Moab City Police Department officers responded to a domestic violence call on Aug. 12. No charges were filed in the incident, but now national attention is focused on body camera footage and the choice officers made after the death of Gabrielle Petito.
Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, were passing through Moab when a 911 call reported a physical fight between the two. Officers separated the couple for the night but made no arrest. Weeks later, Laundrie returned alone to the couple’s home state of Florida. Petito’s remains were found in Grand Teton National Park on Sept. 19 and her death was ruled a homicide. Laundrie is now considered a person of interest in the case, and is missing.
A statement from the MCPD confirmed that “an outside party” requested a formal investigation into the incident in Moab. The department will use an outside agency to conduct the investigation. According to Moab City Communications Manager Lisa Church that “is standard protocol to ensure an independent, unbiased review.”
“We understand that individuals can view the same situation in very different ways, and we recognize how the death of Ms. Petito more than two weeks later in Wyoming might lead to speculation, in hindsight, about actions taken during the incident in Moab,” a statement from the city of Moab said.
The statement also said the department had received both criticism and praise for officers’ handling of the Aug. 12 dispute, and that to the city’s knowledge, officers had not violated any police policy during the call.
A spokesperson for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition noted that, while the bodycam footage allows interested parties to scrutinize the scenario and consider what the best course of action should have been, that’s not the same as responding to the scenario in the moment with limited information. Domestic violence, she said, is a much more complicated issue.
Body camera footage
The Moab City Police Department body camera footage for the Aug. 12 incident was released to the public, showing interviews with both a distraught Petito and Laundrie after a police officer pulled their van over in Arches National Park. Laundrie had minor scratches on his face and arms from Petito striking him, according to the police report. Neither Laundrie nor Petito wanted to press charges.
Officers from the MCPD and the National Park Service interviewed the couple separately and determined that the best course of action would be to separate them for the night.
“After evaluating the totality of the circumstances, I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis,” wrote MCPD officer Daniel Robbins in his report.
Officers contacted Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center, a local nonprofit that provides aid to victims of domestic and sexual violence, and through that agency obtained a hotel room for Laundrie for the night. Petito stayed in the van.
Seekhaven is committed to the confidentiality of its clients, and was not able to comment on the situation.
The Moab City Police Department Policy Manual is regularly updated. In a version of the manual obtained in July, the section on domestic violence states that officers will stress enforcement of the law to protect the victim and communicate the philosophy that domestic violence is criminal behavior.
“It is also the policy of this department to facilitate victims’ and offenders’ access to appropriate civil remedies and community resources whenever feasible,” according to the manual.
“Officers should take appropriate enforcement action when there is probable cause to
believe an offense has occurred,” the manual instructs, specifying a list of factors that should not be used as a sole justification for declining to take enforcement action.
Those factors include claims by the suspect that the victim provoked or perpetuated the violence; the physical or emotional state of either party; denial that the abuse occurred where evidence indicates otherwise; a request by the victim not to arrest the suspect; whether the incident occured in public or in private; and perceived characteristics like race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social status.
The released body camera footage includes a conversation between a police officer and Laundrie in which the officer comments that “One of the things that the state legislature doesn’t give us discretion on is charges when it comes to domestic assault… At this point, you’re the victim of domestic assault. Even if you didn’t want to pursue this, you don’t have a choice.”
“I don’t want to take this small, 22-year-old female to jail, that you can definitely defend yourself against,” the officer told Laundrie. “But at the same time, just because you’re the male and she’s the female, we can’t treat this differently than if you had hit her.”
Liz Sollis is a spokesperson for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group. She said that Utah law does require that officers arrest someone or issue a citation in cases of domestic violence. Moab officers avoided that route in the Aug. 12 incident by treating the call as a mental health incident.
Some members of the public have questioned why police were able to secure emergency shelter in a hotel room for Laundrie, but not for Petito.
Sollis explained that often grant money awarded to advocacy centers is specifically marked for spending on victim services. In the Aug. 12 incident, Laundrie was considered the victim, based on both parties’ stories and on the scratches on his face and arm.
“This is why so many service providers benefit from direct donations because then they have unrestricted funds,” Sollis noted.
In June of 2020, Edge bristled at remarks made by Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan accusing the MCPD of being biased against males involved in domestic violence disputes, assuming them to be the aggressor in male/female altercations before enough information is gathered. [See “Police Chief, Attorney spar over public comments,” Jun 25, 2020 edition. -ed.]
The Aug. 12 incident, at least, does not bear out that accusation.
Sollis noted that while women are statistically more likely to be victims of domestic abuse, men can also be victims. Often, the binary view of aggressor and victim is not so black-and-white in real life situations.
Sollis applauded the bystander who called in the incident, pointing out that it took place on a busy street where many people probably saw what happened; only one person reported it.
Sollis also added that whatever course the responding officers had taken on Aug. 12, Petito would still have been free to make her own choices about her relationship with Laundrie. Sollis noted that people in abusive relationships often find it difficult to leave for a variety of reasons: denial about the nature of the relationship, financial or other kinds of dependency, isolation, fear, and/or belief that the other person will change.
“It would still be ultimately up to Gabby,” she said.
Abuse in intimate relationships is a difficult and complex problem that advocates and responders must confront and evaluate under different circumstances in each case. Despite the serious impacts of domestic violence in communities, Sollis noted that the Aug. 12 Petito/Laundrie incident “would have received zero attention if she hadn’t gone missing.”
Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center offers free and confidential help and support for primary and secondary victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Call 435-259-2229 or visit www.seekhaven.org for more information.