A closer look at Utah County investigative report on Ephraim Police Department

 

Suzanne Dean

Publisher

6-10-2017

 

A couple of weekends ago, I finished a close read of the Utah County investigative report on the Ephraim Police Department.

After I did, I became aware that there were things that still needed to be addressed in our coverage of the document. I felt some additional interpretation was needed, which we were initially unable to provide due to deadlines and other constraints, to give readers a more complete view of what has gone on in the Ephraim Police Department.

I also felt we needed to give an expanded explanation of the considerations the city council faced in deciding to reinstate Chief Ron Rasmussen after placing him on administrative leave.

I need to state some caveats to this column. It doesn’t cover every issued raised in the Utah County report. My first draft was more than 4,000 words. That’s more than you, the reader, are going to want to read and more than the newspaper has space to print. I had to cut down to what I considered to be the important points.

If an average citizen read the Utah County report without knowing the background, he or she would probably say, “What’s the big deal?”

Having interviewed the three Ephraim officers who resigned, having interviewed the city manager two or three times, having interviewed Chief Rasmussen, having looked at some of the public documents connected with the case, and having talked to other reporters on staff who have had other interviews and also looked at documents, I believe I have a deeper understanding of the report than the casual reader.

So I’m going to interpret—in some cases reading between the lines of the report, providing background not in the report, and even stating my personal opinion on a few things. That’s why I’m doing this as a column under my name, rather than as a straight news story.

The answer we don’t know …

The main question in the whole controversy was why the city council decided to reinstate Chief Rasmussen.

The answer is we don’t know for sure. The deliberations were behind closed doors. One weakness in our Messenger coverage was that we didn’t specifically ask the mayor or the city manager about the rationale for reinstatement. I would also like to know why two city council members were not present at the closed meeting where the decision was made.

But based on the Utah County report and all I’ve been able to learn about the case, I think I can make some pretty safe assumptions. The council, I’m sure, viewed Rasmussen’s failure to complete hundreds of incident reports to be a problem. I don’t know if they connected the missing reports with a possible failure to investigate some crimes. But the significant finding from the report, in council members’ minds, was that failing to write reports was not a crime.

On the other hand, the report paints a picture of one of the three officers, Darren Pead, as an insubordinate troublemaker. Based on what I know, Pead took the lead in rallying other officers to try to get their boss investigated, fired and criminally prosecuted.

In the end, the city council sided against Pead and the other officers and with Rasmussen, the department head.

Lack of oversight

Since Rasmussen was reinstated, one might assume the Utah County report was favorable to him. Far from it. Every one of Rasmussen’s subordinates, and one former employee, faulted him for not writing reports, even when asked repeatedly to write them. The three patrol officers who later resigned said Rasmussen, very simply, was not a good cop. And the report cites incidents where the chief failed to display common-sense administrative skills.

But underlying the problems was city administrations which, going back years, failed to oversee the Rasmussen or the Police Department. Apparently, it wasn’t clear until recently whether the department reported to the city manager, as all city departments should, or directly to the mayor.

All police agencies in Sanpete County use the same electronic records system. When Utah County investigators searched the system in June, 272 reports came up as incomplete. Of those, 237 were Rasmussen’s.

Reports unwritten, reports cleared

We don’t know if that count covers all of the calls where Rasmussen didn’t write a report in a timely fashion. The chief acknowledged that he took calls for service on his cell phone. A case number and an associated electronic document for entering a report is only generated on calls that go through Sanpete County dispatch.

In Ephraim, Sgt. Len Gasser is responsible for clearing all reports, including Rasmussen’s. He told investigators he had cleared “a few” Rasmussen cases that didn’t contain a narrative about what the call was about. We don’t know how many cases is “a few.”

Finally, just before Rasmussen went on administrative leave, Mayor Ralph Squire directed him to write as many missing reports as possible. The chief spent at least a couple of days doing so. We don’t know how many reports, on calls that could have been years old, were written, and possibly cleared by Gasser, at the last minute.

One problem with Rasmussen failing to write reports was that line officers in the department were being held to a standard that the top officer was not meeting.

The Utah County report paraphrases Trista Jordan, the department records clerk. “She believes if any of the other officers were behind in their reports like the chief, they would be fired, and she believes this is unfair to the officers.”

Another problem was that when attorneys or state agencies needed a report in order to prosecute a case or do other important things like investigate child abuse or get restitution for victims, the report often wasn’t there.

The investigators looked into a case, which, while the complainant name was blacked out in the report before it was released to the public, was obviously the Adair child sodomy case. The Messenger ran a story about the case in early July.

The case record showed the Ephraim Police Department had received requests for the police report from the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and the Utah Attorney General’s Office. And the Utah Office of Crime Victim Reparations requested the report five times. Rasmussen still didn’t write the report.

