Utah has little civilian oversight of police, and departments don’t say much about officer misconduct

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police with shields fill the northbound lane of State Street and push people south as they enforced a curfew in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020.

In the time between when he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado and when director Spike Lee made the film “BlacKkKlansman” about him, Ron Stallworth spent 20 years working in Utah law enforcement.

In a recent phone interview, Stallworth recalled a conversation he overheard while he was employed at the Utah Department of Public Safety. On the gun range, a sergeant and trooper talked about how they wished they could gauge their marksmanship in a real shootout.

“I stood there and looked at them like they’re out of their f---ing minds,” Stallworth said. “Who wants to get into a shootout, and why is it so important you test yourself?”

It’s just more evidence that “there has to be a change,” Stallworth said. “There have been too many police killings of black boys, black men, Hispanic boys and men, and there has to be some accountability, some reform, and I think measures have to be put in place to have some oversight.”

(Tribune file photo) Sgt. Ron Stallworth in 1991.

Stallworth would like law enforcement to release more information about officer misconduct and for all police departments to have civilian boards to review their actions and use of force. It may sound simple, but those changes would represent fundamental shifts in Utah.

Whereas Minneapolis police quickly released the number of complaints — more than 15, only one or two of which appear to have been sustained, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune — against Derek Chauvin, the officer seen on video using his knee to choke the life out of George Floyd, a Utah statute says government agencies must disclose employee records if “charges on which the disciplinary action was based were sustained.”

Other statutes address privacy, however, and police agencies often cite those to resist releasing records of misconduct.

As for unsubstantiated complaints, state law doesn’t specify that police departments have to disclose those at all, and departments generally don’t. The data on Chauvin was available partly because Minneapolis has a police oversight commission.

Also known as civilian review boards, such bodies are comprised of volunteers who scrutinize police conduct and policies, issue findings and make recommendations. Utah has two such review boards — one in Salt Lake City and another in West Valley City.

That leaves more than 8,000 officers, deputies, agents, detectives and troopers across the state whose conduct is reviewed by other cops and elected officials. Some complaints are investigated by the state’s police regulator, Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training. But its purview is mostly limited to when a cop is accused of a crime, lying, or having sex on duty.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill speaks during a media briefing on June 28, 2019. Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown looks on.

“We’ve got 18,000 law enforcement agencies in this country,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, “and you probably have 18,000 different ways in which they treat discipline.”

Gill signed a letter last week from prosecutors across the country calling for a slew of criminal justice reforms, including for law enforcement to be more transparent about officer conduct. But Gill, who is also the civil attorney for Salt Lake County, acknowledges that, at the moment, he would have to defend the sheriff’s office if it wanted to withhold information about misconduct.

Tug of war

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters march against police brutality in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 4, 2020.

Utah law tends to side with officer privacy, said Jeff Hunt, a lawyer who represented the news media when the state’s public records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act, was enacted in 1991. When it comes to discipline records, the act doesn’t distinguish cops from firefighters, parks employees, trash collectors and other types of public workers.

And since the act makes no mention of whether information about unsubstantiated complaints has to be disclosed, government agencies argue they don’t have to provide those records.

“We were pressing for as much transparency as possible,” Hunt said of those earlier discussions, “so that government would be held accountable and government employees would be held accountable for their conduct and misconduct.

“On the other side, you had governmental interest in not having employees be the subject of allegations that were not credible.”

Heather White, an attorney who represents Utah police officers and the municipalities for which they work, opposes unsubstantiated complaints becoming public. Disclosing those cases makes it too easy, she argued, for someone with a vendetta to lie and wrongfully sully an officer’s reputation.

In sustained complaints, departments often release only the letter of reprimand sent to the officer. The investigative reports are often withheld out of privacy concerns for the officer, the complainant and witnesses.

White worries that disclosing too much information from a sustained complaint could expose cops who report on other cops.

“They want everybody to feel like they are open and honest and provide as much information as possible,” White said. “And if everything is disclosable, it could chill the way these investigations are done.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lex Scott, a founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, talks about police reform at a news conference Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Then, in 2014, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill that created a carve-out for employees of a sheriff’s office as well as for the Unified Police Department, which is administered by the Salt Lake County sheriff. The law says that if a peace officer working for a sheriff’s office does not appeal his or her discipline, information about that discipline may not be disclosed without the officer’s consent.

That’s hardly the only way the Legislature has limited public oversight of the police. In 2019, legislators passed a law that would prohibit civilian review boards from imposing their own discipline on officers or vetoing policies of the chief. The bill was a response to the watchdog group Utah Against Police Brutality’s lobbying Salt Lake City to give such powers to its review board.

