The movement to uproot racial injustice in our law enforcement system is forcing communities across the nation to ask: what could we be doing better? Earlier this month, the Moab City Police Department pledged to review their use of force policy and engage community members within that process. We check in with Chief Bret Edge about accountability, and what he thinks could create a more equitable and unbiased local police force.
KZMU NEWS: Let’s start off with a little bit of background. So if my math is correct, you have been in law enforcement for 14 years with the Moab City Police Department. You were hired in 2019 to replace Jim Winder. We spoke at the beginning of your tenure as chief and back then you intimated to me how much you loved being a police officer. You loved engaging with the community, you said you loved ‘helping people’ and that it also provided a stable income for your family. So are these things still ringing true for you in this moment as chief?
BRET EDGE: Absolutely – maybe even more than ever. You know, the current – I don’t know if political environment is the right way to put it – but the current environment can be really difficult and challenging for police officers. And I think it’s I think it’s an opportunity for us to step up and really show the community that we are part of the community. We’re there working hand-in-hand with them. Here in Moab, I think we do a really good job of that. There’s always room for improvement but I think we do a really good job of that. And so, having an opportunity to engage with people not just at the large protest on Friday [June 5th]…I also attended one on a smaller one on Monday. You know just, engage with people about that and answer sometimes difficult but very honest and frank questions in an open and comfortable environment where we don’t feel under as much pressure. And maybe the protesters that we were speaking to felt a little bit more comfortable in approaching us and asking some of those difficult questions. But as a member of the community I think it’s as important now if not more than ever.
KZMU NEWS: You’ve been out in the community during these smaller demonstrations and the bigger one that happened on June 5th…What are some of those conversations that you and other officers have been engaging in on the street?
BRET EDGE: A lot of use-of-force questions. A lot of questions about implicit bias. I would say probably the same questions that are being asked nationwide.
KZMU NEWS: So related to the national conversation. When we spoke last year, we were talking at a very different time. We are now in a pandemic; we are also in a moment where the U.S. is acknowledging systemic racism in a way that we may not have seen before. And yes, it’s definitely related to law enforcement, but we’re also seeing this conversation in healthcare, in education, in housing – in all of these different ways that racism shows up which is pretty much everywhere. So I’m curious how you are understanding this national moment on both a personal level and also as Moab City’s Police Chief?
BRET EDGE: As I said it’s an important conversation. And being a white male, I really haven’t ever been the subject of racism or really discrimination of any kind. So for me to say that I understand is not accurate or fair. I really don’t – I can’t. But I think it’s an important conversation. I hate that it’s taken this long and taken so many critical incidents, I guess you would say, to bring us to this conversation. It seems like this is something that we should have dealt with 40, 50, 60 years ago or more and that we shouldn’t still be dealing with it. It’s embarrassing that we are. But I guess what I would say is – better late than never. And I’m glad that we are finally acknowledging it as a nation and as human beings. And it seems like this time there’s more momentum behind it and there’s more action that’s being taken.
KZMU NEWS: And you’re seeing people demonstrate in far off corners like Moab.
BRET EDGE: Right.
KZMU NEWS: [That’s] pretty significant. So like we’ve been saying, there was the larger Moab protest on June 5th, but in the days prior to that demonstration there were some smaller demonstrations in front of the information center. And on one of those days, a demonstrator told me that one Moab police officer said that he supported what they were doing but ‘there is no racism here.’ And I bring it up because I think this is a sentiment that I’ve heard in other predominantly white communities as well. And I don’t think it’s present with just that one officer but in some circles across our citizenry as well. So could you comment on that? What do you make of that statement – there is no racism here?
BRET EDGE: I spoke to that officer and his intent with the statement was that there is no racism within the Moab City Police Department. He acknowledged, and he said ‘I’m not ignorant. Of course there’s racism – there’s racism everywhere. But do I believe that it exists here in the Moab City Police Department? No I don’t.’ So given the context in which the conversation happened – around the protest – he was making a statement that ‘no it’s not an issue with our police department.’ And maybe he should have clarified that a little bit better. But he certainly does not believe that there is no racism in Moab. I don’t know any of us who believe that.
