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Game wardens have found ways to double crime stats in response to new policy

Posted: 9:43 PM, Jun 16, 2024
Updated: 2024-07-20 00:25:37-04

This story is part one of a three-part series.

To watch the second installment, click here; for the third, click here.

SOUTH OGDEN, Utah — Wildlife officers in Utah say they have been spending more time doing “busy work" and less time on meaningful police work because of a new policy that went into effect last year.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) now asks wildlife officers to document one violation of the law every 23 hours, as of July 1, 2023. Officers are graded on the “performance goal” as part of their annual evaluation.

As a result, total violations from have more than doubled.

So far, DWR has refused to release public records to show which types of cases have seen the largest increases. Instead, the agency is trying to charge $5,000.

Some lawmakers say they believe the new policy is a violation of Utah law.

Police quotas have been illegal in Utah since 2018. Lawmakers passed a bill that year, specifically targeting departments that require officers to hit a certain number of citations or arrests.

The goal was to stop police from treating drivers and other members of the public like piggy banks.

Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Executive Director Joel Ferry said the new policy is not a quota because officers are only required to document “violations,” which is not necessarily the same as writing citations.

He acknowledged that conservation officers are able to successfully meet the goal by writing more tickets. However, they’re also allowed to document violations by issuing warnings or writing police reports without contacting a member of the public.

“I think our officers do a fantastic job,” Ferry said.

“So then why create a policy like this to kind of look over their shoulder?” asked FOX 13 News investigative reporter Adam Herbets.

“Well, ultimately, we have to have some measure of success,” Ferry responded.

Some officers now say their colleagues are pulling over vehicles on the freeway or documenting trash on the side of the road to inflate their numbers.

Wildlife officers speak up

In compiling this story, FOX 13 News interviewed a mix of current and former wildlife officers concerned with the direction of DWR.

Each of the officers asked for anonymity due to fear of retaliation.

“It’s no longer about catching bad people doing bad things, but doing things in an effort to justify the numbers to meet the quota,” said a former wildlife officer. “I’m calling it a quota simply because, in all reality, it is. They list it as a performance goal. The truth is, it’s not a goal. It’s a requirement.”

WATCH: A former wildlife officer explains why he feels the new "performance goal" is bad for the future of DWR.

Former wildlife officer

Wildlife officers are also known as conservation officers, or game wardens.

According to the DWR website, they “serve as the protector and guardian of the people’s wildlife.”

Wildlife officers receive more specialized training than the average Utah patrol officer. The vast majority of wildlife officers in Utah have college degrees.

DWR Chief Wyatt Bubak said the agency is understaffed, which means each wildlife officer is currently tasked with policing more than 2,000 square miles.

“We expect our officers to focus largely on wildlife stuff,” Bubak said. “We’re not increasing the crime, we’re just better documenting what’s occurring.”

Still, some officers feel the emphasis on investigating wildlife crime is slowly being “taken away” from them, due to the increased focus on numbers-based policing.

Several officers said they were counseled to document more violations even before the “performance goal” went into effect.

According to DWR statistics, traffic violations are on pace to more than double from 2021 to 2024.

“I don’t know what would cause that,” Ferry said.

WATCH: DNR Executive Director Joel Ferry changes his answers when questioned about the effects of the new performance goal.

Director Ferry

“If you really need a number? It’s a lot easier to go out and work the highway than it is to go up on the mountain,” said a former officer.

In an interview with FOX 13 News, Ferry initially stated he didn’t know if violations documented by wildlife officers on freeways had increased.

Approximately 60 seconds later, he changed his answer.

“The numbers don’t play that out,” Ferry said. “We’re not issuing more violations on our highways. We’re not.”

In reality, DWR traffic stops on highways are on pace to more than triple from 2021 to 2024.

In response, a spokesperson for DWR released data showing the total number of violations documented by wildlife officers (in all categories, not just traffic) has increased by more than double since 2023.

Since the performance goal was implemented, the vast majority of DWR traffic stops on freeways have been for speeding.

DWR does not provide its wildlife officers with radars or other speed-detecting equipment.

