The Moab Police Department has been criticized from coast to coast over its handling of the Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie stop on Aug. 12 in which they were dispatched to a call of a man hitting a woman, but made no arrests and instead determined the woman, Petito, was the aggressor.
No arrests were made and the pair was separated overnight.
Petito was later found murdered in a Wyoming forest. Laundrie is missing and wanted for questioning. A budding social media influencer, the story of Petito drew national media attention, with the encounter with police in Moab a key element of the story.
Since then, Chief Bret Edge has taken a leave of absence, as of Monday under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, and newly promoted Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer leads the department in Edge’s absence. Palmer at Tuesday’s Moab City Council meeting demonstrated how body cameras work and why some officers might forget to turn them on or mute them at certain times. However, state law and MPD policy both require officers to activate their cameras when dispatched on a call, among many other instances they are required to record.
Palmer told The Times-Independent on Wednesday that it wouldn’t be feasible to activate the camera upon being dispatched due to storage limits and battery life, among other issues. “The equipment isn’t designed for that,” he said. Still, the requirement remains in both state law and the MPD policy manual.
Palmer’s presentation came early in the meeting and it followed extraordinary public comments from domestic violence victim Jayne May and attorney Happy Morgan, who has challenged the MPD in court over officers misusing their cameras for the past few years.
The issue came to the public eye on Aug. 31 when Seventh Judicial District Court Judge Don Torgerson said on the record that such misuse of body cameras was “institutional” at Moab Police, that the problem was “specific” to MPD, and that camera problems cropped up at “important times” during police encounters with the public. He said the department appeared to lack “quality oversight.”
Torgerson also said he would likely dismiss cases involving Moab Police in the future if the problem isn’t corrected. San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws also is critical of Moab Police over the camera issue, and other problems; as is Grand County Justice Court Judge Danalee Welch.
Palmer disagrees with Torgerson’s opinion, saying he doesn’t believe the body camera issue is “specific” to Moab Police. He made the comment after being asked on Wednesday what other law enforcement agencies do to ensure their sworn officers and deputies comply with body camera policies.
He pointed out the vendor that provides the cameras to the MPD, The Axon Network, spends millions of dollars in research looking “to eliminate human error.”
Having said that, Palmer reiterated there is room for improvement.
Mayor Emily Niehaus and at least some members of the council appear to agree with Palmer’s perspective. Edge denied there was even a problem, but it turns out even he forgot to activate his camera during a traffic stop on at least one occasion.
Niehaus at the end of Palmer’s presentation praised him and the department.
Palmer said there are policy and training issues that need to be in place and he in turn praised officers. “I support all of my officers that serve this community because they love this community,” he said.
“The love is mutual,” replied Niehaus.
‘You cannot heal what you conceal’
But May’s comments made earlier in the meeting revealed the problems go deeper than either Edge, Palmer or Niehaus might admit, and, in May’s case at least, the problem extends to city administration.
“You cannot heal what you conceal,” said the 40-year resident in a strongly-worded statement.
May told the council she realized she was taking a risk by speaking out, “but by remaining silent, a greater risk grows in our community — especially the risk to other victims and those marginalized citizens who are afraid to tell us their stories.”
A victim of what she called a life-threatening incident of domestic violence who was reportedly ignored first by Edge and then by the mayor and city administrators, May offered gut-wrenching testimony.
“I’m left questioning, what chance do we have in this system as it currently stands where leaders remain uncertain as to whether a problem truly exists, or not?”
She also noted the city’s seeming indifference. “Abuse is one trauma, but being engaged with a system that purposely denies and dismisses its failure creates a whole new series of trauma,” she said. “And it is this trauma that compounds over and over by inaction in the face of needed change as it further endangers victims.”
1,500 months and waiting
May filed a citizen’s complaint in line with MPD policy on July 1, 2020 after Edge reportedly refused to investigate a severe case of domestic violence, claiming the crime occurred outside of his jurisdiction. Her complaint specified violations of violence against women, body camera misuse, the lack of MPD policy training and even the public complaint policy itself.
As of Wednesday, May’s complaint after 15 months remains “uninvestigated and unanswered,” she said. She reminded Niehaus and council members Rani Derasary, Mike Duncan, Karen Guzman-Newton, Kalen Jones and Mayor Pro Tem Tawny Knuteson-Boyd that she provided them copies of her complaint. She also provided copies to former City Manager Joel Linares and former City Attorney Laurie Simonson.
“After being put off by city officials and their representatives these many months, I can only conclude that there is a concerted effort to protect Moab’s chief of police,” she said.
May said she met with Simonson and now-Acting City Manager Carly Castle in December, roughly 10 months ago, and said they asked her “to remain silent publicly in order to have a fair investigation.” May said she agreed.
Castle on Wednesday told The Times-Independent that May was asked to keep quiet as would any person involved in an ongoing investigation. “It’s pretty routine,” she said.
In April, Simonson, who left her employment with the city earlier this month, reportedly told May that she was “too busy with city matters to further investigate my complaint and they were sending it off to an outside investigator for completion. I learned this month as a result of a GRAMA request that there is no documentation at the city to prove that this person was ever engaged then or now.”
Castle said the investigation remains open, but she did not provide further details.
May beseeched Niehaus and council members to take decisive action “for this community and those who enter court without hope for the kind of justice and due process that Judge Torgerson addressed in remarks from the bench that ‘MPD lacks quality oversight.’”
She concluded by saying, “We do not need more unfulfilled proclamations, grilled hot dogs and chili contests, or even a ride along with the police to heal what is happening in this community. What I ask is for you to finally acknowledge the need for true leadership and safety; we need ‘serve and protect,’ and oaths of office kept, that victims must go to court with something other than our empty hands — and we especially must never be reduced to begging for protection again.”
Morgan: ‘A chronic and dangerous problem’
Morgan delivered scathing comments to the council, citing several instances of police misuse of body cameras in recent years — including the aforementioned incident involving the police chief — as well as other incidents of officers’ written reports not matching what is depicted on their camera footage.
She said she and May met with Niehaus and Linares “multiple times” late last year “in an effort to address the chest camera issue and other failures” by the police to follow policy.
Morgan said both Edge and former Chief Jim Winder agreed in writing to “fix the chest camera problem,” but neither man followed through. It was Winder who ordered his officers to wear the body cameras after removing dashcams from patrol vehicles. The problems began “almost immediately,” she said.
“I want to make it clear that chest camera violations at Moab City P.D. are a chronic and dangerous problem … I work with eight law enforcement agencies currently and this problem is only occurring at the Moab City Police Department,” she said.
“You, as a body, the mayor and city council, have issued multiple proclamations praising the police department,” she said. “This conduct is insulting to the people who are being mistreated and ignored. I don’t want to be standing here reading this into the record. I would prefer to be home, but your failure to act has left me no other option.”