Editor’s note: The following story was written and researched by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Deseret News.
SALT LAKE CITY — On TV there seems to be two kinds of cops — the rogue cop who plays by his own rules and the “by the book” colleague always hamstrung by following those pesky policies and procedures.
But as critics point out, real police going “by the book” have plenty of advantages written into their policies and procedures.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project reviewed manuals for police departments in Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Sandy, South Jordan, West Jordan, Orem, Provo, Layton, Ogden and St. George. Five departments allow officers who are involved in shootings to review recordings or body camera footage before giving their statement of what happened.
Departments such as Sandy and West Valley City allow officers to use batons in life-threatening situations against targets’ heads, throats, kidneys and groins. The Orem Police Department manual allows the use of the “carotid control hold” in life-threatening situations and with appropriate training — the same type of hold used against George Floyd in Minneapolis that led to his death, igniting weeks of nationwide protest, outrage and unrest.
Salt Lake police officers involved in a shooting have a unique veto power. When another officer arrives on the scene, they are encouraged to draft a “public safety statement” — the first report on a critical use-of force incident documenting the number of shots fired, the direction they were fired, witnesses present and the location of evidence.
However, according to the Salt Lake police manual: “It is not a requirement to record the public safety statement, and at the request of the involved officer, it will not be recorded,” giving the officer who used potentially deadly force the ability to veto the official recording of a crucial initial report of the scene of the incident.
These “officer-involved critical incidents” as they are called have been at the focal point of weeks of protest — set off nationally by the brutal death of Floyd and recently brought home to Utah by the officer-involved shooting death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill recently released his decision that the shooting of Palacios, who fled from police and was observed stopping multiple times during the chase to pick up a gun, was legally justified. Hours after announcing the conclusion, the district attorney’s office drew protesters’ ire — windows were smashed and the building splashed with red paint symbolic of the blood protesters said is on Gill’s hands.
Gill is bothered by the property damage, but he’s much more troubled about the feelings of hurt in the community. He says historic forces that “by design” disenfranchised poor people and communities of color for generations have caused police to have to respond to the crises caused by long-standing public policy failures. Fixing those problems goes further than focusing just on police and prosecutors.
“Police brutality and criminal justice reform is the tip of the spear,” Gill said. “And I understand why the protesters are out there and why they’re focusing on that — it is an indictment of our criminal justice system. But if you focus only on that, then you’re losing the power of this moment.”
While Gill must decide whether to prosecute officers involved in shootings, he also acknowledges state law affects what he can realistically charge. He also admits that privileges afforded to officers in their contracts with the cities they work for can also complicate his investigations.
Gill says allowing police officers to review body camera footage before giving a statement often only opens themselves to the criticism of “tainted” testimony. He’s asked officers not to do it, but they still have the option, and he makes sure to note in his reports when officers do review their body camera video prior to giving a statement.
Spokespersons for multiple departments all agreed that reviewing body camera footage is helpful to officers who have just undergone a traumatic encounter, risked their lives and perhaps had to take the life of a dangerous individual. Such an experience affects the memory of an incident, said St. George police spokeswoman Tiffany Atkin.
“These events get jumbled,” Atkin said. “So, when you’re testifying in court, you want to be able to give events in the correct order.”
Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking says reviewing recordings isn’t about “covering anything up,” but about making sure officers’ accounts are accurate so they won’t be accused of lying if they have to testify on the stand.
“If I don’t have the facts right, but I hurry and write that report, then am I lying? Am I being inaccurate?” Wilking said.
For Connor Boyack, head of the libertarian-leaning think tank the Libertas Institute, one needs only flip that scenario onto its head to see how reasonable it seems.
“Imagine if (suspects) could review body cameras first, and say to the police, ‘Let me see what evidence you have about me and then I’ll tell you what you want me to tell you,’” he said.
Another unusual privilege is the provision afforded to Salt Lake police officers involved in shootings that allows them to request that the first report about shots fired, witnesses present and evidence on scene not be officially recorded if they so desire.
For Wilking, its based on the recognition that given the traumatic nature of an officer-involved incident, the officer might not feel that the information will be documented correctly right off the bat.
“We want it to be the most accurate statement, so we give them that time,” Wilking said.
Again, however, it is not a privilege applied in any other investigation where police always document such details as soon as they respond to the scene of a violent shooting or altercation.
Jason Groth, a lawyer with the ACLU of Utah, considers such a policy very troubling, with that veto option making an “otherwise very strong policy in consideration of transparency and accountability into a very weak one.”
David Ferguson, a Salt Lake public defender studying police policies in Utah, views the Salt Lake City record veto more harshly.
“I don’t see how the provision is any different from an officer being able to legally obstruct an investigation against him,” Ferguson said.
On the one hand, Gill is a believer in the power of collective bargaining and police unions’ ability to protect their workers’ wages, retirement and benefits. “But there needs to be a real reexamining when it comes to police unions if that collective bargaining is also an impediment to the delivery of justice and serves as an obstruction to the truth.”
Multiple policies also indicate possible conflicts related to how agencies investigate crimes related to officer-involved critical incidents.
For example, if a Salt Lake police officer shoots a suspect in a drug investigation, the officer’s shooting won’t be investigated by the department, but would instead be investigated by teams from other jurisdictions and/or county attorneys. But Salt Lake police in that example could still have the option to continue investigating the suspected drug crime. Ogden and West Valley City also allow such investigations.
That’s problematic for Ferguson.
“Even well-intentioned officers are going to face the temptation to collect evidence in a way that absolves their colleague of blame,” Ferguson said. “We shouldn’t be putting officers in the position to investigate crimes that could implicate a friend.”
Good apple, bad apple
Given the current tumult, many departments are reviewing their policies. In a statement, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, “Right now everything is up for review and discussion,” noting that the city’s Commission on Racial Equity in Policing is already examining police policies for recommendations to the mayor and the City Council.
Sandy Police Lt. Dean Carriger says his department is undergoing a top-to-bottom review as well. He says they may in fact reconsider allowing officers to review body camera video before making a statement. But in other areas, he says they don’t want to unduly limit officers, such as allowing officers’ use of batons on vital areas like the head and groin in dangerous situations.
“We do not teach any strikes to those locations,” Carriger says. “We teach they are not to intentionally target those locations unless deadly force would be warranted.”
It’s a point echoed by West Valley police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku.
“If an officer fears they, or another person, are about to die, they are given leeway to preserve life,” she said in a statement.
She also notes the West Valley Police Department is only one of two agencies accredited through the rigorous Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, and that they too always give their policies a thorough review. The Salt Lake City Police Department is the other agency.
Still, different departments have different policies, and critics say this can lead to a confusing patchwork of standards. Boyack says his organization and others are working on creating more consistent statewide standards for certain police protocols — and to hopefully look at reforming certain policies afforded to police that would never be offered normal citizens, such as review of body camera videos and the Salt Lake department’s public safety statement veto.
“We need to make sure we have a system in place that roots out the bad apples,” Boyack said. “And on this and so many other issues there seems to be incentives in place designed to protect, rather than get rid of, the bad behavior that everyone admits exists.”