PHOENIX (CN) – A law enforcement agency overseeing two towns on the Arizona-Utah border that are dominated by a polygamous Mormon sect should not be disbanded, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice sought to disband the Colorado City Marshal’s Office, which serves the communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, as part of a religious discrimination lawsuit it filed against the towns in 2012.
In the complaint, the Justice Department claimed the towns denied non-members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints access to police protection and utilities.
In March 2016, a jury granted $2.2 million in damages to six residents as part of the DOJ suit who claimed they were denied water service, housing and police protection because they were not members of the church. The church is led from prison by its “prophet,” Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life prison term in Texas for sexually abusing two girls that he deemed his “spiritual wives.”
The Justice Department sought the disbandment of the Marshal’s Office as part of a weeklong hearing in October, due to the office’s supposed entanglement with the FLDS church.
During the hearing, the court heard testimony from neighboring law enforcement in Utah’s Washington County and Arizona’s Mohave County, stating the Marshal’s Office hid children involved in custody disputes and would not comply with a federally appointed monitor. The agencies both testified they would be willing to pick up law enforcement duties for the towns if the Marshal’s Office was disbanded.
It also heard from Colorado City Chief Marshal Jerry Darger, who told the court federal intervention would do more harm to the communities, which have harbored distrust of the federal government since a 1953 raid on the largely polygamist towns resulted in the arrests of 122 adults.
In a ruling issued late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland found the appointment of an independent mentor for Darger would best serve the Marshal’s Office.
“Despite the foregoing deficiencies, the court finds that the problems at the CCMO are not so grave that the court should deprive the citizens of the defendant cities of the opportunity to police themselves,” Holland wrote. “The court deems disbandment of the CCMO as a last resort that should be employed only if less drastic remedies fail.”
Holland shot down the Justice Department’s requests to have neighboring Washington and Mohave counties take over law enforcement duties in Hildale and Colorado City as “unreasonably expensive.”
“Disbandment would approximately double the cost of law enforcement for the Short Creek community or would necessitate a reduction in police protection,” Holland found. Short Creek is a name used within the community to describe the two towns.
Instead, an outside consultant and independent mentor should be appointed to make sure the agency abides by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and is properly trained and supervised.
Once the consultant is agreed upon, the cities must work to determine new hiring guidelines for the Marshal’s Office, as well as procedures for internal affairs investigations. They are also required to buy body cameras for each officer.
Under the order, the cities are required to provide yearly training to officers on the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, state and federal Fair Housing Acts, landlord/tenant laws and trespass laws.
Holland’s ruling also orders the appointment of a monitor to oversee housing decisions made by Colorado City and Hildale.
Colorado City must participate in the subdivision of homes and property by the United Effort Plan Trust, a Utah-run trust that holds nearly all of the town’s properties. Hildale was already ordered by a Utah court to subdivide.
Blake Hamilton, an attorney for the Hildale, said in an email that the cities are hopeful the tools provided in Holland’s order help move them to a “better future.”
“As rural, isolated, communities founded by religious pioneers, Hildale and Colorado City have always recognized that there have been some issues in their collective past,” Hamilton wrote. “While we do not agree with all of the court’s findings today, we respect the court and acknowledge that like any community there is room for improvement.
“The fact that the court did not terminate any city employees or disband the Marshal’s Office as the Department of Justice requested gives the cities hope that they can take this opportunity to improve the services they provide to all of their citizens.”