People he doesn’t recognize often stop Joe Tarver in public and tell him they’re grateful he arrested them more than a decade ago, saying things like “I want to thank you for treating me like a human,” and “you saved my life.”
“They turned their lives around. They quit doing drugs,” said Murray Police Chief Craig Burnett, who’s worked with Tarver for 36 years. “They remember it. To him, it’s just another day. It’s just Joe being Joe.”
Tarver went on to become assistant chief of police and has long trained newer classes of officers in the same approach, working to ensure they’re treating those they serve with respect.
Now his dedication to fairness is taking him to a higher law enforcement post. It’s a main reason Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he chose Tarver as the new chief of investigations in that office.
When he starts the job May 3, Tarver becomes one of few African American Utahns at the top ranks of law enforcement in the Beehive State, a milestone he acknowledged in an interview.
“I’ve always looked at myself as the face in the crowd that’s trying to do my job,” Tarver said, adding that he seeks “to represent myself in the best manner I possibly can, to be a role model for everyone, not just for people of color.”
NAACP Salt Lake Branch President Jeanetta Williams called Tarver’s appointment “a tremendous accomplishment.” She’d like to see law enforcement agencies in the state focus on diversifying their ranks, she said, and believes a new state law will help by lifting a citizenship requirement for police officers.
Gill and Tarver are former teammates who played football at the University of Utah together in the early 1980s, and after graduation, they crossed paths every so often.
“Joe was always the constant diplomat. He was always making sure that everybody stayed focused on our collective team effort,” Gill, a former kicker, said of Tarver, a running back. “What I remember from him is just his sense of fairness and just his work ethic, and just his personal discipline.”
As the nation reckons with racial injustice laid more bare by George Floyd’s murder, Tarver said it’s crucial for law enforcers to keep an open mind and willingness to adapt.
“The public, they’re demanding a lot more of law enforcement, and we must give them more in regards to transparency and to be the best that we can possibly be so they feel safe,” he said. “They’re our customers.”
Ken Wallentine, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, described Tarver as “a hell of a good cop, and a really good person.”
“He doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s always from the perspective of how what we do impacts other people,” Wallentine said. “To me, that’s the one thing that sets him apart.”
The two have convened routinely with other law enforcers in the last 15 years in times of what Wallentine called “administrative controversy,” declining to elaborate.
Tarver, 62, was a longtime instructor in defensive tactics who practiced martial arts for decades. So when Gill invited him to breakfast on a recent morning, he assumed the district attorney wanted to pick his brain ahead of a panel discussion on police use of physical force.
Instead, Gill offered him the job vacated by Jim Winder, who’s stepping down to join the Common Ground Institute run by former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams.
Tarver replied that he’d actually been thinking about retiring in the next few years.
Gill responded, “You’ve got a few more good years in you, so don’t sell yourself short,” Tarver recalled. He accepted the offer that afternoon.
As Murray’s assistant chief of more than six years, Tarver has largely focused on managing employees and the budget, but several cases from his time as a detective stay with him.
One is the woman whose body was found at the bottom of a staircase in the 1990s, in what he believed to be a homicide, but an autopsy was inconclusive about the cause of death.
Another is the death of a toddler — then about the same age as one of his own kids — who wandered into traffic on 4500 South and was struck by a car and killed.
“Those always stick with you,” he said.
He’ll be a top adviser to Gill in the new post, and said his first task is to speak with and listen to a staff that includes 13 investigators who are certified police officers. The division reviews police shootings, looks into allegations of public corruption and also helps smaller departments and federal agencies investigate crimes.
Tarver is one of seven siblings who grew up in Arvin, California, a small agricultural community in the San Joaquin Valley. The town’s priority was football, his brother Larry Tarver said, but their family’s was education.
While in high school, Tarver was a top national recruit, but after a series of knee injuries he opted to play baseball instead, joining a farm team for the Minnesota Twins for two years. The schedule was grueling and the pay paltry, so he decided it was time to go to college. He enrolled at the University of Utah on a full football scholarship.
While at the university, Tarver took a Unified law enforcement test at the suggestion of one of his brothers and accepted the job as an officer in Murray while still working on his degree.
He and his wife, who now have four adult children, first met at a dorm dance on the Salt Lake City campus.
“He was the most ethical person I had ever met,” Susan Menlove Tarver recalled. Early in their relationship, the couple was walking at the now-closed Crossroads Plaza in Salt Lake City when they saw someone drop several hundred dollar bills wrapped in a rubber band.
“Joe swiped it up and caught up with them and tapped them on the shoulder, and of course they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re being accosted,’” she recalled. “And they turned around and he handed him their money, and that’s who he is.”
When he’s not at work, Tarver is often on a motorcycle, riding a mountain bike or tending the smoker at home in Sandy, dishing up bacon-wrapped tenderloin.
Burnett, the Murray chief, acknowledged it will be difficult to lose Tarver from his staff.
“Everybody has to have somebody you can trust,” he said, “and that’s Joe.”