Ephraim City will review police reportbacklog and take corrective action

 

John Hales

Staff writer

7/6/2017

 

EPHRAIM—Some answers, but also more concerns and questions, are emerging about lapses in procedures at the Ephraim City Police Department, even as the city is beginning to take steps to correct those deficiencies.

While awaiting release of the official report of a Utah County investigation into charges that Police Chief Ron Rasmussen was negligent in completing police reports, the Messenger began its own investigation into that question.

After publishing information about two of those reports last week, both of which involved a child sodomy allegation, the Ephraim police re-opened the 5-year-old case, City Manager Brant Hanson said.

“We’ve spoken to the mother of the victim, and we’re all over it,” Hanson said last week, saying that Sgt. Len Gasser, the original officer on the case, which had been taken over by Rasmussen and apparently dropped, had already made good headway.

It won’t be the only “cold” case to be re-warmed.

“There are a number of cases that we’re following up on,” Hanson said Tuesday, as he interrupted Fourth of July plans to respond to follow-up questions from a Messenger interview on Monday.

These, he said, are some of the more “serious” cases, right now about 25 of them, indicating that it may be just the start of a more thorough review.

“Ninety percent of them are just a matter of going and saying “no action necessary.” There’s really no reporting; it just needs to be cleared.”

In other cases, where serious crime was committed, or a complainant or victim feels wronged by inadequate police work, Hanson invited people to contact the city.

“We want to know what those issues are, so we can take the appropriate actions to fix it. We want to fix it,” he said.

The review is one of several steps the city is taking to rectify things at the police department.

Another will be the release of Utah County’s investigative report. The city received the report last week, but couldn’t give it out until private information could be redacted, Hanson said.

“This report needs to be out there,” he said last week, perhaps anticipating criticism that the city might be using the redaction as a stalling tactic.

Given the interest of the public, and wanting to make sure legal and privacy issues were addressed, Hanson said the city was going to contract with an outside law firm to take care of those redactions.

“I just want to make sure it’s done right,” he said Monday. “…If I could release the whole thing today, I would.”

As of Monday, he had not yet firmed up arrangements for redacting the 50-or-so-page report.

In their preliminary assessment, Utah County’s investigators did suggest three specific deficiencies for remediation. Rasmussen developed a corrective action plan and delivered it right about the time he was reinstated as chief last week, after having been on administrative leave during the investigation.

First, investigators found that the template used by Ephraim’s police to write their reports needed to have space wherein officers could document whether or not force was used, and any injuries that resulted.

Second, the investigation faulted Rasmussen for taking calls on his cell phone that should have gone through dispatch. That practice is a relic of the small-town style Rasmussen, a lifelong resident of Sanpete, started using when he became police chief more than two decades ago.

Hanson said the chief will no longer respond to calls that come to his phone, and will instead direct people to call 911 or Sanpete County Dispatch.

The third finding is by far the one that has received the most attention: Rasmussen’s failure to write police reports completely or in a timely manner.

The Utah County investigation, according to Hanson, found no criminal wrongdoing in the delinquency of the reports.

Rasmussen has acknowledged the issue.

“He is no way saying he’s not delinquent. He knows he has an issue with reports,” Hanson said.

The corrective plan for that is simple.

“Regardless of what’s going on, he needs to sit down at the end of the shift and write his reports, just like all officers do,” Hanson said.

Accountability for making sure that happens will rest with Hanson himself, who will be Rasmussen’s direct supervisor. Before the investigation, it wasn’t crystal clear whether the chief  reported to the city manager or the mayor.

“He reports to me, but it’s still a partnership. I can hold him accountable, and the mayor and council can hold me accountable….There is still a level of trust there that I have in him.”

But even as the city is trying to respond to the current situation, a Messenger  investigation suggests there may yet be more fallout—possibly a lot more.

The Messenger looked at 15 incomplete police reports. (The newspaper has requested documentation on all police calls between 2007 and 2017 where Rasmussen was the responding officer, some 1,600 cases).

Among those cases are reports of child physical abuse, child sex abuse, spousal sexual assault, missing person, rape, sexual assault, attempted suicide, drug overdose, a suspicious person with weapons on school property, possible domestic violence, and theft.

The Messenger compared the Ephraim incident report numbers with the notes prepared by Sanpete County dispatchers. The comparison showed that on all but one of those reports, the only information besides names, addresses, locations and other perfunctory information, is information provided by dispatchers at the time the problem was called in.

