SALT LAKE CITY — Discipline for police officer misconduct in Utah is lenient compared to other states, a new state audit says.
Such discipline is handled by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, which consists of 17 members ranging from police chiefs, sheriffs and citizens from across the state. The council meets quarterly to, in part, review allegations of misconduct by officers and hand down discipline. That discipline can range from a letter of condemnation to revoking an officer's certification. All sworn law enforcers in Utah must be certified.
The Utah State Auditor's Office, however, found that when compared to six other states, the discipline imposed by the Utah council is lenient.
The audit compared Utah's council with Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Oregon and Washington and reviewed how officers have been disciplined over the past eight years in those states for committing DUI, falsifying government records, illegal drug use, domestic violence and engaging in sex on duty.
The audit found that revoking an officer's certification for DUI is common in other states, but that "over the same period, Utah has never revoked a peace officer’s license for similar cases of DUI, instead opting only to suspend officers’ licenses for varying amounts of time."
For domestic violence, other states revoked an officer's certification 89 percent of the time, the audit found. In Utah, officers had their certifications suspended for one to three years, 100 percent of the time of that eight-year review period.
"Utah has not revoked a license for domestic violence in the last five years," the audit's authors wrote.
"The result of giving more lenient discipline than other states is that unfit or untrustworthy officers could remain on duty. As such, officers who have DUIs, used illegal drugs or committed acts of domestic violence are still able to police the community after being given a suspension or letter of caution. In such cases, not only has the officer’s credibility been impaired, but lax discipline can undermine the officer’s respective agency as well," the audit states.
Scott Stephenson, the director of Peace Officer Standards and Training, said he disagrees with some of the audit's conclusions.
"While it may appear we're lenient in some areas in comparison to other states, we're really more strict in others," he said Wednesday.
Stephenson said the problem with the audit comparing Utah with other states is like comparing apples and oranges. In some states, "revocation" means a five-year suspension. In Utah, revocation is permanent.
"They can never be an officer again," he said.
In Utah, an officer who has his or her certification suspended for four years or more must go through the entire Peace Officer Standards and Training certification process again from the start in order to regain their certification, including passing the physical tests.
Stephenson said most officers in Utah who have their certifications suspended for two years or more simply don't come back.
"Two years, they're done. They don't come back," he said, adding that he has only ever seen two officers return to the police academy after receiving four-year suspensions.
Another area where Utah is different is it holds officers accountable even when they're not working.
"We look at officers for conduct off-duty. Some states do not," Stephenson said. "(And) we can go after an officer whether they are charged or not."
The audit also recommends that the council take disciplinary action against officers who are dishonest during the course of their employment. It cites the Brady/Giglio Supreme Court case in which an officer is required to give exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys.
"Because an act of dishonesty can compromise an officer’s ability to fulfill the officer’s duties, it is likely important for the governing body of peace officer certification to investigate and discipline officers for this type of misconduct," according to the audit.
Again, Stephenson did not fully agree with those findings.
"The problem is, it's hard to get two prosecutors to agree on what should be considered an impeachable officer. So in other words, there is no exact checklist to say this officer is not credible anymore under Brady/Giglio. And for POST to take action on that uncertainty, I think is difficult for us to do," Stephenson said.
The audit also uncovered cases of misconduct by officers that were not reported to the council by that officer's department, as required by state law. The state recommends that Peace Officer Standards and Training investigate previously unreported cases of police misconduct, conduct periodic audits of local law enforcement agencies, and that state lawmakers approve proper penalties for police departments that don't comply with reporting requirements.
Stephenson said he agrees with the idea, but questions whether his organization has the legal authority to audit police departments. He also notes it would require resources that the council currently doesn't have.
Another recommendation by the audit is to make past disciplinary action more transparent.
"The process of looking up past discipline is lengthy and cumbersome," the audit states.
The state recommends that the council come up with a process that makes the process less burdensome. This would come into play when an officer attempts to transfer from one department to another.
On the positive said, the audit concluded that the council was doing a good job of keeping up with the increasing demand for certification.
"We looked at POST’s ability to keep up with the increased demand to train additional peace officers, and determined that POST made adjustments to its training schedule to accommodate the increased demand," the report says.8 comments on this story
Overall, Stephenson said he is pleased with the audit, because it offers reminders that certain parts of the overall process need to be looked at.
"I appreciate these audits to tell you the truth," he said. "Because when you're working in an area and you're passionate about it, you don't always see the blind spots. And it was refreshing to have somebody come in who has no clue about what we're doing and educate themselves about the process and ask questions that frankly, I haven't been asked in a long time."