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office 
2018 Deputy Sheriff of the Year: Detectives Jeff Hansen and Michael Nielson, Juab County Sheriff’s Office; Detectives Tyler Johnson and Chad Nielson, Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office; Lieutenant Eli Wayman, Tooele County Sheriff’s Office
2018 Honorary Sheriff: Chris D. Bertram and the Millard County Fire District 
2018 Gold Medal of Valor: Arthur Pluim, Weber County Search and Rescue Team; Deputy Austin Brewer, Grand County Sheriff’s Office; Sergeant Aaron Thompson, Washington County Sheriff’s Office
2018 Search and Rescue Member of the Year: Kerry “Pickle” Nielson, Sanpete County Search and Rescue Team
2018 Jail Commander of the Year: Lieutenant John Young 
Executive Director’s Distinguished Service Award: Rep. Mike Noel and Sheriff Cory Pulsipher, Washington County Sheriff
Utah Sheriffs' Association website