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SANDY — Is Utah's strict policy on marijuana usage among law enforcement officers hurting recruitment?
The head of the agency that sets the rules for becoming a certified officer in the state says he doesn't have hard numbers. But Maj. Scott Stephenson, the director of Peace Officer Standards and Training, said he has recently received an increased number of inquires — particularly from corrections departments around the state — about people wanting to work for a local agency who have used medical marijuana within the past year.
The number of inquiries has gotten to the point that Stephenson felt it should be brought to the attention of the full Peace Officer Standards and Training Council during their quarterly meeting on Tuesday in Sandy. It was the first in-person meeting the group has held in over a year.
Medical marijuana is legal in Utah. But Stephenson said POST is required to uphold both state and federal laws.
"Marijuana is still illegal federally. So by statute, we're required to investigate that and hold officers to that standard," he said.
Law enforcers cannot carry a gun if they use marijuana. And in order for a person to be certified as an officer in Utah, that person must be clean from marijuana for a year, even if they come from a state where it is legal or if they have a medical marijuana card. The card must also be expired for a year before becoming a certified police officer in Utah.
"It does and it has created a challenge for us," Stephenson admitted when it comes to people seeking employment in Utah who come from states where marijuana, both medical and recreational, is legal.
There are already rules that prevent officers and cadets who take prescription medications that could potentially impair them from driving on the academy's test course or participating in firearms training. But they are not forbidden from being officers.
The question becomes, should corrections officers or even police dispatchers who traditionally don't carry a gun and can do their jobs without driving, be eligible to be hired even if they use medical marijuana? At least one council member also brought up the fact that chronic back problems are common among corrections officers.
Before the council comes up with a solution, Stephenson said the next step is do a lot of research on state and federal guidelines, "and then come up with some language or maybe a proposal to make it easier for us, one, to be able to administer it and create a process. And then two, for administrators in law enforcement to be able to manage it easier," he said. "This is the challenge I face. … How do we decide who is eligible and who is not?"
Also during Tuesday's meeting, several updates were given on a number of police reform bills that were passed by the Utah Legislature and how they would affect police training. Some of those new laws include additional training on use of force, deescalation tactics, and autism awareness. Stephenson had previously commissioned two subcommittees to come up with statewide policies for use of force and police K-9 certification so departments have a baseline standard.
West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine, who worked closely on drafting the proposal for K-9 certification in the state, said the subcommittee came up with the minimum standards for training, certifying and recertifying police K-9 teams in Utah.
"We just want to want to make sure the police dogs that are out on the streets of Utah meet a certain standard," he said.
A separate subcommittee also came up with a proposal for minimum standards for use-of-force policies and deescalation policies for police agencies.
"While we've been teaching it at the academy for years, really the question is what does it look like? You have an idea of what deescalation looks like and I may have an idea of what deescalation looks like. But how do you teach that to a recruit to use the lowest level of presence and force to make sure we effectively make the arrest without harming those (people) and come to a peaceful conclusion?" Stephenson asked.
"A lot of it is just codifying practice to make sure that it is consistent. I think that is the main impetus for a lot of this legislation is to make sure officers are getting consistent training and that it is consistent across the state, not just getting it here or there," he said of all the recent reforms.
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 organization.
On Tuesday, the council voted to take action on the certifications of 14 people. Two officers had their peace officer certifications revoked, meaning they can never be a law enforcer in Utah again. A Utah Highway Patrol trooper who left his overtime shift early on 11 occasions — including at least one time to visit his girlfriend — but still wrote the full hours on his time card, and who also drove his patrol car outside the allotted area for personal use, had his certification revoked. And Jeremy Miller, who worked as a Weber County corrections officer at the time of his offense, had his certification revoked for having sexual relations with two inmates, including one woman who said she had sex with him 10 times while in custody.
Other discipline handed down on Tuesday ranged from a letter of caution for an off-duty officer who drove past a boat inspection station without having his boat inspected, even though he had already cleaned his boat, to others having their certifications suspended for a year or two for DUI, electronic communication harassment, domestic violence, and an American Fork officer who rammed into the back of a vehicle during a chase without braking, but claimed in his police report that his brakes were not working.