KZMU NEWS: And do you feel confident [saying] there’s no racism within the structure of our local PD?
BRET EDGE: I do.
KZMU NEWS: What makes you feel that way?
BRET EDGE: Being a small agency, I know everyone who works at the police department personally and I know their ethics, I know their morals, I know their work ethic. Having been there 14 years, I’ve never seen race or anything else play a factor into how an officer dealt with the situation or with an incident. Being in a bigger agency I think it would be harder. But because we’re so small and I do know everyone – I don’t see it.
If I may, I would like to add that one the buzzwords right now is implicit bias. And though I haven’t seen any direct racism…implicit bias – it exists. No matter how hard we try to push biases down or ignore them sometimes they do play into a decision that we may make. And so I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it in action, but I think it would be ignorant for me to say, ‘nope there’s no issue, we’re perfect human beings, there’s nothing going on.’ So I have to acknowledge that while I haven’t seen any blatant racism at all – there is the matter that implicit bias may impact officers’ decisions at some point or another.
That said, we did have implicit bias training in 2016. It’s been four years since we’ve had that. Given the recent conversations, it really brought it to the forefront. And so we are looking to bring that back to Moab for all of our staff. Not just our officers, but all of our staff. And we are making [implicit bias training] and de-escalation training part of our mandatory annual training. So from this point forward every year we’ll have both de-escalation training and implicit bias training.
KZMU NEWS: That was one of my questions so thank you for addressing that – if implicit bias training and de-escalation training were going to become a more regular part of the force.
BRET EDGE: Absolutely. We actually had de-escalation training scheduled for Spring and then COVID happened so we had to cancel it. But we’re rescheduling that one most likely [in] August. But yeah, we are going to be bringing that one in this year and then every year going forward.
KZMU NEWS: Now let’s talk about this proclamation that was made at the beginning of June. A pledge basically, that was signed by you and the mayor stating that the city will review and examine the police department’s use of force policy. We’re speaking on Monday [June 23rd]. You’re about to present to the city council on Tuesday [June 24th]. Now the proclamation said the community would be engaged during the use of force review, so how is that going to happen going forward?
BRET EDGE: What we’re looking at doing is partnering with some of the community organizations that we have relationships with already. We haven’t reached out to anyone yet because we’re still in the build-out phase. But partners like Seekhaven [Family Crisis & Resource Center], the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, Four Corners [Behavioral Health] etcetera. So right now we’re looking to identify several partners throughout the Grand County area with whom we could work to do a policy review.
KZMU NEWS: So you’d reach out to existing organizations…
BRET EDGE: We haven’t yet. We will. We’re identifying what organizations that we think would be valuable partners for the reviews. And then once we’ve identified those partners we’ll reach out to them. We may start with eight or nine, under the anticipation that one or two may say ‘no thanks.’ You don’t want it to be too large that it becomes cumbersome, but we want enough representation that it’s fair and that we get a good sampling from the community.
KZMU NEWS: Now I know it’s going to be focused on the use of force policy in particular, but what if something else comes up in those conversations? If there’s an organization that [says], ‘I’m really interested in a civilian review board’ or something else along those lines. Will the PD be open to other conversations?
BRET EDGE: Absolutely. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to do it, but we’re open to those conversations.
KZMU NEWS: We saw with the county [during their June 16th Conversation on Race & Justice] …a focused conversation during the first half, because the Sheriff’s Office reviewed some of the policies the public was most interested in. And then when the public was given an opportunity to speak, it seemed like there were other things beyond just those policies that they wanted to address. So that’s why I bring it up.
