An organization in turmoil cannot operate effectively.
And the Weber County Sheriff’s Office is in turmoil, which puts the public at risk.
In 2014, when Utah led the nation in per capita jail deaths, at least seven prisoners died in the Weber County Jail. Records show 24 inmates died in custody between 2005 and 2017. Only one Utah jail recorded more in-custody deaths during those 12 years — Salt Lake County, serving a far bigger community, with 48.
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Yet even as Sheriff Terry Thompson argued that the deaths in his lockup proved statistically insignificant, he also tried to keep two deaths off the books by pointing out the prisoners didn’t die in jail.
They both died in the hospital — one of organ failure, the other of injuries suffered in a suicide attempt.
- RELATED: “Dying in jail: Investigating Northern Utah jail deaths.”
Now, the county faces a lawsuit filed by the mother of one of those prisoners, Ashley Jessop, who died of liver failure and other causes in March 2016. The family of Marion Herrera also sued the county after she died in jail while withdrawing from heroin three months later.
But the jail wasn’t the only part of the sheriff’s office in tumult.
On Dec. 8, someone found a technician intoxicated in the evidence room. Tests found methamphetamine in her system.
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She later admitted using meth from 15 to 20 criminal case files. Thompson fired her effective Jan. 12 — a day after Thompson announced he did not intend to seek a third term.
Enter Kevin Burns.
Burns supervised the evidence room at the sheriff’s office at the time of the technician’s meth use, but even so, Thompson promoted him to chief corrections deputy. Clearly on his way up the ladder, Burns filed as a candidate for sheriff March 9.
A month later, Thompson forced Burns out of the department.
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Thompson said an internal investigation found Burns responsible for a long list of infractions, including “neglect of duty, failure to supervise, failure to report incompetent work, omitting information and failure to report information to a supervisor, failure to report misconduct by an employee, failure to report damage to the evidence room and disparaging remarks about fellow staff.”
Burns said he quit in order to protect his pension benefits.
“I retired because I was being forced out of my career by a vindictive, politically motivated attempt to blame me for the crimes committed by a former evidence custodian under my supervision,” Burns said in a Wednesday statement.
- RELATED: “Ousted sheriff's deputy says he's a scapegoat for evidence problems”
Burns also said he intended to remain a candidate at the Saturday, April 14, county Republican convention.
Thompson isn’t running for re-election: claiming Burns was the victim of a political vendetta doesn’t add up. If he’s implying that Thompson sought to eliminate him on behalf of another candidate, that doesn’t make sense either. Because after the controversies of the last two years, close ties to Thompson could easily prove to be a liability.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that Burns supervised the evidence room. If his technician was stealing drugs and compromising cases, Burns bears responsibility for the performance of his staff and Thompson is right to hold him accountable.
That doesn’t explain why Thompson promoted Burns, however.
Thompson, in a news release announcing Burns’ departure, said “experienced narcotic investigators, detectives, crime scene technicians, deputies and felony prosecutors from the Weber County Attorney’s Office” all complained about issues in the evidence room.
Which can only mean one of two things — either Thompson didn’t know about the complaints, indicating a disconnect from the department he commands, or he knew and promoted Burns anyway.
Neither possibility is acceptable.
Too many prisoners die in the Weber County Jail, putting both inmates and taxpayers at risk. Improving jail safety requires our complete attention.
But that’s impossible, because turmoil in the evidence room has created a spectacle that calls the sheriff’s management ability into question.
We elect a new sheriff in November. We need to insist on a candidate with the skills to reform the office.
Public safety depends on it.