Every officer employed by the Moab City Police Department must subscribe to a certain code of ethics. They swear to safeguard lives and property, respect the Constitutional rights of everyone, and not let personal feelings or prejudices influence their decisions.
“I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith,” states the code of ethics, “and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service.”
It might surprise you to know that this is a new code — a policy officially adopted in 2018 — years after public scrutiny unveiled a department in disarray. People have questioned officers’ ethics at the Moab City Police Department for decades, but many of these complaints fell on deaf ears, or rather, ears sympathetic to protecting bad cops and maintaining the status quo. It wasn’t until 2016, when a State Bureau of Investigation and separate Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into the personal conduct and business at our local police department brought the issues into the open for the first time.
Over the course of 2016, the public learned that several Moab police officers were under investigation, some for drinking with minors, another for federal income tax evasion. In all cases, an underlying theme emerged: prejudicial behavior by officers which ultimately compromised them as sworn protectors of the peace.
The county prosecutor dropped a figurative bomb when he told the department he did not trust four of the city’s police officers to truthfully take the stand as witnesses. This meant at least 15 cases — and potentially as many as 40 — had to be dismissed. In the end, one-third of the police force resigned and the man at the top of this pile, former police chief Mike Navarre, quit within 24 hours after a 28-year employment at the department.
There is a lot that the public now knows about alleged corruption at the Moab City Police Department, but there’s still plenty we don’t know. When he replaced Navarre two years ago, chief Jim Winder made sure to publicly represent change, using words like “communication” and “transparency” at speaking events. Tellingly, Winder told the press that his department’s newly minted policies and procedures manual could not be released in full, only in sections that would be revised and updated. So, wouldn’t the media just like to ask him a few questions instead?
As he made his formal departure this April, Winder promised his audience at the city council chambers that the “difficult times” at the Moab City Police Department were over. It’s no surprise that his successor, Bret Edge, a 13-year Moab police veteran who trained under both Navarre and Winder, agrees. Moab’s police administrators continue to ask the public to just trust them.
A phrase often repeated by law enforcement personnel because it so succinctly describes their line of work is “trust but verify.” But what if this worked the other way? Moab’s citizens may trust that a new day has dawned, but how can we verify this?
There is a well-tested path that could help Moab go beyond simply trusting that difficult times are over. This path is a civilian review board. It would help to ensure the public is protected from police misconduct and, in the same breath, keep police officers protected from false allegations.
For decades, in many communities across the U.S., residents have participated to some degree in oversight of their local law enforcement agencies. There are many types of models utilized in communities across the U.S., but most active citizen oversight boards investigate allegations of police misconduct. They can also recommend changes in department policies, improvements in training, mediation and develop a system for identifying problematic officers. In some cases, this can reduce the number of civil lawsuits.
On their website, the Salt Lake City Police Department calls their civilian review board “critical” to ensuring police accountability, while also offering protection for police who have been falsely accused. In the long run, they say their board promotes greater trust between the police department and the community it serves.
There are concrete steps the Moab community can take to establish such citizen oversight. The first is establishing a planning or advisory group. This group will then draft a plan for monitoring and evaluation, and select which type of oversight board would work best for the Moab community.
Establishing a civilian review board would go further than simply trusting the bad times at the Moab City Police Department are over. A civilian review board would set Moab on a path to establishing real, longterm confidence between the police and the citizens they are duty-bound to serve.
Happy Morgan is a local attorney with decades of experience in both defense and prosecution, as well as with the Moab City Police Department. She served as Grand County’s prosecutor from 2006-2010.