All I can say is if an officer of a court or a state agency requested a business document from my company five times, and the employee responsible still didn’t provide the document, I’d fire the person.

Problem more than managerial

Rasmussen told Utah County investigators that the reason he didn’t write reports was that he got busy “and it all just snowballed.”

Judi Gines, the former records clerk, said the chief would sometimes lock himself in his office to do reports “but he would quickly get distracted by something else.”

My response is that one critical trait of a manager is the ability to ward out distractions and focus on a mandatory task until complete. I sometimes see lights on after 10 p.m. in the Sanpete County Attorney’s Office where public servants are apparently doing just that.

Incomplete police work

But the main problem with incomplete reports is that the reason they’re not complete may be that police work is not complete.

The Utah County report quotes one of the officers who resigned, Jared Hansen, as asking, “How many people have called the chief, and he told them he’d take care of it, but there is no follow through?”

Shortly after our first stories on the Rasmussen case came out, I got a phone call from a manager at a retail business in Ephraim about a case I hope is not typical.

The manager told me that in January 2017, an employee stole $2,200 in cash that was ready to be deposited in the bank. The store has clear video of the theft. Rasmussen was the responding officer on the case. He told the manager he would review the video and get back to him.

As of June, the employee had not been arrested. In fact, because of company policy and because the employee had not been arrested or charged, the store couldn’t even fire him.

I felt, as a citizen, I had an obligation to report what I’d heard. So on June 29, I emailed the city manager. Later, the store manager told me Rasmussen had come in again and again had promised to take care of the problem. But a couple of weeks passed, the store manager heard nothing, and the employee was not arrested.

When the store manager’s boss came in from out of town, the boss said, “Maybe we should sue Ephraim City.”  Mind you, the follow-up and second promise of action happened after the whole reports issue had blown up. I have not talked to the store manager in the past two weeks, so I don’t know if anything has been done recently on the case.

Chain of command

Regarding administrative issues, the culture in the Police Department did not seem to support taking serious concerns “up the food chain,” so to speak.

Both Larry Golding and Jared Hansen said they had gone to their direct supervisor, Sgt. Len Gasser, repeatedly (one said “dozens of times”) to express concern about Rasmussen’s reports.

Based on the Utah County report, Gasser himself talked with Rasmussen about the reporting problem many times. But Gasser never escalated the issue to the city manager or the mayor. If he had, the reporting issue could have been resolved years ago, and the expense and pain of the recent controversy avoided.

Apparently, there were no disciplinary policies or procedures in the department (at least none that were being followed). When Darren Pead defied a direct order to sign a memo agreeing to use a department template for incident reports, Gasser wanted to write Pead up. Rasmussen told him not to.

Darren Pead himself told investigators that it appeared to him “that the chief couldn’t make a decision.”

Supporting the chief

But as I implied at the beginning of this column, the Utah County report also contained substantial information supporting the chief. The most persuasive material for me was statements by Sgt. Gasser, Judi Gines and Sanpete County Sheriff Brian Nelson describing Rasmussen as honest and a man of integrity.

Gasser described Rasmussen as “the most honest person I know.”

Sheriff Nielson described the chief as “the most honest person…has tremendous integrity…never shirks anything to benefit someone else…really takes care of his guys.”

Besides asking Sheriff Nielson for feedback on Rasmussen, Utah County investigators asked if the sheriff he had any concerns with any of the Ephraim officers. Nielson said he had concerns about Darren Pead, who formerly worked for the Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff said, in the words of the report,  that Pead “believed that he was always right and did not like to be told what to do.” According to the report, the sheriff said that “while Officer Pead was working for the Sheriff’s Office…they had similar problems (to what) Ephraim is now having with him.”

Reading between the lines of the Utah County report, the starting point in the whole police controversy was a dispute between Sgt. Gasser and Darren Pead about the template the sergeant wanted officers to follow in writing their reports.

Pead claimed the template “didn’t flow” and impeded him in writing a clear, chronological narrative about what happened.

Another issue that came to the fore about the same time was officers unplugging their GPS devices. All of the Ephraim officers had GPS’s in their vehicles. Rasmussen told investigators he tracked officers by GPS in order to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. But at least two of the officers found this tracking to be intrusive and periodically unplugged their GPS’s.

In late May of this year, while Rasmussen was on vacation, Gasser drew up a memo containing several directives to his officers, including directing them not to unplug their GPS’s and requiring them to use the template.

Golding and Hansen signed the memo. According to the Utah County report, “Officer Pead refused to sign the form. He stated he would comply with all of it except the use of the template. Officer Pead drew an arrow up, indicating his agreement with the directives on the memo other than the template. He then signed the paper near his arrow.”

At that point, according to the Utah County report, Gasser told Pead complying with the whole memo was not a request, but an order. “Officer Pead still did not sign the form..,” the report says.

