More Utah officers illegally accessing personal data for dating or other reasons

A Utah police officer uses a laptop computer in his
patrol car in this 2006 photo.

(Nancy Perkins)

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SALT LAKE CITY — It's one of the first things new cadets learn when they go through the Peace Officer Standards and Training course to become certified law enforcers in Utah:

Don't use your police laptop to access personal information about people whom you aren't investigating as part of your job.

That's why the top brass with the certification agency and the Utah Department of Public Safety say it's very concerning that they are seeing an increase in the number of officers who are illegally accessing protected police records — including to check backgrounds on people they are dating or want to date.

Five officers faced discipline for accessing the state's police database without proper authorization during Peace Officer Standards and Training's most recent council meeting on Jan. 13.

Scott Stephenson, the agency's director, said that's more cases than all of 2020. And according to statistics on its website, it is also more cases than all of 2019, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2013, and equal the number for all of 2018 and 2014.

The Peace Officer Standards and Training council is comprised of 17 members ranging from police chiefs, sheriffs and citizens from across the state. The council meets quarterly to, in part, review allegations of misconduct by officers and hand down discipline. That discipline can range from a letter of condemnation to revoking an officer's certification. All sworn officers in Utah must be certified by the agency.

The five officers faced discipline for what is known as a BCI violation. BCI stands for the state Bureau of Criminal Identification. Unless an officer is looking up information for an investigation they are directly involved with — such as a person's criminal history, address and type of vehicle that person drives — an officer is not allowed to access that database.

Illegally accessing personal information using the police database can result in a class B misdemeanor criminal charge. In the agency, the baseline penalty is a three- to six-month suspension of an officer's certification with the possibility of the suspension being longer depending on the egregiousness of the event.

Of the five cases the council reviewed in January:

  • An officer with Adult Probation and Parole with 28 years of law enforcement experience accessed the records of multiple women to make sure he wasn't dating someone who was on parole or probation, something that is also a violation. The officer was charged with six counts of accessing BCI records and entered into a plea in abeyance, pleading guilty to two of the counts. The officer resigned in September and was given a one-year suspension by the council.
  • A St. George police officer believed his wife was approached by a man whom she had filed a stalking injunction against. The officer accessed his wife's injunction using his police laptop, although it was not his case, and forwarded it to another officer. Peace Officer Standards and Training issued the officer a letter of caution.
  • A Unified police officer accessed the records of women he met on a dating app. He retired in 2019. The case was screened for a criminal charge but no charges were filed. The council issued the officer a letter of caution.
  • Another Unified police officer accessed the records of a dispatcher he thought his son would know. The officer was criminally charged with accessing BCI records but the case was later dismissed. The council issued him a letter of caution.
  • A Duchesne County sheriff's deputy used his police laptop to look up the license plate on his personal vehicle to make sure its registration had been issued before taking the vehicle on a road trip. The deputy was originally fired from his department, but that decision was later overturned and he was rehired. The council issued the deputy a letter of caution.

In a recording of the hearing, Stephenson addressed the council and expressed his concern over the increase in BCI violations, stating he has seen a pattern of growing violations over the past five years.

"There is not an officer out there who doesn't know they should not be doing it," Stephenson said. "But yet, they still do it."

Although most of the violations were minor, he asked the council whether such violations need harsher penalties to send a message to officers.

The group agreed that, for example, an officer who looks up information about a person suspected of having an affair with that officer's spouse is different than an officer looking up the registration of his own vehicle.

In other recent cases, during the council's meeting in June, a Unified police officer faced discipline for accessing information from the high-profile case of slain University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck. The officer was not part of the investigation but looked up information based on a news article he had read and learned that Ayoola Adisa Ajay was a suspect, even though he had not yet been publicly named by Salt Lake police.

The officer did not believe that accessing information about a murder suspect was a BCI violation and at least one council member agreed that the officer should not face any discipline. But another member disagreed, stating that the issue raised red flags about random officers inserting themselves into cases they're not assigned to or cases that aren't even being investigated by their own department just because they are curious.

A more serious violation occurred between 2014 and 2016 when BYU Police Lt. Aaron Rhoades accessed more than 10,000 records from adjacent police agencies, and in 21 cases shared that information with BYU's Honor Code Office. The fallout from Rhoades' actions and ensuing investigation by the state almost resulted in a decision to decertify the university's police department. That decision was appealed and overturned earlier this month.

At its most recent meeting, the Peace Officer Standards and Training council decided to continue handling each BCI violation on an individual basis. But several council members agreed in order to maintain public trust, officers need to stop accessing records they are not allowed to view.

One council member noted that some of the information officers were getting into trouble for by looking up could be found with just a simple internet search.

Stephenson also encouraged law enforcement agencies to be consistent in disciplining officers internally when such violations are discovered, noting that in some departments the action goes unpunished. Of the five disciplined by the council in January, the penalties handed down by individual departments ranged from a letter of reprimand to being assigned to six months of desk duty.

Other violations

Stephenson's call for holding officers accountable and upholding public trust echoes his comments in June when he raised concerns with the council about officers who are caught lying under "Garrity."

Garrity protects law enforcers who are being investigated for incidents like officer-involved shootings from making statements that could be used against them criminally. The expectation is that Peace Officer Standards and Training can interview an officer who will respond truthfully to determine whether any training standards were violated.

The typical penalty for lying under Garrity is revoking an officer's certification. But Stephenson said there have been five cases recently of officers proven to have lied under Garrity, yet the council voted on a penalty other than revocation. Stephenson told other council members that he is concerned that the message they're sending is that some lies are more egregious than others.

"We shouldn't accept lying, period," he said. "The whole point of Garrity is we want the truth."

At the January meeting, one person, a police cadet, had his certification revoked for lying under Garrity.

A total of 24 people had their law enforcement certifications reviewed in January due to violations. Four had their certifications revoked for violations that included retail theft, domestic violence-related assault, DUI, assault on a police officer, and a school district officer stealing a Chromebook from the junior high he was assigned to.

Other officers were disciplined for engaging in sexual conduct while on duty, child abuse, DUI and falsifying time cards. One officer faced discipline for disorderly conduct after being tossed out of a club and threatening to have specialized law enforcement units respond and then calling 911 to report "officer down." Another officer was issued a letter of caution for target shooting while off-duty and accidentally hitting two homes less than a mile away. No one was injured.

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Pat Reavy is a longtime police and courts reporter. He joined the team in 2021, after many years of reporting at the Deseret News and KSL NewsRadio before that.


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