None of the reports have any kind of narrative or synopsis in which Rasmussen, the responding officer, records what was said or done, either initially or upon follow-up. There is no indication, other than in a case regarding a juvenile whom Rasmussen transported home from school, of the content or result of any investigation.

While it is entirely possible that Rasmussen’s investigation found there was no cause for further action or for an arrest, it is impossible to discern that from the documentation available to the Messenger.

In the rape case, it was emergency room personnel at a hospital who reported the crime. Crime Victims Reparations requested information about the report a month later, but, as Judy Gines, the Police Department secretary at the time noted, there was “no other info.” She send the insufficient report to CVR, and sent a note to Rasmussen.

Three weeks later she wrote, “No response [Rasmussen].”

There is no information on whether either the suicide attempt or the drug overdose resulted in a death or not.

In one case, someone called a dispatcher, who wrote, “…Her neighbor is hurting her children. She can hear them through the heater vent saying, ‘Why are you hurting me? What did I do wrong?’” The Ephraim police report into the matter has no further information.

The reports examined bring up other questions.

In many cases, the incident classification is listed as “Misc[ellaneous] incidents,” even when another classification seems to have been obvious: the hospital report of rape, an apparent domestic assault, a missing person’s report, a child abuse complaint.

In addition to the reports themselves, the Messenger requested and received accompanying documents (audit histories) that give a date and timestamps for changes made to police reports.

Some audit histories show entries or changes being made three to five years after the fact and/or after the report had been declared inactive or cleared.

Another question suggested by the reports involves not only Chief Rasmussen, but also Sgt. Len Gasser, who approves submitted reports.

Among the 15 cases examined by the Messenger, Gasser approved seven that contain no information other than dispatcher notes. He approved another in which there was no detail about the precipitating incident but was an entry from Rasmussen reporting the complainant had withdrawn the complaint.

Gasser did reject two of the 15 incomplete reports we reviewed, and two additional reports among the 15 cases are still active.

Only one of the 15 cases seems to track clearly from beginning, to end, to clearance (or “case closed.”) Of all the reports, it appears to have been the smallest matter, though most of the report was not written until three days after the incident. That was the case where Rasmussen responded to a complaint from a school and took a youth home.

Continually throughout the last week, other cases have been brought to light anecdotally on social media and by people contacting the newspaper. While the Messenger is awaiting documentation in those instances, some people clearly feel wronged by police inadequacy, real or perceived.

City Manager Hanson reached out to them.

He said he and the chief had met with several citizens with concerns about cases not being fully investigated.

“We welcome that,” he said. “We want to know what we’re doing and not doing. If you don’t tell us, we can’t make changes.”

In at least one case not directly related to Rasmussen’s incomplete paperwork but to alleged shoddy police work generally, a person has mentioned the word “lawsuit.”

Hanson hopes the city’s efforts to make things right will stave off any such thing, but yes, he admitted, it had crossed his mind.

“You’re always concerned about that in any organization,” he said. “If folks feel like they were wronged, we would hope to have the opportunity to rectify that.”

For some, a fix may not be possible. For them, “justice delayed is justice denied” may be more than cliché.

Hanson acknowledges that public trust and community division will need to be addressed.

On a divided community, he blamed the three officers who resigned last week in protest of Rasmussen’s reinstatement.

“Giving an ultimatum, ‘It’s either him or us,’ is a win-lose situation; actually, it’s a lose-lose situation,” he said. “A lot of finger pointing—that’s not positive for anyone.”

He said having the kinds of conversations he and the chief are already having with people is a step in the right direction, but that he prefers the conversations to be face to face and relatively private.

Things won’t heal, he said, “if we keep writing articles and keep things heated up. It’s important to report the news, but it’s important to let us do our job.”

He said he did appreciate the “opportunity for positive reinforcement” in the Messenger’s efforts to hear people’s positive experiences with the chief on the newspaper’s Facebook page.

He addressed Rasmussen’s public silence on the matter.

“He felt attacked by his own officers, and he may be a little gun-shy. He wants to do his job,” Hanson said. “I’m sure he’ll speak, but that’s up to him.”

Ephraim City is currently advertising for four police officers, three to replace the officers who resigned and a fourth the city had already been planning to add to the force.

Meanwhile, he said, Rasmussen and Gasser are working alternating 24-hour shifts and  receiving assistance from other law-enforcement agencies