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Utah's Joint Criminal Apprehension Team reduces size, shifts focus amid criticism

SALT LAKE CITY — For more than a decade, it has been one of Utah's most proficient units for rounding up felons.

The Joint Criminal Apprehension Team has made somewhere between 16,000 and 17,000 felony arrests in Utah since 2000 — including about 3,300 arrests just last year.

But the team has undergone a major overhaul in the past month. The days of running around the valley and scooping up as many felons as possible are no more.

"The (northern and southern Utah) teams were very, very effective in what they did, and we are very good at what we do. I mean, we're the man hunters and have had that reputation for a long time," supervisory deputy U.S. marshal Mike Wingert said.

Now, the multi-agency team headed by the U.S. Marshals Service will be smaller. There will no longer be separate divisions of JCAT — one for the Wasatch Front and one for southern Utah and rural areas. JCAT administrators say they will now only go after the "worst of the worst" and leave it to local police jurisdictions to capture most of the other criminals with outstanding warrants.

The changes come on the heels of two recent high-profile shooting deaths involving JCAT investigators, as well as criticism from other police agencies.

On March 19, five JCAT officers fired 43 shots, killing Ronald Manuel Ontiveros, 37, at 1149 Foulger St. in Salt Lake City, after he unexpectedly fired at least one shot at them while the team was trying to arrest someone else.

On Jan. 9, near 974 South and 740 East, a JCAT officer shot and killed 38-year-old Kelly Fay Simons as she tried to flee. She was wanted in connection with a series of armed robberies and the attempted shooting of an officer.

Both officer-involved shootings were reviewed by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and determined to be legally justified. But District Attorney Sim Gill also noted in his report that he had concerns about the actions of some of the JCAT members who declined to stay at the scene and talk to investigators.

Criticism from other law enforcement agencies was also growing. Complaints ranged from a lack of communication between JCAT and local agencies to JCAT putting local officers into dangerous situations that their home agencies didn't allow. These were situations where the possibility of violent resistance from a suspect was so great that a local police agency would typically call out its SWAT team with specialized training in order to take a person into custody.

Last year, JCAT had more than 60 members in its Salt Lake unit and 160 statewide. The group consisted of a combination of members of the U.S. Marshals Service and local and state law enforcement agencies that each contributed a couple of officers from its own departments. At one point, nearly every law enforcement agency in the Salt Lake Valley had at least one officer who worked in the JCAT program part time.

Wingert admits that the JCAT team got "beat up" a little bit in the media following the shootings. But while some of the criticism was justified, he said, not all of it was.

The reduction in JCAT's size and its shift in focus is not a direct result of those shootings, Wingert said. Rather, the U.S. Marshals Service decided that because a significant number of its team was already on mandatory paid administrative leave following the shootings, it would be a good time take a step back, self-examine what JCAT was doing and implement changes that had already been in the works. Some of those changes were mandated from the national level, he said.

JCAT administrators essentially said: "Let's look at ourselves in the mirror, let's look at our operation. Let's look at ourselves critically, let's fix what needs to be fixed, let's incorporate what wasn't there before like the SWAT matrix, and let's put some procedures in place so that in the future, this whole thing runs a lot more smoothly," Wingert said.

Change in focus

JCAT had been operating with two groups and two supervisors: one for the Wasatch Front and one for mainly southern Utah and rural areas. Jim Phelps, one of JCAT's most visible figures, was in charge of the northern Utah team. Wingert was in charge of southern Utah.

Under the new structure, there will be just one JCAT team for all of the state. Wingert was selected by the U.S. Marshals Service to be the commander. Phelps, praised by administrators for his years of service, was reassigned to a task force with the Utah Attorney General's Office.

"Nobody really wants changes. If you like where you're at, it's hard to be pulled out," Wingert admitted.

Phelps declined comment for this story.

The core group of JCAT members will now be between 20 and 25 people in the Salt Lake Valley, Wingert said. Those members will receive new types of training. And instead of running around the valley rounding up felons and wanted people, the new focus for the unit will be on pursing those felons who pose the "greatest issue to society" or the greatest danger to the public. Or as Wingert called them, "the worst of the worst."

"We won't be near as reactive. We're not going to try and pick up every single person who's wanted on a felony warrant in Utah," Wingert said. "It's going to be a lot more investigative. The cases that we're taking will have a lot more of a violent nexus. As much as we'd like to keep the streets as pristine as we can with felons, it's never going to happen."

In the past, Wingert said the JCAT team would, for example, arrest someone with an outstanding drug warrant but no violent history, and that person would be out of jail in no time.

"At the end of the day, did we really accomplish much? Because a lot of these, because they didn't have a violent history, they were literally back out on the street, in some cases before we got the reports completed," he said.

The Joint Criminal Apprehension Team received a mandate from its national headquarters that 90 percent of all its arrests had to have "some nexus to violence." During the first quarter of 2013, 66 percent of the felons being picked up by JCAT were violent offenders, Wingert said. In 2012, the number was 64 percent.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, Wingert said that means in the majority of future cases, JCAT will only go after suspects who have felony arrest warrants filed against them. The unit will no longer help local police jurisdictions search for "persons of interest."

SWAT matrix

Wingert said there should be no confusing the JCAT team with an official SWAT team.

"We are not a SWAT team. We train tactically, but we're not a SWAT team. We don't want to be," he said.

One of the key differences between the two groups is the types of tools each uses.

"(For example), we don't use the gas. I don't train my guys to lob in the (tear) gas," Wingert said.

But with the new emphasis on going after only the worst outstanding fugitives, there could be a fine line between sending JCAT after an individual and sending in a SWAT team.

Wingert said that's where the SWAT Threat Matrix will come into play. JCAT may track a wanted person to a residence, for example, but now it will assess the situation to determine if a city's SWAT team should be called to the scene.

"We plug all of that in (the matrix), go to the SWAT team and let them decide if it rises to level of SWAT team action," he said.

Part of using the SWAT Threat Matrix includes better communication with local law enforcement agencies, one of the areas where JCAT has received criticism.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said he was concerned about the way JCAT was doing business and some of the high-risk situations he believes the team was putting his officers in. But with the new changes, Winder said his department will continue to participate with JCAT.

"JCAT is very wisely reviewing their processes and their operational approach. They have made very appropriate assertions that they are going to integrate better with local police agencies," he said.

The Salt Lake City Police Department does not participate in the JCAT program, and Chief Chris Burbank said that will likely continue to be the case.

"I think we do things fairly well on our own," he said.

Burbank said in the case of the Foulger Street shooting, he didn't even know the JCAT unit was in his city conducting that type of operation. He also questioned some of the tactics the team was using.

"They were doing things that were unsafe for the involved officers and the public," he said.

As for the January shooting of Simons, Wingert said that was a situation that unfolded unexpectedly.

"Our guys never intended to take her down in the middle of the street. What happened is we got burned, despite our best efforts. She figured out there was law enforcement in the area and was trying to get away," he said. "Our intent was never to take her right there."

Wingert said under the new plan, JCAT members will do more than call police dispatchers. They will contact someone within the police department directly from the city they are working in, and ask if they want to have a couple of their own officers on scene with them to assist.

With the new changes, Wingert hopes JCAT and local law enforcement will work in a "more coordinated, more cohesive fashion." Without the participation of local law enforcement agencies, JCAT doesn't work, he said.

To Wingert, a badge is a badge, with all police departments working toward achieving the same goal.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam