The man who headed up the organization that disciplines police officers in Utah is now heading up the group that defends them.
For nearly 15 years, Scott Stephenson served as the director for Utah's Peace Officer Standards and Training. Recently, Stephenson retired from law enforcement and accepted a new job as executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police.
While he concedes that in the public's eye, the move may appear to be similar to a prosecutor "switching sides" over to the defense, Stephenson believes both positions have the same goal.
"As POST director, my job was to make sure that I maintained the integrity of the profession. FOP's mission is the same thing. We want to maintain the integrity of the profession," he said. "I was trying to get the same goal and mission they were, which was to keep bad officers out and good officers in and provide them a way to get advocacy."
All sworn officers in Utah must be certified by Peace Officer Standards and Training. Its council — which consists of more than a dozen members ranging from police chiefs, sheriffs and citizens from across the state — meets quarterly to, in part, review allegations of misconduct by officers and discipline those officers. Penalties can range from a letter of condemnation to revoking an officer's certification. The director makes a recommendation on what kind of a discipline an officer should face, and the council then votes to either accept or modify that recommended action.
The Utah Fraternal Order of Police is a nonprofit group that represents about 4,900 officers, or approximately half of the law enforcers in the state. The group provides legal services to its members, defending them when they are accused of wrongdoing or are involved in a critical incident such as an officer-involved shooting, often doing so with unabashed vigor.
"We often stand alone on behalf of issues that are critical to the profession because the position is the right thing to do. While we will try and work with other organizations on important legislation, we do not back down when it comes to protecting our officers," the order's website states. "We put every effort into protecting cops and making our jobs safer."
Stephenson takes over the position held by Ian Adams who recently earned a Ph.D. in political science and accepted a job as an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.
With his new position, Stephenson says he has appreciated getting to see more from the prescriptive of line officers. One of the main focuses of his new job will be to make sure that officers receive their proper due process in court. As Stephenson notes, police officers are held to a higher standard in the public eye and and are expected to have a higher level of professionalism. That also means they can face extra scrutiny when they are involved in critical incidents such as police shootings.
"Just because an officer puts on a badge and a gun doesn't mean they are automatically sacrificing their due process rights," Stephenson said. Regardless of what an officer is accused of doing, he says that person deserves to have their due process rights protected, and the job of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police attorneys is to defend them.
When asked if that means the order will blindly defend an officer no matter what they are accused of doing, Stephenson responded, "We are an advocacy group for law enforcement, without a doubt. But we are not unreasonable."
However, he admits that even when he was the Peace Officer Standards and Training director, there were some cases that came across his desk that he couldn't understand why the officer was being charged.
"It's hard to accept the fact that an officer who does their job, and does it good, is now facing possible criminal charges. Even as a POST director that was hard for me to stomach. Over the years I reviewed a lot of use-of-force cases and I think in my almost 15 years as POST director. I probably only took action on use of force three times because it was egregious and the officer deserved it. But other times I was like, 'Why are they being criminally charged?'"
The Fraternal Order of Police and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill have a long history of not seeing eye to eye, especially when it comes to the investigation of police shootings. While Stephenson will give Gill credit for being elected on a platform that he has stayed true to, he does not agree with that platform and can't say whether the relationship between the organization and the district attorney's office will be better now that he is heading the organization.
"I don't know if that relationship will ever be friendly, especially if we feel like he's charging someone who shouldn't be charged. Obviously we're going to fight that, and rightfully so. And I believe he would invite that, those checks and balances," Stephenson said.
But while Stephenson believes Gill is in favor of checks and balances, he does not believe the courtroom is always the right place for that.
When an officer is criminally charged, Stephenson hopes Gill and other prosecutors are filing those charges "based on the merits of that case and not public pressure" or for political gain. Prosecutors need to "push out all the noise from the outside" when deciding whether to charge an officer, he said, and not file charges because of public pressure, already knowing the case won't go anywhere.
"If you charge an officer and you know the likelihood of conviction is not there, and in other cases you would normally dismiss, then why move forward with that case?" Stephenson asked.
Another focus for Stephenson and the Utah Fraternal Order of Police will be to promote officer wellness. While Stephenson was director for Peace Officer Standards and Training, the most common violations that came across his desk were officers involved in sexual misconduct, domestic violence, and prescription drug and alcohol problems. He hopes helping officers find the resources they need to help with the stresses in their lives will reduce some of those problems.
Additionally, Stephenson sees an "education piece" as being part of his job, helping the public, state lawmakers and even police chiefs and sheriffs understand why the organization takes certain actions. While he may not be able to smooth over relations with the district attorney's office, Stephenson hopes he can smooth over relations between police administrators — who have typically been at odds with the order — and line officers, as well as push for policies that benefit all law enforcers.
"I will do what I can to help FOP and law enforcement — the administrators — kind of bridge that gap of communication. I really think that a lot of times people get upset, they start lashing out at organizations when they don't completely understand what the organization's goals are," he said, while adding that he hopes the relationships he made with police administrators and lawmakers as Peace Officer Standards and Training director will open the door for better relationships with the Fraternal Order of Police.
"I can help explain why did somebody make this argument on behalf of this officer? I can answer those questions, and hopefully have people understand what is going on," he said. "A lot of times it's not the argument you make, but the way you present it, the style you make your argument."
Stephenson said he's bringing the same attitude he had with his former job about decision-making to the new job and hopes it will result in reasonable minds prevailing on all sides.
"I look back on the decisions I made as POST director, I don't have regrets. I made those decisions, I'm not one to be capricious, I'm very calculated and I gather all the facts. And I'll bring that to this decision as well. And for the very reason I don't like emotional decisions made by DAs and attorneys and prosecutors, I don't like to act that way either," he said.