Feds call for judge to disband police in polygamous towns

This file photo shows a Hildale/Colorado City Marshal's vehicle parked near the Hildale City Hall, Hildale, Utah, Sept. 19, 2015 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The police department in a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border is inflicted by an entrenched culture of following sect leader edicts at the expense of the constitutional rights of nonbelievers and should be disbanded, the federal government recommended Friday in a new court filing.

Outside agencies such as local county sheriffs need to handle the duties because of the deep-rooted control of the town marshals by leaders of a polygamous sect run by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs, the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys said.

The recommendations are proposed punishment for the towns after a jury in Phoenix found in March that the towns denied non-sect followers of basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups.

A federal judge has set a four-day hearing in October to address the issue. Attorneys for the towns said the government is asking for unprecedented action that is unwarranted.

Justice attorneys say less severe remedies, such as assigning an outside monitor to the department, wouldn’t be sufficient to change the culture. They say 30 percent of town marshals over the last 15 years have been decertified, including four chiefs since Warren Jeffs took over in the early 2000s.

It is not the first time authorities have called for elimination of the department — attorneys general in Utah and Arizona have been making similar calls for years — but this one has weight because it’s the federal government and comes on the heels of the victory in the civil rights case.

The government is also asking a judge to assign an independent monitor to watch over municipal staff in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, and have access to city meetings and documents.

“It’s exactly what needs to happen,” said Richard Holm, a government witness who left the sect in 2003 but still lives in the area. “To have the light of day shone on all those city council meetings and all that goes on there through open and independent set of eyes is very important.”

Under the government’s proposed punishment, Colorado City would also approve a plan to subdivide properties. The delay of that plan has prevented Utah from reassigning properties that are part of a church trust taken over by the state more than a decade ago after allegations of mismanagement.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes he backs the plan “if adequate law enforcement resources can be found as a replacement.” Justice attorneys don’t offer specifics about how it would work other than saying the towns would contract with outside agencies for policing and dispatch.

Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton said they’ll fight against a proposal that is unwarranted.

“We’re not talking about a pattern of civil rights violations like the deep South. We’re not talking about people being raped and beaten,” Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton said. “We’re talking about people claiming religious discrimination.”

The towns denied the allegations during the trial and said the government was persecuting town officials because it disapproves of their religion.

Colorado City attorney Jeff Matura said no town officer has been decertified by Utah or Arizona state policing agencies for at least eight years.

“The government is saying these officers should lose their jobs because of their religious beliefs,” Matura said. “That’s a pretty dangerous path to walk down.”

The civil rights trial marked one of the boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have long said was a corrupt regime in the two towns. The seven-week trial provided a rare glimpse into the communities that for years have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders.

As part of a $1.6 million settlement, nine people in the communities will each receive $173,000. The towns and their water utility also will each pay a $55,000 civil penalty.

The towns were accused of doing the bidding of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

The civil rights trial is one of several fights being waged by the government to rein in church activities.

Eleven church members are facing fraud and money laundering charges on accusations of orchestrating a multimillion-dollar food stamp scheme that diverted at least $12 million worth of federal benefits. The defendants, which include high-ranking leader Lyle Jeffs, have pleaded not guilty.

The U.S. Labor Department has a separate action against a ranch with ties to the church over a pecan harvest in which prosecutors allege children were forced to work long hours with few breaks.

During the civil rights trial, the Justice Department said town employees assisted the group’s leader when he was a fugitive and took orders from church leaders about whom to appoint to government jobs.

They say local police ignored the food stamp fraud scheme and marriages between men and underage brides.

One woman who was denied a water connection testified that she had to haul water to her home and take away sewage for six years. A former sect member said police ignored hundreds of complaints of vandalism on his horse property because he was no longer part of the church.

“Given this determined, decades-engrained resistance to ensuring that its law enforcement officers adhere to the rule of law, no measure short of disbandment stands a realistic chance of bringing defendants’ policing services into accord with the Constitution,” Justice attorney said.

Story by BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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