BRET EDGE: Absolutely. One thing I would also mention, not just about the use of force policy but all of our policies…We contract with a company called Lexipol who has a staff of attorneys and former law enforcement executives – people who are much smarter than I am. And they provide not only our policy but the Sheriff’s Office policy and policy for law enforcement and public safety agencies nationwide. So they regularly review policies and they take into consideration individual changes to state law, national legislation, best practices – a whole host of considerations. So we’ve been using them now for somewhere between two and three years. And with their regular reviews, I feel confident that the policies that that are coming down the pipe are really good, really solid legal-reviewed policies.
That said, we also have the ability to customize those policies. So if they send something down and we look at it and say, ‘well that’s great but it doesn’t quite work for a 15 officer agency.’ We can customize that as well. So it’s a really, really good system and while I’m certainly open to it and welcoming the citizen review. I’m very proud of the fact that [the policy] wasn’t written 20 years ago and we’ve been using it ever since. It’s regularly reviewed as it is.
KZMU NEWS: Actually I did have a question about [policy] specific to chokeholds and strangleholds. I know that Governor Gary Herbert banned chokeholds for all state level law enforcement. And then last week the [state] legislature banned police from using knee-on-neck chokeholds which killed George Floyd. So in your presentation to the council, you note that Utah’s police academy doesn’t teach chokeholds or strangleholds and that your department also doesn’t train with them. But the [Moab City Police Department] policy doesn’t say anything explicit about them. Do you think that could change or needs to change – [explicitly] banning them?
BRET EDGE: I think it could change; I don’t know that it needs to change. In the time I’ve been here we’ve never used it. We’ve never been trained on it. In law enforcement, everything you do – if you’re not certified in it, you just don’t do it. So things as mundane as riding a bike. We can’t go out on bike patrol until we’ve had 40 hours of training in bike patrol. Even though you may have been a mountain biker for 30 years, until the police department says ‘yes, you’re good enough at riding a bike that we will pay you to go and do this’ – you can’t do until you’re certified. And it’s not just with us – this is just law enforcement and I think in a broader sense, public safety. But certainly in law enforcement, if you’re not trained and certified on it you don’t do it because you don’t have the protections – the department protections, the liability protections, etcetera. That’s not to say that there aren’t cops who violate policy because obviously there are. But it’s not a defensive tactic that we’ve ever trained, ever learned on. And that goes from the time we all went to the academy to now.
KZMU NEWS: So in previous conversations with you and other people in law enforcement, [I’ve heard] training is so critical because you kick into your training when you’re in the situation and it’s almost like muscle memory. So do you feel confident that your officers won’t suddenly go beyond training and use something that isn’t really approved by the department?
BRET EDGE: You can’t account for every situation. If an officer is in a fight for their life on the ground and they can’t get to one of the tools that they need because they’re on the ground, and their belt is obstructed or whatever…If it’s a lethal force situation and they have to use a chokehold or whatever to protect themselves or the public – I’m not going to say that they won’t do it. And if that were the case and the facts supported the fact that they were in a lethal force situation and that was the only way that they could protect whomever they needed to protect…then it is what it is.
KZMU NEWS: Let’s talk about the use of force analysis. This is supposed to be done annually according to [Moab City Police Department] policy by the patrol sergeant and then submitted to you as Chief of Police. In the policy, it says the use of force analysis should mark any trends in those incidents and [make training, equipment, and policy recommendations and identify needs]. Before we spoke, you said that no use of force analysis reports have actually been done before 2020, but you are in the process of developing the capability to do so. Could you expand upon that?
BRET EDGE: Correct. So the records management system that we use does have the ability to record use of force, type of force used, whether there were injuries, etcetera. And until this point it’s never been mandatory to use that. So going forward we are requiring officers to complete that use of force section anytime force is used, and that will allow us to run reports at any time [and] obviously annually. That’ll give us information about how officers are using force and what the results of that is.
KZMU NEWS: Okay, so that’s something that’s going to happen going forward.
BRET EDGE: Yes.
KZMU NEWS: Was that inspired by this national moment at all?
