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Are Utah cops not getting punished for excessive force?

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Posted at 4:30 PM, Dec 06, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-06 18:32:10-05

SANDY -- The agency that certifies and disciplines police officers in Utah may not be reviewing cases of excessive force, something Salt Lake City's police chief said needs to be done.

"We are, in fact, taking care of the public in making sure that we hold our officers accountable for their inappropriate actions," Chief Chris Burbank told his fellow members of the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council on Friday.

Burbank spoke out as POST's deputy director was presenting a report about how it investigates cases of officer misconduct.

"We typically don't review use of force," Burbank insisted. "In fact, I've terminated two employees who received statements from the district attorney's office that said they violated the law, even though he chose not to prosecute them. Yet this council, this body does not hear these cases."

Burbank wanted to know why POST Council has not heard the excessive force cases. POST deputy director Kelly Sparks said it requires someone to report it.

"When it has been established that it's a violation of the law and it crosses the line into an assault area, we will investigate and review those cases," he told the council.

Ken Wallentine, the Utah Attorney General's Chief of Law Enforcement, told the coucil he was aware of some cases where POST has disciplined officers for excessive force in the past. Burbank told FOX 13 that he has heard anecdotally of some law enforcement agencies in Utah that have not reported excessive force cases to POST.

"As you go around the room, the conversation as I stood up to leave, there were people saying, 'Yeah, there are places not reporting appropriately,'" the chief said.

Failure to report it to POST could be a misdemeanor violation of state law, Sparks said. The POST Council agreed Friday to conduct a review of cases that have been reported to the agency, but not presented to the council for disciplinary action.

"It appears that some have not been sanctioned by POST for whatever reason," said Terry Keefe, the Layton Police Chief and POST Council Chairman.

The review was announced the same day that nine former officers were disciplined by the POST Council. They were:

  • Former corrections officer Russell B. Whittle, whom the council was told was convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty for throwing a pit bull against a wall that had attacked his dog. He was given a 6 month suspension.
  • Former corrections officers Eli Ernest, Kyle J. Petersen, and Kendrick J. Hawkes, suspended for a year after POST Council members were told they had stolen alcohol from a party they were providing security for in their off-duty hours. They were caught on security camera, POST Council was told. All three men appeared at the council meeting, but declined to speak to council members.
  • Former UHP trooper Patrick S. Donegan, accused by POST Council of falsifying government records by claiming to have stopped more people on the roads than he actually did. He was given a one year suspension.
  • Former UHP trooper Timothy K. Jones was given a two year suspension for assault. He appeared with his attorney, who asked for leniency and explained to the POST Council that he had taken a swing at a man who was having an affair with his wife. He was given a two year suspension.
  • Former Tooele County Constable James E. Houghtalen, who was accused by POST of not turning in $300 in bail money collected. POST investigators said he could not provide an explanation of where the money went. He was given a three year suspension for theft.
  • Former corrections officer Jason L. Johnson was given a three year suspension for DUI and abuse of psychotoxic chemicals. The POST Council was told he had been huffing compressed air when he crashed a state vehicle.
  • Former corrections officer Jared J. Anderson had his police certification revoked for electronic harassment. The POST Council was told he had sent unwanted, sexually explicit text messages to a woman.

Sparks told FOX 13 that the number of disciplinary actions taken by the POST Council each year amounted to less than half of one percent of the more than 9,000 certified police officers in Utah.

"The majority of officers in Utah fulfill their duties honorable and within the law," said Keefe. "The unfortunate few that are referred to POST, we take it seriously and they are sanctioned appropriately."