MANTUA, Utah — On March 25, Mantua police Chief Michael Castro was called to a meeting with the mayor and a member of the town council.
The mayor handed Castro a notice to put his employment on probation. The letter accused him of failing to answer calls for service and neglecting to enforce parking ordinances.
“About halfway through reading it,” Castro said, “I told them that I wasn’t going to sign it or continue reading it because it was not accurate.” Exactly what happened next is the subject of more dispute. But here’s what all sides agree upon: Mayor Michael Johnson fired Castro.
The now-former chief says he thinks he knows why.
“I believe I was terminated because I did not go along with making my officers have a quota for citations,” Castro said in an interview with FOX 13.
Mantua sits in northern Utah on a stretch of road where U.S. highways 89 and 91 merge. The speed limit on the highway is 65 mph. The town has such a reputation as a speed trap, it was a reason the Utah Legislature in 2018 passed a bill banning ticket quotas at police departments.
Castro started his law enforcement career in south Florida. He moved to Utah and was a Davis County sheriff’s deputy for a year before becoming chief in Mantua in July of 2020.
He says the mayor and at least one city council member often discussed the need for officers to write tickets.
“From what I’ve been told every time is this is how they’ve conducted business for the last 30 years and the way they wanted to continue doing it,” Castro said.
“It was never written down,” Castro says of a ticket mandate. “I was given two numbers always. Anywhere between three to five citations a day. My sergeant, when he was accepted to do full time, when he was granted the full-time position, was told six per shift.” Mantua has budgeted $195,000 for its police in the current fiscal year.
“I was then told that the $110,000 out of that $195,000 was projection on citations from the police department,” Castro said.
In other words, Castro and his cops were responsible for funding about three-fifths of their budget. That is not typical.
In most cities, policing is financed through sales or property taxes.
Castro said he wasn’t opposed to his officers patrolling the highway, and he even authorized his staff – one other full-time officer and about a dozen part-timers – to spend up to three hours per shift doing that. But he gave his officers discretion to issue warnings rather than tickets.
The probation letter doesn’t discuss speeding tickets specifically, but in one section discussing the enforcement of ordinances, Johnson – the mayor – wrote that “warnings should be the exception rather than the rule.”
One episode described in the letter accuses Castro of failing to investigate a report of stalking. The homeowner told FOX 13 she only called a town employee asking how to report a suspicious vehicle; not stalking. And, in fact, a police officer did follow up on her call.
In another episode, Castro is accused of not responding to a report of a suspicious vehicle at 2:30 a.m. When reached by FOX 13, that homeowner said it was the dispatcher at the county seat in Brigham City who was dismissive of her call. A Mantua police officer followed up the next day.
Both homeowners cited in the probation letter declined to go on camera, but said they were concerned their reports had been misconstrued to disparage Castro.
Castro says the conflicts came to a head when he refused to sign the letter that would have put him on probation.
“At that point,” Castro said, “the mayor got very angry and basically told me that I work under his authority, and I said absolutely, but that it’s got to be legal.”
“I was not using any profanity at all. I did not use any profanity until the mayor started using profanity and started dropping the F-bomb.”
Castro’s termination letter claims he went on a “tirade,” shouting and screaming at Johnson and council member Pam Eaves and accusing them of trying to get rid of him. The letter says staff elsewhere in the building heard the shouting and one person was so worried she text her husband a farewell note.
Castro admits he was agitated and yelled back at the mayor, but he contends the termination letter exaggerates his demeanor.
City staff “came to the hallways when I was leaving,” Castro said. “So, if they’re so scared that I’m going to become violent, why are they there to see me off?”
Johnson also used to be Mantua’s police chief. He declined an interview request. In an email, he acknowledged Mantua has long relied on citations to fund its police.
Minutes from an April 1 town council meeting cite Johnson as saying Castro was not fired for anything having to do with citations or the budget. The Box Elder News Journal recently quoted Johnson as saying traffic fines can “put a pretty good dent” in funding the police.
Castro is searching for a new job in law enforcement rather than trying to get his old one back.
“It’s just not worth it for me,” he said of challenging his termination.