Judge spares police in polygamous towns, orders monitoring

Posted at 8:23 PM, Apr 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-20 01:22:58-04

The federal government's bid to dismantle the police department in a polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border has been rejected by a judge as too drastic and expensive.

But the towns will still be under court supervision for the next decade as punishment in a religious discrimination case.

The sister cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, are home to a polygamous group run by Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.

A closer look at the Tuesday ruling and what it means:

Under the judge's orders, the chief marshal will be supervised by a court-appointed mentor from a nationally recognized law enforcement organization who will offer advice on the operations of the police department.

Police officers, including the chief marshal, will have to undergo training every year on constitutional protections and the cities must buy body cameras for officers.

Town managers and city council members will be removed from a police hiring committee and barred from any involvement in internal affairs investigations.

Jeff Matura, an attorney representing Colorado City, said the towns had already undertaken some of the changes such as reviewing police policies and offering more training for officers.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland acknowledged that the department suffers from a high rate of officer decertification and deficient training but said the problems in the community aren't so grave that the agency should be folded and its duties handed over to outside agencies.

Holland said the U.S. Justice Department has investigated police departments accused of misconduct that led to serious injuries and deaths, yet none of those cases led to agencies being shuttered.

He called disbandment a last resort if the towns fail to comply with his orders.

No. Holland also ordered the appointment of an official to review municipal decisions involving housing rights and make sure the changes ordered by the court are carried out. The monitor will review the way the towns handle utility applications and building permits, change city ordinances, and deal with citizen complaints about fair-housing rights.

City council members and other officials must undergo training on the requirements imposed by the court, constitutional protections and fair-housing.

The judge required the towns to create a website containing information found on most municipal sites, such as contact information for elected officials and applications for building permits.

It must also contain language and a link to the judge's order about making changes after the communities were found to have committed religious discrimination.

The decision was a response to a 2016 jury verdict in Arizona that found the towns denied nonbelievers police protection, building permits and water hookups.

Federal authorities said the towns were operating as an arm of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

Jurors concluded officers arrested nonbelievers without probable cause and made unreasonable searches of their property. The judge in the case said police employees communicated with and provided financial support for church leader Warren Jeffs while he was a fugitive.

The U.S. Department of Justice touted the jury verdict and supervision order as evidence that religious discrimination won't be tolerated in the United States. But the agency's statement Wednesday didn't weigh in on the judge's choice to order oversight rather than disbandment.

Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has studied the church, said Holland's decision to base his ruling on what's been done in other municipalities is understandable from a legal perspective but overlooks the fact that the community is fundamentally different.

"That's a lovely legal argument but with respect to this particular community, with this particular way of life, and this entrenched lack of separation of church and state, is an argument that I think falls short," Guiora said. "This is not a normal place."