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Davis Journal

The pros and cons about public access to Garrity statements

Sep 30, 2022 11:22AM ● By Tom Haraldsen

Last week, I finished an eight-year run (two four-year terms) as a member of the Utah State Records Committee. If you aren’t familiar with the SRC, it’s a seven-member committee of volunteers from many facets of the community, appointed by the governor, that reviews public records requests from government agencies. It’s been meeting monthly for more than 30 years, and in May of 2021, the SRC, ironically at a meeting I missed due to a work conflict, awarded the Salt Lake Tribune access to internal police interview records from West Jordan’s police department known as Garrity statements. 

This request was for records involving Michael Glad, who was shot and killed by West Jordan police officers in 2018 after Glad had robbed a convenience store and pointed a gun at officers before getting behind the wheel of a police truck and driving away. He was shot as he tried to flee. West Jordan PD appealed the SRC decision on release of the records to Third District Court.

Garrity statements originated in the 1960s, when the New Jersey attorney general began investigating allegations of traffic tickets being “fixed” in the townships of Bellmawr and Barrington. The investigation focused on Bellmawr police chief Edward Garrity and five other employees. They were given their constitutional rights of refusing to answer questions to avoid self-incrimination, but also told refusing to answer could lead to their termination. They subsequently answered the investigators’ questions, and were convicted, and the “Garrity” statement name was born.

Since then, law enforcement agencies nationwide have fought to protect those internal investigation findings from being released. In August, Third District Court Judge Vernice Trease ruled against the WJ police department, writing that the public’s right to access the records “substantially” outweighed the privacy concerns that West Jordan raised.

A victory for the public, right. Or was it?

“If an officer chooses not to give a Garrity statement when they are being investigated, they could be disciplined just for that,” said Ed Biehler, Bountiful’s police chief. “We can order that officer to answer our questions for internal purposes, but it puts them in a situation where they have to make a choice – not answer and be disciplined, or answer with the possibility that their answers could make it to the media down the road. There’s the question of an employee’s rights, and for law enforcement in particular, it might be a tough call to make. As a chief, it gives me pause as to how I’d use Garrity in the future.”

The 2022 state legislature did make a law change this year to restrict some access to these documents from internal investigations. Future requests like those made to West Jordan won’t be quite so open ended. Ogden lawmaker Ryan Wilcox sponsored the bill that Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law in March. He argued that many elements of these Garrity statements are of a very personal, sensitive nature, such as a report that one local police chief stayed up until 2:30 a.m. one morning crying with another officer whose K-9 had been killed. Probably not information the public needs to know, but info subject to public access if everything in a Garrity statement is available.

“These internal reports allow us to discipline people when necessary coming out of a Garrity interview right now,” Biehler said. “I’m not sure what happens with departments next time if they don’t feel they can protect some of those reports.”

He said it could cause a hesitancy of some officers to answer questions, or even of some department leaders to conduct interviews.

Biehler said he understands the public’s desire to have all information from investigations to be made public, but adds that “again, when you talk about people’s rights, police officers deserve the same rights as anyone else. They have the right to a fair trial, and public disclosure of information that’s part of a department's internal investigation could deprive them of that.” λ