The Moab City Police Department released a report on an investigation into two MCPD officers which found the pair had violated multiple policies including body camera usage, mask-wearing and standards of conduct.
The report, conducted by the Weber County Sheriff’s Department, found that officers Clint Johnston and Dan Malone failed to properly use their body cameras and used coarse language while on duty during a Feb. 23, 2021 incident. Johnston also failed to wear a facemask when dealing with the public, which violated both department policy and a state public health order in effect at the time. A complaint filed by defense attorney Happy Morgan further alleged there were discrepancies between the officer’s court testimony and body camera footage and evidence of racial bias against her client, who is Native American.
Acting Moab City Police Department Chief Braydon Palmer responded to the report, commenting that the department will purchase new equipment to reduce the potential for human error in bodycam use, and that the city and police department has “a progressive disciplinary policy which we are following” for the officers.
On Feb. 23, 2021, a concerned bystander called Grand County Dispatch to report that there was a child alone in a vehicle in the City Market parking lot, having a “super freak-out.” The report cites body camera footage in describing the child as dressed in a hoodie, and the temperature being about 50 degrees. Johnston and Malone responded to the call, identifying the owner of the car by running the license plate number and locating him within the store. Johnston decided to issue a child abuse citation.
Against department policy, Johnston didn’t activate his body camera until he was already in conversation with the child in the car. Malone didn’t activate his camera at the start of the call, though he did start it before he made contact with the owner of the vehicle and father of the child. Later during the incident, Johnston muted his camera while preparing the citation, and failed to unmute it when he issued the ticket. Both officers were judged to have used inappropriate language both in conversation with the subject and out of his hearing. Johnston told the subject he did not “give a shit” about the reason the child had been left in the car. Recordings showed that the two officers used expletives and suggested the man should be jailed “out of spite” when speaking privately. Throughout the incident, Malone wore a facemask as required by both state and department policy at the time, but Johnston didn’t have one on at any point.
Lieutenant Josh Gard of the Weber County Sheriff’s Department reviewed the complaint; he reviewed various materials including policies, video footage, and reports, and also interviewed Johnston and Malone.
Gard concluded that Johnston and Malone had violated MCPD standards of conduct policy in the language they used both in speaking to the subject and in conversation between themselves that was captured on Malone’s body camera. Gard also found that Johnston had violated MCPD policy on portable audio/video recorders by failing to activate his camera prior to interaction with people involved in the call, as well as in failing to unmute his camera after muting it while alone in his patrol vehicle. Malone also failed to activate his camera at the beginning of the call, though he turned it on before making contact with people involved in the incident.
Gard found that Johnston had violated both a statewide public health order and a department-wide general order in not wearing a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
Other allegations, including that the officers’ court testimony was not consistent with body camera footage and that they acted with racial bias against the subject, were either not sustained, or determined to be unfounded in the report. The officers said the child was wearing only a shirt; body camera footage shows the child wearing a hoodie, though no jacket. Neither officer had ever been the primary responder to an incident with the subject in the past. Malone has been employed at the department for less than a year, and Johnston for less than three years; Neither officer had received bias training.
Chronic issues in the MCPD
During an August hearing on this case, Seventh District Court Judge Don Torgerson admonished the MCPD for its recurring violations of body camera policy. The case against the man was dismissed on other grounds, but attorney Morgan maintains that the MCPD consistently fails to adhere to body camera policy, saying as much in public comments to the Moab City Council in September.
At that meeting, Palmer discussed both the department’s body camera policy and the functioning of the model of camera used by the MCPD. The MCPD policy on bodycam use, he said, reflects state policy.
“It’s very clear about when we should, when we shouldn’t, when we are allowed to deactivate out of respect for victims, witnesses, and conferring with supervisors about department-related decisions and things of that nature,” Palmer said. He demonstrated the use of the AXON Body 3, the model of camera used by MCPD officers, describing AXON as a proven company at the forefront of the industry, though expensive.
“When it comes down to it, they are kind of a simple thing to operate,” Palmer said, explaining that officers are required to power on their cameras at the start of their shifts to make sure they work. Cameras must be worn in a conspicuous place. Various settings can be chosen so that the camera will blink, beep, and/or vibrate at intervals to alert the user that it’s on and recording.
Both Malone and Johnston had received training on body camera use and policy. Malone told Gard that he had forgotten to activate his camera at the beginning of the call, but remembered to activate it before making contact with the subject. Johnston said he thought he had activated his camera, then later realized it wasn’t on when it didn’t vibrate to indicate it was working. He then turned it on. In courtroom testimony, Johnston said he thought he had unmuted the camera when he delivered the citation to the subject.
Moab City issued a statement following the report saying the city takes any complaints against the department seriously, and describing a “two-pronged approach to improving departmental performance and building stronger relationships with the community.” The first approach will be to secure additional body camera training and equipment. During a December budget discussion, city councilmembers agreed to allocate $75,000 annually for MCPD access to virtual reality simulations and trainings, as well as transitioning from purchasing to leasing body cameras and tasers. The department also plans to add AXON Signal technology to their equipment.
“Axon Signal are devices that are placed on the officer’s firearm holster and Taser holster which automatically activate all AXON cameras within a certain distance of the device when either is removed from the holster,” Palmer wrote in an email to the Moab Sun News. “Signal devices can also be implemented into police vehicles to activate cameras when emergency lighting is turned on.”
Palmer had mentioned this kind of device at the September city council meeting, pointing out at that time that a downside of the Signal device is that it doesn’t capture the moments preceding the drawing of a weapon or activation of emergency lights, which could be key in analyzing an incident later. However, the devices do eliminate the potential for human error in forgetting to turn the cameras on, or incorrectly believing they’ve been turned on.
The city’s statement also said that though the report found no evidence of police bias, the department will hold a regional training in February led by Fair and Impartial Policing, a private company that uses scientific research to develop and deliver implicit-bias-awareness training programs.
Regarding discipline for the policy violations, Palmer said he couldn’t get specific on personnel matters. According to the July, 2021 version of the Moab City Police Department policy manual, the department chief is responsible for determining the level and nature of discipline to be imposed on an officer or officers who are found to have committed policy violations.