“You wouldn’t want a [Utah Highway Patrol] trooper handling a poaching investigation,” one officer said. “How does a game warden catch a speeder? A game warden patrolling the freeway in his pickup is akin to a trooper patrolling the Forest Service roads in the mountains in his Dodge Charger. Seems ridiculous."

Since the performance goal was implemented, records show that more than 50 percent of all DWR traffic stops on freeways have been conducted by the same three wildlife officers.

According to DWR, the three officers in question drive in and around Utah’s most densely-populated areas.

"In order to get from one area of their district to another to investigate wildlife crimes, they routinely have to travel on freeways and other major highways. As a result, these three officers are more likely to observe traffic violations of public safety concern than a more rural conservation officer would," said DWR spokesperson Faith Heaton Jolley. "While our priority is to enforce wildlife-related violations, it would be irresponsible of us to ignore public safety violations, like reckless driving, when we encounter them during patrols."

DWR officers have not cited anyone for reckless driving in 2021, 2022, 2023, or 2024.

Increasing crime stats without speaking to suspects or witnesses

According to DWR, officers are able to meet the performance goal by writing police reports without contacting a member of the public.

For example, officers can write a report for vandalism or littering without speaking to suspects or witnesses.

"A 'violation' is not necessarily tied to making contact with a member of the public at all," Jolley said.

Wildlife officers say they’re now writing police reports on cases they never would have documented before, just to increase their numbers.

“An officer can go out and literally drive down the road and see a beer can laying there, document that, and that’s documented as a violation,” an officer said.

In response to our questions, DWR acknowledged that officers can and should write police reports for littering — even if they did not witness anyone committing the crime.

Bubak said he was not concerned about wildlife officers focusing on “beer can patrol” instead of crime patrol, because all reports are reviewed by a supervisor to ensure that they are correctly prioritizing cases.

He also said an officer's time spent conducting investigations does not count toward the 23 hours in which they are asked to document a violation of the law.

DWR has not provided stats on vandalism or littering reports.

When FOX 13 News asked to see those reports — which are public records — the department tried to charge us $5,000.

Utah mandates performance goals, but not like this

In defense of its new policy, DWR stated it is required to implement performance goals for employees.

“We’re mandated to have these performance goals,” Bubak said. “We’re law enforcement officers.”

While it's true that state employees are required to have performance goals, there is nothing within the law that requires the goals to be numbers-based.

For example, UHP troopers are not graded on the number of violations they detect.

Instead, their goals are largely focused on quality over quantity.

More than 110 police departments in Utah have decided not to grade officers based on the amount of crime they find.

WATCH: DWR Chief Wyatt Bubak explains why he's not surprised to hear so many departments grade their officers so differently.

Chief Bubak

Lawmakers have the ball sent back to their court

Sen. Scott Sandall (R-Tremonton) said he believes this story will be a good launching point for future conversations with DNR. He also applauded the wildlife officers who were brave enough to speak with FOX 13 News about their concerns.

“I want to make sure that we don’t employ quotas,” Sandall said. “I don’t like quotas. We want to make sure that those performance measures are not quota or quota-based.”

Sandall later added that he we was not particularly concerned with the total number of traffic stops per officer.

“I have nothing but praise for our wildlife officers,” Sandall said. “I always appreciate those who are willing to say, ‘This doesn’t look like it fits. Can we take a look at it?’ If it takes a new report to gain that and begin that dialogue and that discussion? That’s an okay corridor to make that discussion happen.”

DWR stated it would be able and willing to make adjustments to the policy, but only if the legislature changes the law.

"If the law needs to be clarified, they should clarify it," Ferry said.

"It's disappointing to see government agencies trying to weasel their way around the clear intent of the law," said Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian think tank Libertas Institute. "When Libertas Institute first proposed this law years ago, legislators recognized and agreed that we needed to stop this exact type of behavior. Agents of the government should not be financially incentivized to unnecessarily detain people and charge them with fees to generate revenue. Period, end of story."

Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross) and Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost (D-Salt Lake City) attempted to strengthen the quota ban in 2024.

Clarifying the ban on quotas appeared to have widespread bipartisan support, but the bill never made it out of Utah's House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
Some lawmakers blamed the chair of that committee for single-handedly killing the bill.