PHOENIX (AP) — A key witness in the federal government’s effort to disband the police department in a polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border told a judge Monday that officers routinely turn a blind eye to property crimes.
Jeff Barlow, executive director of the trust that owns most of the real estate in the twin polygamous towns, said officers work against his group in carrying out evictions on homes and commercial properties in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah.
Barlow said the police department, known as the Colorado City Marshal’s Office, won’t investigate cases where soon-to-be-evicted residents rip out water heaters, air conditioning units and other fixtures from the trust-owned homes. He also said officers routinely let residents ignore eviction notices on houses that are not supposed to be occupied.
“There is absolutely nothing done about it by the Marshal’s Office,” Barlow said of property crimes committed at the homes. “It continues to be prevalent.”
The trust wants a federal judge to appoint a receiver to overhaul the police department and government in the towns, which vigorously oppose those requests.
The four-day hearing in Phoenix is examining remedies that U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland could order in response to a jury’s finding in a civil rights case seven months ago that nonbelievers were denied police protection, building permits and water hookups in the towns.
Lawyers for the towns say police departments in other municipalities that have been targeted in federal civil rights investigations have not faced remedies as drastic as disbandment. They acknowledged the department has had problems in the past, but they said no officers have been decertified since 2007.
Barlow testified that the trust’s property manager has repeatedly been threatened with trespassing charges by officers as he tries to carry out evictions. The property manager brings a videographer along as a form of protection.
Officers stopped evictions on 10 commercial properties — including a gas station and warehouse — by claiming the locations were residences. Barlow said the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office investigated and later discovered seven of the 10 were commercial properties.
The civil rights case against the towns marks one of the battles the federal government is waging to rein in the sect’s activities, which prosecutors say are dictated by their jailed leader and prophet, Warren Jeffs. He is serving a life sentence in a Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered wives.
Also this year, federal prosecutors charged 11 group members, including several high-ranking leaders, with carrying out a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme over several years. The suspects have pleaded not guilty, and they are awaiting trial.
In the Arizona civil rights case, the jury found the Colorado City Marshal’s Office violated the rights of nonbelievers by breaking the First Amendment’s promise that the government won’t show preference to a particular faith and force religion upon people.
Jurors concluded that officers treated nonbelievers inequitably when providing police protection, arrested them without having probable cause and made unreasonable searches of their property.
At trial this spring, the towns denied the discrimination allegations and said the government was persecuting town officials because it disapproved of their faith.
The U.S. Justice Department said the police force is afflicted by an entrenched culture of following the edicts of Jeffs, at the expense of the rights of nonbelievers. The federal agency also has asked the judge to appoint an official to monitor town operations and get county sheriffs to take over policing duties.
Federal authorities alleged the towns operated as an arm 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.
Written by JACQUES BILLEAUD, Associated Press.
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