Utah judge allows access to police shooting records West Jordan fought to keep secret
Four years after West Jordan cops fatally shot 23-year-old Michael Glad, a judge has ruled the public can finally find out why the cops pulled the trigger.
The Salt Lake Tribune has been fighting since 2021 over records of internal police interviews about the shooting, known as the Garrity Statements. These interviews are conducted as part of an agency’s review of a police shooting and cannot be used against officers in criminal court. But in some cases, they have become public.
Despite obtaining access to documents in May 2021 of the State Records Committee, West Jordan refused to release the interviews to The Tribune. Instead, the city sued the news agency, asking that a judge determine whether the interviews are public records.
In a decision filed Friday, 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease found that the public’s right to access the records in this case “substantially” outweighs the privacy concerns raised by West Jordan.
“Citizens entrust law enforcement officers with the authority to use lethal force to maintain public safety and order and to defend others,” Trease wrote. “Because of the significant trust placed in law enforcement officers and the severe consequences associated with the use of lethal force, there is a clear and strong public interest in ensuring that officers only use lethal force appropriately and within the limits of existing laws and policies. ”
“Disclosure of Garrity’s interviews would bolster that interest,” she continued, “by allowing the public to assess the use of lethal force here.”
Trease was also unconvinced of West Jordan’s argument that the interviews should be classified as private employee records and that releasing the records would interfere with a “hypothetical” future legal or administrative proceeding.
Tribune lawyer Michael Judd called the decision “a victory for the public.”
“We thought that these files should never have been retained. That’s The Tribune’s position, and we pushed hard for it,” Judd said. “And, unfortunately, sometimes it takes a long time to come to that conclusion…but better late than never.”
When asked to comment, West Jordan Public Affairs Director Tauni Barker said in a statement on behalf of the city that, “We appreciate the actions taken by state leaders during the 2022 legislative session to provide further clarification to [the Government Records Access and Management Act] to avoid this type of dispute in the future.
Utah law states that all documents that are not expressly considered private or protected are considered public documents. The 2022 law amendment specified Garrity recordings as protected recordings.
Barker said the city has yet to decide whether or not to appeal the court’s decision. She said officials “will continue to analyze each GRAMA request they receive individually and release the records based on current state law.”
Arguments “at odds” with public records laws
Garrity’s statements are named after the 1967 United States Supreme Court decision in Garrity v. New Jersey. This decision protects government employees from criminal prosecution based on the information provided during these interviews, who can be compelled holding that it would violate employees’ Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
In the Glad case, West Jordan officers Tyrell Shepherd and Josh Whitehead cited their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to explain their actions to Salt Lake County prosecutors reviewing the 2018 shooting, so few things are known to the public about what exactly prompted them to open fire.
Glad had robbed a convenience store and pointed a gun at police before getting behind the wheel of a police truck that day, authorities said. Officers shot him after he started driving.
Four shots hit the truck and one hit Glad in the neck. He died later. His family said he struggled with mental illness and they believe it played a part in how he behaved on the day he was killed.
The Tribune requested statements from Garrity’s officers at West Jordan as part of a larger police shooting data collection project called Shots Fired.
This request sparked a series of back and forths between The Tribune and city officials over whether or not the documents should be released, which led to the hearing before the State Records Committee.
West Jordan rejected this decision and filed a lawsuit in June 2021 to prevent their release. The city has made a number of arguments throughout the litigation, including that:
The records were like performance appraisals because the interviews were used to review the performance of officers.
Disclosure of the records would be ‘a manifestly unwarranted invasion of privacy’ as they ‘included deeply personal thoughts and feelings associated with the shooting’ which officers were told would remain private.
Disclosure of the records “would create a risk of depriving a person of the right to a fair trial or an impartial hearing” if this case proceeds to a civil action.
The judge was not convinced by these arguments, agreeing with The Tribune that they were “too broad”. Trease acknowledged that the two parties should work together to redact some of the officers’ personal information from the records before they are released.
But she noted that, depending on the city’s reading of state law, a government record could be classified as private simply because the record includes either a statement from an employee or because it refers to statement or actions of an employee.
“In practice, this would not be a limitation in any way and would make most government records private,” she wrote.
West Jordan’s argument that disclosing the records could impact a “hypothetical” future proceeding would end the same way, she wrote – thus making all records subject to protection whenever the government “speculates that a civil litigation could be brought at some unknown time in the future.
This “contradicts” the purpose of the state’s open records laws, she wrote.
Difficult to obtain, but not inaccessible
The Tribune’s pursuit of documents from Garrity of West Jordan and other police departments prompted a change in the law earlier this year to restrict public access to those documents. Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, sponsored the bill, which Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law in March.
Supporters of the bill argued that Garrity’s statements contain personal information and worried that government employees would be less truthful in such criticism if they feared the information would later become public.
“Ask yourself,” Wilcox said at February’s only committee hearing on the bill, “how likely is an employee to open up about a difficult issue, perhaps one in which they committed a major mistake, if, after the interview, the content of this crucial conversation is going to be used to sell newspapers?”
About 60 people attended the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting, some wearing law enforcement uniforms. Among them was West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine, who said he had been up until 2.30am the night before, crying with an officer about his K-9 being killed .
“That’s the kind of content that a lot of these interviews contain,” he said.
Tiffany James, the mother of a 19-year-old shot dead by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018, opposed the bill. Garrity’s statements in his son’s case, revealed during his family’s civil lawsuit against the city, showed that Officer Casey Davies used lethal force twice against his son, hitting him with his car before to shoot him.
Prosecutors, who are required by law to investigate lethal use of force by police officers, were unaware of this first lethal use of force, as this officer refused to speak to prosecutors after the shooting , and no one else was there. The department says no footage of the shooting exists.
“It’s just unacceptable,” the mother said, “that the government and law enforcement expect that they can have a crisis that happens and not be held accountable for it, not have to share all information or be selective in their information. ”
Since the details of Garrity’s statement were released in his son’s case, another officer revealed he knew about the crash, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office reopened its investigation into the 2018 shooting. Prosecutors ruled in May that the first use of force, until there unknown, was unjustified, but refused to press charges. The office had already found the shooting justified.
At least seven other people willing to speak against the bill were not allowed to testify because the committee moved the bill to the end of the agenda and ran out of time. The bill never received another public hearing and was passed by the Senate, under suspension of the rules, on the penultimate day of the session.
Wilcox did not return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Judd, a lawyer for The Tribune, said the Rep. Bill follows a tradition that “every time the public comes in and tries to get information that somebody doesn’t want to make available, GRAMA is changed and another category of documents is added to the list of exceptions that complicate access to certain documents.
The decision, however, shows that Garrity’s records are accessible – although getting them now will be more difficult, he said.
“Entities must still recognize that just because they can affix a [protected] label to these under the new bill, [it] doesn’t mean they can keep it from the public forever,” he said, “especially when they show something that is really about public business and when the interest in keeping it secret is pretty minimal. .
Judd said the move, however, may not prevent someone from going through a lengthy and costly legal process, as The Tribune did, to access those documents. The news agency spent around $100,000 to fight for these records.