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Police bodycam misuse ‘swept under the rug,’ former prosecutor alleges: Police chief requests leave amid department scrutiny

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The Moab City Police Department has recently come under national scrutiny both for its handling of a domestic violence incident this summer involving murder victim Gabrielle Petito [See “Petito case puts Moab PD in national spotlight” in this edition. -ed.] and further systemic issues within the department.

Amidst these issues, Moab Police Chief Bret Edge requested indefinite leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, effective Monday, Sept. 27. No reason has been publicly specified for Edge’s request for leave.

Assistant Moab Police Chief Braydon Palmer, who is acting as chief while Edge is on leave, spoke at the council meeting and described the department as an agency of action and transparency.

However, at the same meeting, both a resident and a former prosecutor alleged that multiple reports of officer misuse of body cameras had been ignored, an issue also recently addressed by Seventh District Court Judge Don Torgerson.

Even before the national attention in the Gabrielle Petito case focused on the Moab police, the department has been dealing with investigations into officer misconduct and weathering officer resignations.

At the Sept. 28 Moab City Council meeting, local attorney and former prosecutor Happy Morgan stated that she has filed multiple formal complaints about officers misusing their body cameras over several years.

“I’ve been practicing criminal law since 1996 and I know the difference between right and wrong when it comes to matters of criminal law,” Morgan told the council. “I want to make it clear that chest camera violations at the Moab City Police Department are a chronic and dangerous problem.”

She added that she works with eight different law enforcement agencies, and the MCPD is the only one with such outstanding bodycam issues.

Morgan said she filed multiple complaints with then-Moab Police Chief Jim Winder in 2018, and said neither Winder nor current chief Bret Edge, who was assistant chief at that time, addressed the problem.

After filing another complaint in 2019, Morgan requested documents through the Government Records Access and Management Act and found that no bodycam training had been conducted at the department in response to her concerns. She is skeptical that action will be taken on yet another more recent complaint on the same issue.

“I’m concerned that that complaint will be ignored or swept under the carpet as other complaints… have been in the past,” Morgan said.

Morgan noted that even in the high-profile Petito case, there were two responding MCPD officers. One officer’s video has been released; the other officer’s bodycam does not appear to have been activated.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Morgan said. “I don’t want to stand here reading this into the record, but I have followed every policy and procedure available through the city to get this problem fixed and I have been ignored. The time for action is now before anyone else gets hurt.”

Moab resident Jayne May told a personal story of being let down by local law enforcement when she was in a dangerous situation. May told the Moab City Council that when she experienced a life-threatening event, she felt the MCPD— specifically Edge— were slow to respond and said the case was not in MCPD jurisdiction, refusing to help May further. She recounted how in June of 2020, she filed a citizen’s complaint via the MCPD’s official procedure, outlining a variety of violations to the Violence Against Women Act, bodycam policies, police department policy training and even the public comment policy itself.

“And after 15 months, my complaint is uninvestigated and unanswered,” May said. “I can only conclude that there is an effort to protect Moab’s chief.”

She said she was left questioning how to proceed when the system that is supposed to address wrongs and protect victims cannot address its own failures.

She urged the council to take firm action to correct the failures of the department.

Palmer spoke before the council to address two items: body cameras and internal affairs investigations.

Palmer said that MCPD bodycam policy exactly follows state statute. Per that policy, officers are expected to ensure they are equipped with a functioning camera before going into service and must wear that camera in a conspicuous manner or notify people that they’re being recorded.

The July 2021 version of the MCPD policy manual states that officers should activate their cameras “any time the member believes it would be appropriate or valuable to record an incident.”

“It’s very clear about when we should, when we shouldn’t, when we are allowed to deactivate out of respect for victims, witnesses, and conferring with supervisors about department related decisions and things of that nature,” Palmer said of department policy at the Sept. 28 council meeting.

“None of my staff object to wearing these things,” Palmer added. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they exonerate my officers of wrongdoing. They protect us and we appreciate that.”

Palmer acknowledged that human error is a factor in making sure the cameras are being used appropriately and spoke extensively about the design of the cameras, their battery life and other technical issues.

Palmer said he could not address the specifics of the current pending investigation into the MCPD’s handling of the call involving Petito, which happened on Aug. 12. Instead, he gave a general overview of internal affairs investigations.

“When the word ‘investigation’ comes out it sounds like a big scary thing,” said Palmer. However, he said that he felt internal affairs investigations are also used to exonerate police officers and clear them of wrongdoing.

An internal affairs investigation is triggered by a specific allegation, Palmer said. The officer involved is notified and may or may not be placed on administrative leave, at the discretion of the supervisor. Often the investigation is sent to an outside agency to complete.

“Outcomes generally come in the form of a recommendation,” said Palmer. For example, the investigators may recommend more training or discipline for the officer.

“I have never seen an agency not follow through with recommendations if they referred to an outside agency,” Palmer added.

An external investigation was conducted into the legality of a search conducted by Moab officers in a December 2020 incident. The officer involved in that incident resigned, though the investigation formally found no fault in the officer’s conduct during that call.

Four other officers resigned this spring and the department has struggled to find housing for new recruits.

Moab City Council recently considered levying a property tax to help raise funds to support the police department as well as fund infrastructure needs and generate “rainy day” funds, but ultimately decided against the tax.