News | Crime and Punishment: A fired officer takes on Salt Lake City’s uneven police discipline process 

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Stephanie Boston acknowledges she wasn’t the best officer at the Salt Lake City Police Department. But then—Boston says pointing to a stack of stellar evaluations that continued until she was fired last July—she wasn’t the worst. Especially compared to what some officers get away with.

Boston is one of a small number of Salt Lake City police officers each year who appeal police disciplinary decisions to the city’s Civil Service Commission. She is one of a handful ever to take the next step by protesting an unfavorable commission decision before Utah’s Court of Appeals.

It isn’t that Boston wants her job back. Though she loved police work, she is now attending paralegal classes. But Boston says she’s pressing her case to expose an arbitrary discipline process at the Salt Lake City Police Department—where an officer with stacks of letters of praise is canned for procedural gaffes while another, who stands by while his girlfriend smokes dope, gets a wrist slap.

“I don’t expect it to change, Boston says. “But at least, maybe, the public will see what things are actually like.”

Boston was hired by the Salt Lake Police Department five years ago. Her record contains little of note until May 2005, where a black mark shines. Boston responded to a reckless driver, finding a juvenile and a pot pipe. She turned the teen over to his mother and smashed the pipe at the scene, rather than booking it into evidence.

“It was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it,” she says. She was docked 80 hours pay.

A year and a half passed before Boston was again disciplined—this time for the two offenses that would get her fired. In one, she responded to a car abandoned after a traffic accident, later finding the driver, who looked like he’d been drinking, at his home. Police administrators said Boston should have run the guy for DUI. Boston says she didn’t know that was possible. She asked for DUI training, even offering to pay.

The second incident was for not filing a formal report after investigating a complaint of stolen tools. Boston claims she followed routine procedure. Witnesses at her Civil Service Commission hearing backed her up.

But looking at the missed DUI opportunity and missing report, together with Boston’s previous discipline, Police Chief Chris Burbank found a pattern that showed she wasn’t learning from mistakes. Boston was fired. The city’s Civil Service Commission unanimously upheld the firing on Jan. 22.

Boston doesn’t get it. She notes in the year that followed the pot pipe incident she was showered with praise. Her annual review that year—her last—notes Boston led her squad both for finding lawbreakers during patrol and in making warrant arrests. Boston’s reviews constantly praised her initiative and her “detailed” and “well written” reports.

Martha Stonebrook, Salt Lake City attorney and legal adviser to the police department, says the city would not comment, except through court filings, while Boston’s case was being appealed.

Boston claims confusion about what constitutes a firing offense at the Salt Lake City Police Department.

She points to police union president Tom Gallegos who received a “nondisciplinary interview” and two written reprimands for a series of actions deemed sexually inappropriate by administrators, including sexual harassment and e-mailing sexually explicit photos.

Greg Skordas, Boston’s attorney, says her problem was office politics. Because Boston wasn’t “one of the good ol’ boys,” offenses that would have been overlooked in others were reported for disciplinary investigation. Her go-getter attitude made extra work and didn’t make Boston many friends.

Skordas, frequently the first call for police officers in trouble, says it’s the harshest punishment he’s ever seen.

At the Civil Service Commission, he tried to make the case that Boston’s punishment didn’t fit her crime but found it nearly impossible.

Upholding Boston’s firing, the commission wrote that although Boston’s overall record was “exemplary,” she had recently shown “persistant lack of judgment” and didn’t have evidence she was treated worse than others. Police administration testified other officers had been fired for less. Skordas said he couldn’t prove otherwise because Utah law makes some police discipline documents secret.

During the current legislative session, a bill was proposed to further increase the secrecy surrounding police discipline. The measure died in committee after its sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, withdrew support.

Skordas generally believes minor police discipline should be kept secret because police are magnets for unfounded complaints. But for Boston’s appeal hopes, he says, such secrecy was “a fatal problem.”

If the Civil Service Commission had been able to compare Boston’s record with 10 years of other police employees, she would still have a job, Skordas contends.

City Weekly found a few examples. In 2007, an officer received a written reprimand and denial of take-home car privileges after an off-duty sheriff’s deputy saw him weaving in and out of traffic and speeding on Bangerter Highway. The officer had six previous incidents of bad driving—including driving at 100 mph in the high-occupancy-vehicle lane—none of which garnered more than a written reprimand.

Yet another officer was already a two-time violator of a ban on moonlighting at nightclubs when he was written up in 2007. Additionally, he had already been written up but not otherwise punished for allowing a woman with whom he was having a relationship to smoke marijuana in front of him and allowing the woman’s 15-year-old to drive a car.

Most recently, according to police discipline documents, the officer and his partner were riding in the officer’s patrol car when the partner found what he believed to be a container of marijuana inside. The disciplined officer told him to throw the container out.

For that, he got a written reprimand.

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