Lex Scott, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Utah, is pushing a federal reform measure that would require all police departments involved in misconduct to be investigated by democratically elected, independent civilian review boards with the power to investigate officers and bring charges against them.

“The only way you stop cities from burning,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune recently, “is [through] police reform.”

Outside looking in

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Ron Bartee, then-president of the Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board, in 2013.

Creating, or trying to create, a civilian review board often brings a fight between the residents or politicians who want them and the police and other politicians who don’t.

“We don’t like outsiders looking over our shoulders,” Stallworth said, “especially civilian outsiders.”

Stallworth acknowledged he was no fan of civilian review boards when he was a cop. Now he believes that if officers are following policies, they need not fear extra oversight.

“Police work is very hard,” Stallworth said. “Those guys have a hard job to do. You make life or death choices in a matter of seconds. And everybody has days to figure out whether the choice you made is the right one.

“As unfair as it sounds, that’s the reality,” he added, “and that’s what we have to live with.”

Ron Bartee, an ex-parole officer and former member of the U.S. Parole Commission who also served six years on Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board starting in 2009, believes that board has worked well. It has its own administrator, who conducts independent investigations and presents findings to the panel.

Then-Police Chief Chris Burbank sometimes overrode the board’s recommendations, though Bartee said “you can count on one hand” the number of times that happened.

The board’s discussions of officers and deliberations are held in private. It publishes findings in use-of-force cases and other high-profile episodes on its website and names the officers involved. Other types of reports are provided on a request-only basis with the officers’ names redacted.

Bartee said there were a few officers accused of excessive force whose names made repeated appearances in front of the board.

And after an officer had two or three excessive-force complaints?

“You didn’t see them anymore; let’s put it that way,” Bartee said. “Either they straightened themselves out or somebody transferred them to administrative or something.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police Chief Mike Brown and some of his officers kneel down in silence along with the crowd for nine minutes in memory of George Floyd, during a demonstration at the Public Safety Building, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

Stallworth and Bartee prefer limits on what review boards can do. Neither likes the idea of such a board imposing discipline or setting department policy.

Bartee also balks at the notion of departments proactively disclosing misconduct and discipline information about officers.

“You paint a target on that officer,” Bartee said, “and I don’t know if that’s good.”

Michael Millard is a retired officer who used to be the president of the Salt Lake Police Association, the union representing the capital city’s officers. While he had a few disagreements with Salt Lake City’s review board, he said he does not oppose such bodies as long as they remain only advisers.

South Salt Lake is considering adding its own review board. Millard said he would tell officers there to ensure they have a well-defined discipline process that won’t let the chief give in to the demands of a review board or public outrage.

“Sometimes we have to do things that the public doesn’t understand,” Millard said. “And sometimes we do things that are wrong.”

Who has the info?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters lie down in silence for 9 minutes in memory of George Floyd, during a demonstration at the Public Safety Building, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

Even if you know where to seek police discipline records, you don’t necessarily know whether you’ll receive them, said Peter Sorensen, a Salt Lake City attorney specializing in personal injury and civil rights cases. He represents a client who was struck in the head, hit with a stun gun and kicked by members of the Utah County major-crimes task force.

On Jan. 30, 2019, officers from the task force had a plan to surround a theft suspect at an Orem gas station. The man they boxed in and pulled from the car wasn’t their suspect. It was Sorensen’s client, who had been an informant in the theft case.

At one point, a prosecutor considered criminal charges against the Utah County sheriff’s sergeant who hit the man in the head with a rifle butt.

No charges were filed.

Even though some of the cops involved had their pay docked or were transferred out of the task force, neither Sorensen nor The Tribune has been able to obtain all the documents related to what happened at the gas station.

The task force includes officers from across Utah County. Sorensen said their home departments have been giving him different answers about what documents they have and whether they are public records. Sorensen isn’t even sure which departments to request records from — he can’t get a list of all the officers who were at the gas station that day.

“The power to keep this kind of information away from people,” Sorensen said, “kind of lies in a mixture of [the agencies’] interpretation and how the laws are written.”

Sorensen said the roadblocks may prompt his client to sue — if only so he can learn the full story of what happened.

A similar, albeit narrower, scenario played out in the recent Floyd protest in Salt Lake City. Video circulated of a police officer shooting a rubber bullet at the back of a man who was restrained on a sidewalk.

The episode won’t be considered by Salt Lake City’s civilian review board. The city, in a news release Thursday, said the officer works for the Ogden Police Department. The news release said inquiries about the episode should be directed there.