February 14th, 2008
Utah lawmakers want to close police disciplinary records
By Joel Campbell
Used with permission from the Salt Lake Tribune
The state’s largest police department and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker are backing a controversial bill that would severely limit public access to the disciplinary records of police officers.
Police Chief Chris Burbank this week cast the effort as a way to put city cops on par with Salt Lake County officers who enjoy greater protection of disciplinary records. In what could be a litmus test for the new mayor on records-access issues, Becker said he is taking the chief’s advice.
“On the advice of our police chief, we support it,” said Helen Langan, a spokeswoman for Becker. “It’s a sensible thing to do.”
SB260 <http://le.utah.gov/%7E2008/htmdoc/sbillhtm/sb0260.htm> , sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, would give police throughout the state the same exemption carved out for county officers: disciplinary charges against them would not be made public unless the officer appeals the sanction or agrees to open the records.
“Just because the county officers have this secret police system doesn’t mean we want to have a statewide police system of secrecy,” said attorney Michael O’Brien, who represents the Utah Media Coalition, of which The Salt Lake Tribune is a member. Burbank said his officers should have equal protections, and are not now given due process before disciplinary information is released to the public. “We’re saying they’re guilty, but they haven’t had due process to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that,” he said.
Limiting public access to police disciplinary records was listed as one of Salt Lake City’s top legislative priorities, according to a November e-mail obtained by The Tribune. In a Nov. 18 e-mail to several city administrators, Salt Lake City Chief Administrative Officer Lyn Creswell outlined what the city’s priorities should be during the legislative session.
“I would like you to work with the police association to support changes in GRAMA to protect our police investigations and discipline to the same extent as the county deputy sheriffs,” Creswell wrote.
Creswell could not be reached for immediate comment Wednesday.
Some detractors say Salt Lake City’s motivation for pushing more restrictive access to police discipline records stems from officer misconduct cases that garnered media attention.
Salt Lake Police Association President Tom Gallegos, one of the bill’s supporters, said there is already public oversight in police misconduct cases by way of the mayor and a Civilian Review Board.
But Gallegos himself came under fire last year for sending graphic photographs and sexually explicit messages over a work e-mail account between February 2005 and October 2006, and for comments made to a female co-worker.
In May 2007, the Salt Lake Police Department rejected a request for Gallegos’ disciplinary records. It provided the records after the city’s Records Appeals Board ruled such records were public. Gallegos received written reprimands for his conduct.
It’s cases like the Gallegos matter that police want to keep hidden, said Dan Levin, a former member of the city’s Police Civilian Review Board. He was asked to resign by former Mayor Rocky Anderson after being accused of leaking discipline records to the public.
“Misconduct by its nature is embarrassing,” said Levin.