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Jackson Police Department Faces Scrutiny Of Its Culture

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It's been a month of turmoil for the Jackson Police Department. Two officers resigned in mid-August after a post about a sexual assault investigation on the department's Facebook page drew community outrage.

Just after that, an investigation by the Jackson Hole News and Guide uncovered another incident that raises questions about the culture of the department. Wyoming Public Radio's Savannah Maher spoke with the News and Guide's investigative and justice reporter Emily Mieure about what she found.

Savannah Maher: So the post that sparked all of this was written by officer Roger Schulz. It said that the department was investigating an allegation that a minor had been sexually assaulted, but that they might need coffee and donuts to figure out whether or not a crime had actually been committed. Is that tone typical for the department's Facebook blotter?

Emily Mieure: It was along the lines of the tone that he maintained in the written blotter and there were some times in prior blotter posts where I questioned whether or not humor was appropriate but it never, in my opinion, crossed the line like this one did because most of those in the past were maybe about DUI or public intoxication or something alcohol-related. And this one had to do with an alleged statutory rape. [Schulz] has since said that it was unfounded and that there's not really a victim to be had in this case but a lot of people in the community don't feel like that matters. Either way he was joking about an investigation into a statutory rape.

SM: Right. What some people pointed out is that whether an assault took place or not, that post might send the message that the Jackson PD doesn't take allegations of sexual violence very seriously.

EM: Yeah I think that's the biggest concern, especially with advocates in our community who are working with survivors of sexual violence. They worry that this has undone a lot of their work in getting victims to report crimes that they've endured.

SM: So officer Schulz, who wrote that post, has resigned. And so has the chief of police Todd Smith. How's the community responding to that?

EM: It's been mixed. You know, it's a small community, Jackson, a lot of people know Roger and they've come to his defense saying that this one blotter post shouldn't undo a decades-long career. Other people feel that if someone has that type of tone with an alleged crime of that nature, then they shouldn't be in law enforcement.

SM: And this week you had another story where you uncovered an allegation of sexual harassment in the Jackson PD from 2017. How did that come about?

EM: So I didn't know about this before. As you probably know, in Wyoming, personnel records of government officials are confidential. So, there's not a whole lot of digging you can do when it comes to why an officer leaves or something like that. And so the blotter post stories kind of opened the floodgates and someone brought that case to my attention. It was kind of like, 'I think there was a female officer who left under relevant reasons, and it might be something you want to look into.' And I actually was not successful in getting ahold of [the officer,] but then I found out that there had been a lawsuit filed, and when she replied she just laid it all out there. So, it ended up being that her complaints were in the public record and in our circuit court. Just the little bit she shared in the court files, we thought was relevant to the culture that's in question at the Jackson Police Department.

SM: So this woman was sexually harassed by her co-workers — in those documents, she included screenshots of another officer and her supervisor sending her inappropriate texts — and the town of Jackson sued her?

EM: The Jackson Police Department apparently has a historic issue with officers leaving shortly after the town pays for them to go to the Wyoming Police Academy. So they started doing these two year commitments with officers. After they accepted the job, they would sign that if they broke their two year contract, they would pay whatever amount back to the town of Jackson. Then it's up to the town of Jackson, and I believe the town council and the town manager on whether or not they actually sue the officers who breach contract and in this case they did sue her. She filed [her response] just on her own, there wasn't an attorney involved that I saw. There has been a settlement, but it's not public so I don't know what they ended up agreeing on.

SM: Right. And have you been able to get the new acting chief of police, Michelle Weber, to respond to any of this? Either about the incident with the blotter, or about the 2017 harassment allegation?

EM: She sent a letter to the community, she published a letter to the community through the town of Jackson, and it did address some of the concerns that have been brought up from the blotter post. She published that before I found out about the sexual harassment claims from the former officer. I did call her when I found out about it, to let her know and to give her an opportunity to comment further and she decided not to.

SM: What questions do you still have for the Jackson PD?

EM: Gosh, I think a lot of it comes down to the culture that's in question and a little bit of the fraternity-like or "locker room" chat that is often how it's described. But I think there are certain things that hopefully I can get answered from the new acting chief Weber, once she kind of gets settled in. And how much of that [culture] is just the norm there, and whether or not she sees that as an issue and what's going to be done about it. They have promised to do implicit bias training. So we're going to cover that, and hopefully just continue to ask what's expected of the officers there and if they're breeding a culture that makes anyone, female or male, feel safe.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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