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CHPD Balances Tough Stance on DUIs with Public Perception

Apr 07, 2016 11:11AM ● Published by Bryan Scott

By Rachel Hall | r.hall@mycityjournals.com

Cottonwood - Holladay - The Cottonwood Heights Police Department (CHPD) is no stranger to scrutiny.

“Am I a bully? No,” Chief Robby Russo said in an interview last October with the Cottonwood Heights Journal. “Am I absolutely demanding and do I expect a lot, and will I be aggressive to seek that end? Yes, I am guilty of that.”

The perception of Cottonwood Heights police has been part of a local conversation for quite some time. While there are differing opinions on the merits of CHPD, department officials believe it is difficult to quantify police work.

“The hardest thing to quantify in police work is something that didn’t occur because of a proactive behavior,” CHPD Assistant Chief Paul Brenneman said. “You can’t quantify thefts that didn’t occur because you were in the neighborhood watching out and just being seen — while the bad guys who were out there looking to do something go away, because you were there.”

A career in law enforcement is one that comes with a high level of stress and accountability. When an officer doesn’t make the cut for professionalism and performance in Cottonwood Heights, Russo sees only one way to address the issue.

“I fire you and you go work somewhere else, because I won’t have it,” Russo said.

It’s not often that it gets to a point when an officer has to be let go. The handful of officers who have been terminated for dishonest behavior from CHPD go on Russo’s personal “wall of shame.”

“We don’t allow that type of bad behavior. We want them to be accountable,” Brenneman said. “We can always discount our behaviors and excuse it away to somebody else. And if you transfer that bad behavior to the person holding you accountable, shame on you. And if you think that person holding you accountable is a bully, shame on you.”

During the October interview, Russo and Brenneman addressed the scrutiny the department has faced in regards to allegedly targeting bars and businesses involved in a dispute over planned development.

“I know the argument was made that we were targeting bars — I don’t target bars,” Russo said.

There are times, however, that the CHPD participates in DUI checkpoints with the Utah Highway Safety Office.

“The DUI checkpoint is a very structured environment,” Brenneman said. “There is a criteria that you use to select vehicles. It’s very rigid. It’s authorized by a judge and those behaviors are going to present themselves anyway.”

When DUI checkpoints are in place, it is not uncommon for 17 out of the department’s 39 officers to be mandated to assist the Utah Highway Safety Office with its efforts to reduce impaired driving. 

Gift cards, which were once used as an incentive to keep officers engaged in mandated assignments, are no longer offered to officers working the DUI checkpoints. The practice was perceived poorly by the community who thought there was a correlation between the amount of DUIs issued and gift cards given. Officers haven’t received gift cards for working the checkpoints in over two years.

“First of all, let’s clarify a DUI pull-over. There is no such thing as a DUI pull-over,” Brenneman said. “An officer, when he makes a traffic stop, is based on the behavior of the vehicle in front of him.”

Reasons for an individual to be pulled over on any day vary as much as the questions an officer asks before deciding to turn on the siren. For instance, somebody could run a red light. Was the individual drunk? An officer doesn’t know. Was the driver distracted? An officer doesn’t know. Was somebody trying to just beat the light? An officer doesn’t know. The behavior observed is a driver ran a red light. That is all the officer knows.

Motorists pulled over for impaired driving are presumed impaired when they blow a .08 BAC or higher, but state law also allows for some guilty verdicts with a BAC under .08.

“Just for the record, about half of our DUIs, or something like that, are not alcohol. They’re those prescription drugs, and so that’s a whole new issue,” Russo said.

Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore had an experience with a traffic stop by CHPD when he looked down at a text he received from his wife after leaving his office late one night. The brief distraction was noticed by an officer on patrol and Cullimore was pulled over for veering out of his lane.

“I don’t think there has been any effort to target anywhere in particular,” Cullimore said. “Public safety is number one in Cottonwood Heights.”

When it comes to issuing citations for any reason, including DUIs, CHPD is not focusing on any monetary benefit from fines. Checkpoints are funded by the state, and the city sees very little of the funding according to Russo.

“It doesn’t make us or break us,” Russo said. “If we took into account all of the revenue from the court system, I think we have enough to pay for one or two officers. It’s not a windfall for us. It’s a windfall for the state. They take the lion’s share of it.”

After allegations of bogus DUIs were brought to the department’s attention, files were reviewed in depth to reveal reasons behind any dismissals on record.

A dismissal may have been due to negotiations between a prosecutor and defense attorney, a heavy case load on the court docket or an officer not being able to show up for the court date — such as what happened when one officer was called to military active duty, according to Russo and Brenneman.

“I think that’s where people get a misnomer that a dismissed case is a bad case — that’s not the way it is,” Brenneman said.

One DUI citation requires several hours of paperwork and processing by an officer and extensive follow-up with a court date as well, which is usually during an officer’s off-duty time. The burden of proof lies directly on the officer. And that burden starts with reasonable suspicion.

“We have to have reasonable suspicion to pull you over,” Russo said. “If we don’t have the reasonable suspicion for the stop, then the DUI is no good.”

After several years of allegations from a former Cottonwood Heights bar owner, who claimed his customers were being targeted for DUIs, the police department posted DUI arrest data from 2008 to 2014 online. The data available for public review show that arrests are “evenly distributed,” according to the department’s website. 

“They [DUI arrests] are all over the city and on the major thoroughfares,” Russo said. 

“If we’re not out there doing active enforcement, people are going to continue to push and push and push,” Brenneman said. “Our job is to make sure that everybody is safe.”

Feedback from residents has been mixed with the perception of CHPD — neither all good nor bad. 

Russo has no apologies for the city’s DUI record and neither does Cullimore.

“I am very proud of the fact that I don’t get people hurt in the city,” Russo said. “I expect a lot more than other people, and I don’t apologize for that.”

When Russo became the chief of police, he had three priorities on his agenda.

“If you ever raise your hand to a woman, I’m going to come after you. If you hurt a child, I’m going to come after you. And if you drive drunk or impaired, I’m coming after you,” Russo said.

He also expects his officers to be professional and empathetic. The golden rule of treating others the way one wants to be treated is an expectation for professionalism within the department.

“We have been quite pleased with the law enforcement  effort since forming CHPD,” Cullimore said when asked about the transition from services provided by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office to a locally controlled police department in 2008. 

Improvements are ongoing and include clarifying the complaint process for concerned residents and motorists. 

When formal complaints arise from the community, there is an official process that tracks the issues, but those who call or write in are asked to do so by giving their name and the name of the officer who potentially mishandled a situation.

“We always ask for details and a name. A lot of times people just want to be heard,” Cullimore said. “A phone call, letter or formal complaint on a specific officer has to be signed as truthful.”

“Officers are people. They make mistakes. We need to hold them to a higher standard, but that standard cannot be perfection,” Brenneman said. 

Many times it is after an investigation that the bigger picture comes to light, but an officer has to make a decision in a much shorter amount of time — it may be in seconds — and often with vague or incomplete information.

“Perfect is not attainable. A higher standard is, and we hold them to a higher standard,” Brenneman said. “We ask you to look at the bigger picture.”

Reports by national and local news agencies have focused a conversation about the perceptions of police departments back down to a local level. CHPD is working to change those perceptions and to hold themselves accountable in the meantime.

Visit http://cottonwoodheights.utah.gov/city_services/police for more information about CHPD.

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