The leader of the Utah organization that disciplines cops now leads the group that defends them
Scott Stephenson, the new chief of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, works remotely at a Starbucks in Sandy on Thursday, August 11. (Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)
Estimated reading time: 7-8 minutes
SANDY – The man who ran the organization that disciplines Utah cops now runs the group that defends them.
For nearly 15 years, Scott Stephenson served as Director of Standards and Training for Utah Peace Officers. Recently, Stephenson retired from law enforcement and accepted a new position as executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police.
While he admits that in the eyes of the public the decision may appear similar to a prosecutor “switching sides” for the defense, Stephenson believes the two positions serve the same purpose.
“As director of POST, my job was to ensure that I upheld the integrity of the profession. FOP’s mission is the same. We want to uphold the integrity of the profession,” he said. . “I was trying to achieve the same goal and mission as them, which was to keep the bad officers out and the good officers out and provide a means for them to get a plea.”
All sworn officers in Utah must be certified by Peace Officer Standards and Training. Its council — which consists of more than a dozen members ranging from police chiefs, sheriffs and citizens from across the state — meets quarterly to, in part, review allegations of officer misconduct and discipline these officers. Sanctions can range from a letter of conviction to revoking an agent’s certification. The director makes a recommendation on the type of discipline an officer should face, and the council then votes to accept or modify that recommended action.
The Utah Fraternal Order of Police is a nonprofit group that represents about 4,900 officers, or about half of the state’s law enforcement. The group provides legal services to its members, defending them when they are accused of wrongdoing or involved in a critical incident such as a shooting involving an officer, often doing so with unabashed vigor.
“We often stand alone on behalf of critical issues for the profession because the job is the right thing to do. Although we try to work with other organizations on important legislation, we don’t back down when it comes to to protect our officers,” the order’s website reads. “We are doing everything we can to protect cops and make our jobs safer.”
Stephenson takes over the position held by Ian Adams who recently obtained a doctorate. in political science and accepted an assistant professorship in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.
With his new position, Stephenson says he has enjoyed learning more about the prescriptions of senior officers. A key focus of his new job will be to ensure officers enjoy due process in court. As Stephenson notes, police officers are held to a higher standard in the public eye and expected to have a higher level of professionalism. It also means they may face more scrutiny when involved in critical incidents such as police shootings.
“Just because an officer puts on a badge and a gun doesn’t automatically mean he’s sacrificing his rights to due process,” Stephenson said. Regardless of what an officer is accused of doing, he says that person deserves to have their due process rights protected, and the job of attorneys at the Utah Fraternal Order of Police is to defend them.
Asked if that means the order will blindly defend an officer no matter what he is accused of doing, Stephenson replied: “We are a law enforcement advocacy group, no doubt . But we’re not being unreasonable.”
However, he admits that even when he was director of standards and training for peace officers, there were cases that came to him that he did not understand why the officer was being charged.
“It is difficult to accept the fact that an officer who does his job, and does it well, now risks being criminally charged. Even as the director of POST, it was difficult for me to digest. over the years I have reviewed a lot of use-of-force cases and I think that in my almost 15 years as director of POST I have probably only taken action against the only used force three times because it was egregious and the officer deserved it. But other times I was like, ‘Why are they criminals?'”
The Fraternal Order of Police and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill have a long history of disagreeing, particularly when it comes to investigating police shootings. Although Stephenson credits Gill for being elected on a platform to which he has remained loyal, he disagrees with that platform and cannot comment on whether the relationship between the organization and the district attorney’s office will be better off now that he’s heading the organization.
“I don’t know if this relationship will ever be friendly, especially if we feel like he’s accusing someone who shouldn’t be accused. Obviously we’re going to fight that, and rightly so. And I think that ‘he would invite that, those checks and balances,’ Stephenson said.
But while Stephenson thinks Gill is in favor of checks and balances, he doesn’t think the courtroom is always the right place for it.
When an officer is criminally charged, Stephenson hopes Gill and other prosecutors file those charges “on the merits of this case and not public pressure” or for political gain. Prosecutors should ‘take out all the noise from the outside’ when deciding whether to charge an officer, he said, and not press charges because of public pressure, already knowing the case is n ‘m going nowhere.
“If you charge an officer and you know there’s no risk of conviction, and in other cases you would normally fire him, then why go ahead with this case?” Stephenson asked.
Another goal for Stephenson and the Fraternal Order of Utah Police will be to promote officer welfare. While Stephenson was director of standards and training for peace officers, the most common violations encountered on his desk were officers involved in sexual misconduct, domestic violence, and prescription drug and alcohol issues. He hopes helping officers find the resources they need to deal with the stresses in their lives will reduce some of these problems.
Additionally, Stephenson sees an “educational element” as part of his job, helping the public, state lawmakers, and even police chiefs and sheriffs understand why the organization is taking certain actions. While he may not be able to smooth over relations with the district attorney’s office, Stephenson hopes he can smooth over relations between police administrators – who have generally been at odds with the order – and senior officers, as well as pushing for policies that benefit everyone. law enforcement.
“I will do what I can to help FOP and law enforcement – the admins – bridge that communication gap. I really think a lot of times people get upset, they start to pick on organizations when they don’t fully understand what the goals of the organization are,” he said, adding that he hopes the relationships he has built with police administrators and legislators as director of standards and training for peace officers will open the door to better relations with the Fraternal Order of Police.
“I can help explain why someone made this argument on behalf of this officer? I can answer these questions and hopefully get people to understand what is going on,” he said. “A lot of times it’s not the argument you make, it’s the way you present it, the style of your argument.”
Stephenson said he takes the same attitude he had with his old job regarding decision-making in the new job and hopes that translates to reasonable minds prevailing on all sides.
“I look back on the decisions I made as the director of POST, I have no regrets. I made these decisions, I’m not one to be capricious, I’m very calculated and I bring all the facts. And I’m going to bring that to this decision as well. And for the very reason that I don’t like emotional decisions made by prosecutors, lawyers and prosecutors, I don’t like acting that way either.” , did he declare.