BRET EDGE: Yes, partially. I would say 50-50. Part of it was inspired by the national movement. The other part of it – it’s been in the policy for two years. I’ve only been the chief now for just over a year and so discovering it in the policy, it kind of made me realize – ‘hey this is something we have to do.’ The way the policy was written it was the patrol sergeant who’s supposed to produce it. I really don’t feel like it’s a patrol sergeant responsibility so I’ve assigned it to our assistant chief and he’s currently working on that now.
KZMU NEWS: So with the use of force policy, the term ‘reasonableness’ is brought up a lot. I know that’s very standard in law enforcement agencies. I also know there’s a long, ongoing public debate about this term and how it protects officers, which you and I are not going to solve in this interview. But I just bring it up to talk about this next policy of [Moab City Police Department’s] which is – if an officer sees another officer using force beyond which is ‘objectively reasonable,’ that officer should intercede and then report the incident to the supervisor. Did I get that right?
BRET EDGE: You did.
KZMU NEWS: So I think this is an interesting policy for a couple reasons. I’m going to bring up the past here, because when I was the staff writer at The Times-independent and reporting on the very notable time period that was 2016 at the police department, I spoke to several officers. And I do want to say that all of the officers I spoke to are no longer at the police department and there was different leadership at the time. But several alleged that they thought certain police officers got protection from the administration, and others did not. So when it comes to cops interceding and calling out other cops, whether it’s unreasonable use of force or much smaller violations of code…how likely do you think your officers are to do that? You set the tone for the department as the chief, your patrol sergeants also set the tone with officers…are you and your leadership creating a culture that encourages officers to come forward with any issues?
BRET EDGE: Absolutely. And I can tell you that nothing upsets a cop more than a bad cop. So when officers see videos of some of the recent incidents, nothing upsets us more than that. Because good officers – which is probably 99% of them – work so hard to create trust in the community, to do the right thing, to serve their community to the best of their ability. And then when something like that happens, it destroys all the hard work that the good cops have done. Yes, absolutely – if one of our officers did see something that was questionable or that violated policy, any use of excessive force, anything like that – I’m confident that they would report it.
KZMU NEWS: So how would you say that you as chief have helped to instill that culture change at the department? Are there some examples of that culture shifting?
BRET EDGE: I think one of the things that we have identified and really started to work on is just accountability as a whole. You can’t hold people accountable for the big things if you don’t hold them accountable for the small things. So sometimes it’s a struggle, because you may have an employee that has a minor issue and if you don’t deal with it – it can snowball into bigger and bigger issues. So since I assumed the role of chief, we’ve really been pushing accountability and dealing with whatever those small issues are so we can prevent them from becoming larger issues.
KZMU NEWS: So we’re mentioning the past. Let me just briefly summarize 2016 at the Moab Police Department. In 2016 there were five Internal Affairs investigations conducted on four officers at the MPD. The State Bureau of Investigation got involved, POST was there, the FBI did a short review but ultimately did not pursue a case. Like I said, four officers were under investigation. Three have left, but one is now back after getting clearance from our current county attorney’s office.
So at the time, the then-county attorney and others familiar with our local justice system intimated that it was the leadership and overall system at MPD that kind of allowed officers to make mistakes. And I bring it up because I think at the moment there’s an appetite across the nation to move beyond the ‘bad apple’ argument and into more systemic reform. So do you think the past at MPD has informed any systemic change and could it still during this current moment of more heightened public scrutiny?
BRET EDGE: Yeah I do think it has informed change. I don’t think any of us who were at the police department now want to go back to the way things were done in the past and to the issues that we were dealing with then. So speaking for myself I can tell you I certainly don’t, especially in the position that I’m in now. You know, it’s always more difficult to police a community when you don’t have trust and respect from the community. And so we’ve worked hard over the last four years to build that respect and build the trust. And I think we’re in a position now where we have that. We can always do better and I intend to continue to look for ways that we can do better. But yeah, I believe that the past certainly informed what we’re doing now.
KZMU NEWS: And I know there were some changes…you have said that things [got] more streamlined with the evidence room and equipment masters…So when it comes to change can you give us some examples of practical and cultural shifts that have been made?
