Moab’s new assistant police chief Lex Bell took a break from attending a module of a three-day law enforcement Sexual Assault Investigations course last week to talk to the Moab Sun News about how the training fits in with the department’s goals.
Bell joined the department shortly after Moab’s new police chief, Jared Garcia, was hired. The two have been friends for about 15 years; Bell remembered joking with Garcia that if one of them ever became a chief, the other would be his assistant. When Garcia recruited him, Bell had been retired from his decades-long career in law enforcement, but was convinced to come back to the field.
Bell knew that the Moab department had undergone challenges recently: Currently, it’s facing a lawsuit from the parents of Gabby Petito, who was murdered by her boyfriend weeks after Moab officers stopped the couple in response to a reported domestic violence incident; an investigation into officers’ handling of the call found several mistakes. Moab’s former police chief, Bret Edge, left the department after a period of extended leave amid accusations against the department of officer neglect and/or misconduct in various incidents, findings of flawed department policy and inadequate training for officers, and ongoing short staffing.
“I love a challenge,” Bell said. When considering taking the assistant chief position, he thought, “We’ve made a lot of difference in our careers, saving individuals. What if we could save a whole police department?”
One of the top priorities for Bell and Garcia has been bolstering staffing at the department so there are enough officers to cover daily operations while still allowing officers to pursue professional development and training. In the months since Garcia began, the department has more than doubled its force, increasing from eight to 18 officers.
“The number one thing that we’ve tackled is, get people hired, trained, and on the street so we can start cycling people through training,” Bell said. He reiterated remarks made by organizers of the Sexual Assault Investigation training, acknowledging how hard it is for small departments to send officers to courses.
“They can’t go to training, because they can’t abandon the city,” Bell said.
The state requires all officers to have at least 40 hours of training each year; Bell said they’d like to triple that requirement at the Moab department, giving each of their officers over 100 hours of training per year. The Sexual Assault Investigations training, which teaches a trauma-informed approach to interviews and investigations, is one example of the kind of professional development that could benefit officers and the department.
“This training is absolutely fantastic,” Bell said.
Another major objective for the department, Bell said, is to overhaul its policy manual. The current manual “is not nearly as robust as it should be,” he said.
The Moab police department, like many others around the country, partners with a company called Lexipol to draft its policy. Bell said the department will still work with Lexipol, but will more finely customize the policy to fit Moab’s specific needs. He also noted that most departments have two policy manuals: One is operational, and the other is devoted to internal department procedures such as hiring practices, training requirements, and officer discipline. Moab has only one manual to cover everything; Bell said they will eventually split it into two.
Also on the agenda for the department’s new leadership team: revamp the field-training program for officers; improve tracking of officer training and experience; recruit and train locals who will stay in the community for a long time; build partnerships and trust with the community and other local agencies and organizations; and adjust the department’s pay scale so it can compete with larger agencies in recruiting and retaining quality officers.
These goals overlap with pledges made by the city in response to recommendations from outside investigators who reviewed the Gabby Petito incident. Investigators recommended that Moab officers receive additional training in domestic violence investigation and law and statute; that the department review its policy and records software; and that the department also improve the review process for incident reports. The city also indicated plans to hire a domestic violence specialist, which it has done; the department is currently in the process of expanding its victim advocate department.
“Domestic violence is high on every agency’s list; sadly, it’s a nationwide problem,” Bell said.
In the weeks following the Gabby Petito incident, Marlesse Jones, a sexual assault and domestic violence prosectuor with the Utah Prosecution Council who helped to organize the Sexual Assault Investigations Training, traveled to the Moab area to offer a training on domestic violence and trauma.
Bell seems energetic and optimistic about the work to be done, and he expressed his appreciation for the welcome he’s received in the community.
“Everyone I’ve talked to has been great,” he said.