I’ve covered other police departments, including Salt Lake City police. They all have templates. And all officers in Sanpete County follow a template in writing probable cause statements that are used to prosecute people for crimes.

The Utah County report included the headings used in the template. Although the template might force officers to repeat information, or to answer “not applicable” to some items, the format looked workable to me.

Blistering email

Right after the memo-signing incident, Darren Pead sent what can only be described as a blistering email to Rasmussen. The email was provided as an appendix to the Utah County report.

“Words cannot express how disappointed I am with this department right now,” Pead wrote. “After the extreme corruption that I dealt with in the county, this is over the top for me. I never would have come here if I would’ve know it was this way here…

“This is absolute madness, and I would be flexible as possible if it didn’t affect my professionalism…I would rather work in any other place than here right now…If this is how it’s going to be, you might as well let me know face to face so I can move on and we can stop wasting everyone’s time.”

After Rasmussen returned from vacation, he and Pead met about the template issue for somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. Then, according to the Utah County report, Rasmussen asked Pead to come to a meeting with both him and Gasser later in the day, but Pead “asked to be excused” from the second meeting.

My personal reaction is that if one of my employees sent me an email like the one Pead sent Rasmussen, I would have the person in my office as soon as I possibly could. The meeting would run 15 minutes, not an hour and a half to two hours.

I would have a written warning ready to go and would tell the person, “Based on your attitude, I don’t believe our company is the right fit for you. We value your skills, but you are going to need to change your attitude to stay here. Do you want to commit to changing your attitude, or would you prefer to leave now?”

After the meeting with Rasmussen, it appears Pead took the lead in starting to look up information about chief’s missing reports and rallying the two other officers to take a stand against the chief.

‘Official misconduct’

During that time, Pead texted the mayor and city manager a copy of a state statute on “official misconduct.” The statute says, “A public servant is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor if, with an intent to benefit himself or another or to harm another, he knowingly commits an unauthorized act, which purports to be an act of his office, or knowingly refrains from performing a duty imposed on him by law or clearly inherent in the nature of his office.”

In interviews with the Messenger, Pead took the position that Rasmussen’s failure to complete reports was a case of “knowingly refrain(ing) from performing a duty…clearly inherent in the nature of his office” and thus a violation of the statute.

Pead didn’t just want Rasmussen removed from his job. He wanted him criminally prosecuted. While, in interviews with the newspaper, the other officers weren’t as adamant as Pead about wanting criminal prosecution, they ultimately took the same stand.

But there was a qualifier in the statute that apparently applies to both “commit(ting) an unauthorized act” and “refrain(ing) from performing a duty imposed…inherent in the nature of his office.” The public official has to act “with an intent to benefit himself or another, or to harm another.”

Utah County investigators asked the chief “if there was ever any time he did not finish a report due to his relationship with either the suspect or the victim, or anyone else somehow involved with the case.” Rasmussen said he had not.

The investigators asked the chief if he and Sgt. Gasser had ever “conspired with each other to not complete a report for one reason or another.” The chief stated that they had not.

Not criminal

The investigators went a step further. They asked Rasmussen, if he was required to take a polygraph test and asked the same questions, would he pass? According to the report, “He stated, without hesitation, that he would certainly pass the exam. Chief Rasmussen denied several times any intent to not complete any of his reports.”

Subsequently, one of the investigators talked with the Utah County attorney, a deputy Utah county attorney and Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel. All three agreed that Rasmussen’s failure to complete reports, in the words of the Utah County document, “did not rise to a criminal level.”

Inaccurate information

There was one area of the Utah County report where I fear investigators did not have accurate information. One premise in the report was that the Ephraim Police Department was overworked. Sgt. Gasser told an investigator Ephraim had grown to a population of 7,000, plus 5,000 at the college.

The U.S. Census and Utah Data Center estimate of the 2017 population of Ephraim is 6,724, including Snow College. And there was nothing in the report mentioning that Snow College has two full-time officers who frequently respond to calls off campus. So in fact, there were five full-time officers (and now six) for a population of less than 7,000.

The Utah County report said that during 2016, Ephraim officers responded to an average of 386.6 calls per officer. If an officer works five days per week and takes three weeks of vacation, that comes out to 1.6 calls per shift.

Not terribly busy

When I interviewed the three officers who resigned, they told me they were not terribly busy with calls. One officer said he sometimes worked a whole weekend without getting a call. The officers said when they didn’t have calls, they generated their own work by following up on leads related to drug trafficking and other crimes. But all said they had plenty of time to write reports and usually completed them by the end of each shift.

That’s the story, and it’s not fake news. It’s the most truthful account I could ascertain with based on all the information available—and that was a lot of information.

Neither the Messenger as a newspaper nor I as publisher has ever taken a stand on whether or not the city council should have reinstated Chief Rasmussen. My staff and I do believe in representative democracy. Once duly elected representatives have made a final decision, we support the decision.