VERNAL — City officials have decided that Vernal police officers will no longer be dispatched to close intersections for funeral processions.
The decision was based on concerns about public safety and possible liability for the city, according to Vernal Mayor Sonja Norton. The policy change, however, has upset some residents who accuse Vernal's elected officials of failing to show proper respect for the dead and for their families.
Norton said she chose to bring the issue to the attention of the City Council and Vernal's Public Safety Committee after witnessing other drivers' reactions while waiting for a funeral procession to pass in early July.
"I saw people trying to cut across parking lots, turning, trying to flip (U-turns) on Main Street," the mayor said. "I saw it as a concern, and I guess the council and the public safety committee agreed and (the policy change) is the direction we went."
The change moves away from a policy that existed under former Vernal Mayor Gary Showalter. During his time in office, Showalter fielded requests from the city's two mortuaries for traffic control. Those requests were then passed along to police brass, who assigned officers — if they were available — to briefly shutdown intersections along the route to the cemetery.
Lacy Lange, who used her Facebook page to criticize the city's decision to stop the practice, said having police provide traffic control during her brother-in-law's funeral in 2012 was a source of comfort for her family as they traveled to the graveside services.
"The people that pulled to the side of the road to pay their respects to a perfect stranger as we passed, that is what this community is all about," Lange wrote in a letter addressed to Norton that explained how the kindness her family was shown "helped put a piece of our shattered hearts back together again."
Assistant Vernal Police Chief Keith Campbell said he understands the desire to have police help mourners reach the cemetery as a group. Intermittently stopping traffic at some intersections but not others, however, is dangerous for officers and the public, he said.
"It is difficult for other travelers to comply with temporary traffic control commands from the officers," Campbell said, "and we do not have enough officers to cover all the intersections."
Some critics of the policy change have pointed out that the city can shut down U.S. 40 for blocks to accommodate hourlong parades but claims it cannot briefly close a few intersections for a passing funeral procession.
Campbell pointed out that parades are planned far in advance, letting the police department schedule additional officers for traffic control and request assistance from the Uintah County Sheriff's Office, Utah Highway Patrol and other police agencies. That level of pre-planning is rarely possible for a funeral.
"People may not want to believe this," Campbell said, "but Vernal has gotten to the population level and the travel level where we are unable to offer (traffic control during funerals) as an option anymore."
The owners of Vernal's two funeral homes said Tuesday that they're making sure the families they serve know about the change in city policy. Jake Phillips, owner of Ashley Valley Funeral Home, said he was "saddened" by the city's decision.
"I hope in the future Vernal city will once again participate and help keep the public safe while the funeral procession is crossing (a) busy intersection," he said.
Blackburn Vernal Mortuary owner Mitchell Blackburn said he has already begun looking at different routes to the area's cemeteries to reduce the number of major intersections a procession would have to cross.
"It's a big deal to a lot of people who want to show respect to their loved ones," said Blackburn, who has worked in the funeral business for 25 years.
"I understand both sides of the coin," he said. "I try to be realistic with what it is."
City officials have not ruled out the possibility of providing traffic control for unusually large funerals where "special circumstances" make stopping traffic necessary for public safety. In those cases, however, prior approval would be required.
Norton said she understands this is "an emotional issue" for many people and welcomes their feedback. She also acknowledged that the city could have done a better job initially of explaining the policy change to residents.
"We didn't really do a whole lot of police escorts anyway," Norton said. "We did do some when we could, when we were available and could do those, but it shouldn't be a huge change to what (was) happening.
"I think that people need to understand that," the mayor continued. "We didn't mean to offend anybody. It was just meant to protect the public and the officers. I wanted to be more proactive than reactive."
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