BRET EDGE: There were things like – we never had a quartermaster. So when we would get a new officer, you had four people who were trying to put together the initial equipment package for that officer. And it was always incomplete. There was some lack of accountability because when that officer left – two, three [years] down the road, there really wasn’t any way to track who was issued what. So just as one example, we created a quartermaster program where we’ve inventoried everything that the department owns. And when anything is issued out to an officer it’s recorded on their equipment list. And then when they turn it in or when they quit or move assignments or whatever the case may be, the supervisor goes through that list and says ‘okay, well where is A-B-C?’ So things like that.
We never had a training coordinator before. We now have a training coordinator whose auxiliary responsibility – we’re too small to have just a training coordinator and that’s all they do. So everybody who is doing these responsibilities is first a police officer or sergeant or an office manager…But we have a training coordinator who is responsible for ensuring that all officers get the bare minimum 40 hours of required annual training. I couldn’t even tell you the last time anybody had just 40 hours, it’s usually well over that. And that particular person is always on the lookout for trainings that could be valuable to us beyond what is required.
We have a fleet manager who also has an assistant. Both of them are police officers and they manage the police department fleet. So they’re ensuring cars are in working order. When the leases are coming up that new vehicles are being ordered, that we have all the necessary equipment – things like that. So we have a lot of those different secondary assignments now that allow us to keep records of what we have and what we’re doing and allow us to just maintain accountability for things that we really didn’t have before that.
KZMU NEWS: And I can imagine – for example the training piece. I’ve heard former officers complain that they never got enough training after asking for it. But you’re saying there’s now a protocol in place – or a person in place – to be in charge of officers getting those hours and perhaps beyond those hours.
BRET EDGE: I think when [former Police Chief] Jim Winder arrived he prioritized training and really helped us to get a good healthy budget for training and figure out where our deficiencies were. And that’s something that I’ve continued and intend to continue for as long as I’m here. Obviously in law enforcement, the landscape is dynamic. So the more training we can provide to our officers on various different topics the more valuable they’re going to be to the community and better able to do their jobs.
KZMU NEWS: I understand that Moab is dealing with different issues in some ways than other cities are grappling with right now. We are part of this overall culture though, of course. But I think what’s happening is this national conversation is forcing local communities to look at their law enforcement and ask – what could be done better? And we touched on this organically, but I think the connecting theme is accountability. As of this moment, what is on the top of your mind when it comes to creating a more equitable, more unbiased local police? What is on the top of your mind as [Moab City] Police Chief?
BRET EDGE: That’s a good question and I’m not sure that there’s a single answer to it. I can’t say that ‘A’ is the most important thing…But if I had to pick a couple things I would say community engagement. Over the last three or four years we’ve made a concerted effort to get out into the community and to meet with people and in environments where we’re not there because they called us for a problem…it’s just an open environment where people hopefully feel more comfortable talking to police. So building relationships that way with the community. Continuing to build relationships with community organizations.
And then training. Just continue to train and focus on recruiting the highest quality people that we can get. I attended a training recently and one of the points the instructor made was that you should hire for attitude, not necessarily for skills, because you can always train skills. And it occurred to me that that’s kind of what we’ve been doing. I want people who are positive, who have a good work ethic, who have good morals…who are members of the community and want to be members of the community and part of the solution. And then we can train them to be cops. That’s not an issue. So I think those are probably the three priorities – recruiting, training, and community engagement.
KZMU NEWS: Is there anything else you wanted to mention with the Moab City Police Department when it comes to what’s happening now with this review or really anything at all?
BRET EDGE: We’re open. We look forward to the review, we look forward to community engagement, to hearing from community members about what we can do better. Nobody is under any illusion that we’re perfect and that we’ve got this little utopia that we’re living in. We want to be better. And if the community has suggestions and things that they think we can improve upon we want to hear them.
Moab City Police Department 6/23 Presentation: Maintaining Standards Beyond Community Expectations
Moab City Police Department 2019 Annual Report