Witness: Officers in polygamous towns try to stop evictions

AP News
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Posted: Oct 24, 2016 7:24 PM
Witness: Officers in polygamous towns try to stop evictions

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 at the homes. "It continues to be prevalent."

The focus of a four-day hearing in Phoenix this week will examine 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.

A key issue will be what steps to take to overhaul the police department.

The trust wants a federal judge to appoint an official who will have the power to hire and fire officers. The U.S. Justice Department has gone a step further by asking the judge to disband the police department, get county sheriffs to take over policing duties and appoint an official to monitor town operations for the court.

The towns vigorously oppose those requests. Their lawyers say other police departments 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 said no officers have lost their certification since 2007.

Barlow testified that officers have repeatedly threatened the trust's property manager with trespassing charges as he tries to carry out evictions. The property manager brings a videographer along as protection.

Travis Meadows of the Arizona Department of Public Safety said he discovered the towns' officers waited as long as two years to complete some police reports on property crimes.

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 are awaiting trial.

In the Arizona case, the jury found the Colorado City Marshal's Office violated the rights of nonbelievers by breaking the First Amendment's promise that 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 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.

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.

James Schoppmann, special counsel for the Mohave County Sheriff's Office, said the agency is willing to take over police services for the two towns. The community's police department should have been disbanded a long time ago, he said.

"It's the only way there will be lasting relief," Schoppmann said.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud .