Moab City Council members said this week that they are “encouraged” by a police department action plan that addresses several areas of concern. Council members said they believe the department is on a positive trajectory as the city searches for a permanent replacement for police chief.
Over the past year, the Moab Police Department has faced allegations of misconduct and multiple investigations involving personnel. Some of those investigations are still ongoing, but on March 14, Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt presented a list to the council of possible issues identified within the police department and actions being taken to address them.
“I know that police department issues have been long at the fore of discussions and community consciousness here over a number of months,” Everitt said. “It occurred to me that it might be helpful to provide a synthesis of where I sit and where I think [Interim Moab Police Chief Steve Ross] sits on all of the issues that we’ve heard in the community or heard from you and ... identify actions that the city has been taking over the past few months to address those issues.”
The police department first came under scrutiny last year from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sent its findings to the Utah State Bureau of Investigation (SBI).
Although no charges have been filed by state or federal agencies, the action plan notes that the SBI continues to investigate the police department’s cash handling procedures, and an external audit of those procedures will begin in April.
Council member Kalen Jones said he is encouraged by the information provided in the action plan.
“The punch list we were given [March 14] shows that [Everitt] and the rest of the staff are taking our concerns seriously,” Jones said. “ ... Granted I know that some people in the community want more detail sooner, [but] as was stated on that sheet, investigations are still ongoing and because they are personnel issues information may or may not come out ... But I do have confidence in the process at this point.”
Five IA (internal affairs) investigations were launched within the police department between April and September 2016. In the past 10 years, just four others have occurred — one in 2015, two in 2010, and one in 2007 — according to documents provided to The Times-Independent by the police department.
According to the action plan, the most recent IA investigations regarding officers Steven Risenhoover and Shaun Hansen have concluded.
“We’ve recently received back the results of the two investigations that are open and we’re in the process of working through what the next step is,” Everitt told the council. “ ... These things take a little bit of time, we want to make sure we’re getting it right, and we’re working with legal counsel on this and then figuring out how best to work through this and communicate with the officers on these matters.”
The action plan also lists an “active and ongoing” POST- (Peace Officer Standards and Training) led investigation, initiated in February.
Utah Department of Public Safety representative Marissa Cote told The Times-Independent that POST is investigating allegations surrounding former officers Justin Olsen and Joshua Althoff.
“We have active cases on Mr. Althoff and Mr. Olsen,” Cote said. “We are investigating allegations of contributing to the delinquency of minors that were brought to our attention.”
Beginning in April 2016, Althoff and Olsen were the subjects of a Utah County-led IA investigation into those same allegations that they provided alcohol to minors at a party in 2015.
Although that IA investigation found “no substantial evidence” to support the allegations, both officers have said they felt forced to resign from the police department in August 2016.
“I expect that POST will find, as did Utah County Investigator Sergeant Jones, that the allegations from the Moab Police Department are unfounded,” said Olsen’s attorney, Christina Sloan. “And, I am confident that when local bias and political motives are removed from the administrative proceeding, [Olsen’s] name will be cleared of wrongdoing.”
Beyond the POST proceedings, an outside, external expert is now evaluating the police department’s IA process itself, identifying revisions to the city’s IA policy and procedures as well as evaluating the need for a civilian review board for the agency.
According to the action plan, the police department has also recently updated its hiring practices by implementing psychological evaluations, polygraph tests, and more extensive background checks. The department has also increased compensation for new officers, including up-front funding for personal safety gear.
“It gave me a really good feeling that [Ross] and [Sgt. Bret Edge] have things under control and they seem to be moving in the right direction,” said council member Tawny Knutson-Boyd. “I know from their social media posts that they are doing some really active community policing, and providing good education for visitors and locals alike.”
Ross said morale is good at the department at this time, adding that he tells his officers to do as he does — “stay focused on the task at hand.”
“We’re trying to focus on programs we’re implementing or have been implementing,” Ross said. “We want to focus on tomorrow as opposed to yesterday.”
Part of focusing on the future, Ross said, is hiring a new police chief. On Sept. 20, former Police Chief Mike Navarre tendered his resignation, effective Sept. 21.
The hiring process, which will begin April 3, will involve several panels of interviews, after which the city council will make its final recommendation to the mayor.
Everitt said the police department has received 46 applications for the position and the majority are from quality candidates.
“Our external screening agency, at first blush said they were very impressed and felt that out of those 46 the vast majority — more than 40 — were legitimately qualified applicants,” Everitt said. “This may be a challenging process in a good way for us to screen and narrow it down.”
In conjunction with hiring a new police chief, Ross said the department will soon have a new mission statement, created with the help of an “outstanding group of Moab citizens.”
“The approach to this is listening to the group of Moab citizens and to have them help in creating a new positive direction for the department,” Ross said in February.
City council member Heila Ershadi told The Times-Independent she believes positive change for the police department is “already here.”