Utah lawmakers move to bar public access to internal police records

The proposed law, which passed unanimously out of a House committee, would classify so-called Garrity records as private documents.

(Cottonwood Heights Police Department) Body camera footage released by Cottonwood Heights Police Department show officers giving aid to Zane James after he was shot by Officer Casey Davies (center) on May 29, 2018. James, who matched the description of an armed robbery suspect, drove away from police on a motorcycle. Davies told internal investigators he wrecked James before shooting him. James later died.

A bill to restrict public access to certain internal police documents passed unanimously out of a Utah House committee Friday morning after a truncated public discussion period that left many stakeholders unheard.

The bill, HB 399, would codify that internal interviews government employees are forced to give as a condition of their employment are private records. These statements, sometimes referred to as Garrity interviews because of the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Garrity v. New Jersey, can’t be used in criminal prosecutions because they aren’t given freely.

The Supreme Court decision does not say those statements must remain private. They, for instance, can still be used in civil prosecution.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, told members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee that his proposal to restrict access to these records would ensure public employees feel safe to be truthful in internal interviews. The bill was in response to The Salt Lake Tribune’s police shooting data collection efforts.

The Tribune won access to documents after appealing records request denials to the State Records Committee, but some law enforcement agencies have taken that decision to court.

“Ask yourself,” said Wilcox, R-Ogden, “how likely is an employee to open up about a difficult issue, perhaps one in which they made a significant mistake, if, after the interview, the content of that crucial conversation is going to be used to sell newspapers?”

Cameron Diehl, the executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, presented the bill with Wilcox. He said this bill would not harm police accountability or hinder transparency because police reports and body camera footage are unaffected and remain public records.

[Read more: This is why police officer’s can be forced to explain a shooting]

Sheryl Worsley, vice president of podcasting at KSL, said during public comment this bill would increase public distrust of police by hiding information about possible misconduct. She said agencies already have tools, like redactions, that could ensure employee privacy is protected and the public can scrutinize the policies of institutions funded taxpayers.

“The answer to lack of trust is more transparency,” she testified, “not less.”

Approximately 60 people attended the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Friday, at least half a dozen in law enforcement uniforms. Among them was West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine, who said he was up until 2:30 a.m. last night in his office, crying with an officer about his K9 who was killed.

“That’s the kind of content that many of these interviews hold,” he said.

He shared a story about another officer who declined to participate in a prosecutor’s investigation, citing Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, but the officer said he felt like he had to give a Garrity statement or lose his job.

The officer told Wallentine, the chief said, that “because I knew my job and possibly POST certification was on the line, I laid every personal emotion, thought and my deep fears on the table.”

Wallentine said that the officer wouldn’t have given those same details in a public statement. The officer, Wallentine said, didn’t want the details released publicly and was assured the interview would remain private.

He asked committee members to pass the bill. His department has taken The Tribune to court to prevent releasing its Garrity interviews.

Tiffany James told the committee that she too has been staying up until 2:30 a.m. most nights since 2018 when her son was fatally shot by a Cottonwood Heights police officer.

“Our case is why this bill should not move forward,” she said.

James told lawmakers that some important facts of her son’s case weren’t given to outside agencies for their investigations. The information that the shooting officer, Casey Davies, rammed 19-year-old Zane James with his car before shooting him only came to light years later when she and her husband sued the Cottonwood Heights Police Department and received his Garrity statement.

That officer declined to speak with prosecutors, citing Fifth Amendment rights, and the department says no footage of the shooting exists.

“It is simply unacceptable,” Tiffany James said, “for government and law enforcement to expect that they can have a crisis that occurs and not be held accountable for it, not have to share all of the information or be selective in their information.”

Since the details of Davies’ Garrity statement were released, another officer revealed he knew about the crash and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office reopened their investigation in the 2018 shooting earlier this month. An attorney for the police department said it maintains Davies’ uses of force was legal.

At least seven others who prepared to comment against the bill were not allowed to testify because the committee moved the bill to the end of the agenda and ran out of time.

Tribune police database reporter Sam Stecklow, who requested the Garrity reports for The Tribune, said the proposed law was a “knee-jerk” reaction to valid reporting. He said these records are considered public elsewhere in the U.S.

“Utah is not immune to these issues that have been exposed through reporting based on Garrity statements,” he said.

Three people — Draper Fire Chief Clint Smith, Utah Fraternal Order of Police executive director Ian Adams and Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich — spoke in favor of the bill during public comment.

Wilcox, who chairs the committee, said the bill was moved to the end of the agenda to accommodate lawmakers’ other committee assignments.

The bill will now go before the entire House for consideration.