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Law enforcement expert worries Moab’s investigation into Petito incident may be too narrow

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie, as seen in a video posted to their YouTube channel. This is a screen grab of them speaking about their trip to Utah. A Moab investigation has been launched in the city's handling of Petito and Laundrie.

MOAB, Utah  — Did the Moab Police officers follow the law when they released Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie after a domestic disturbance call days before she was found murdered in Wyoming?  Should they have done more to separate the couple, possibly preventing her death?  The city of Moab is launching an investigation into the case, but some law enforcement experts believe the investigation might not be broad enough.

Moab investigation

City officials released a statement announcing the Moab investigation, saying they understand why the media and the public would have serious questions about the domestic disturbance call involving Petito and Laundrie. 

The statement reads, in part, “We understand that individuals can view the same situation in very different ways, and we recognize how the death of Ms. Petito more than two weeks later in Wyoming might lead to speculation, in hindsight, about actions taken during the incident in Moab.”

The statement also says the city is unaware of any breach in police department protocol, but if the investigations finds one, the appropriate steps will be taken.

Significant improvements

Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank says Utah has made significant improvements in state law to protect domestic violence victims.  He says there are reporting requirements which make a well-established paper trail of complaints, so investigators are better able to track a suspected abuser’s history.  He also says there are better arrest requirements that separate a suspected abuser from their victim.

Burbank said, “Not too long ago, when I began my career, often times you would have an officer show up and they would just say, ‘Hey, you two, knock it off,’ and they’d walk away.”

Plus, there are heightened separation requirements and resources like the YWCA offer victims a safe place to stay while the couple is apart.  However, Burbank says those can only go so far.

“The victim can waive that, saying, ‘Nope, I don’t want that.  I’m waiving that,’ so that they can be together,” Burbank said.

Mixed reaction

Moab city officials say their officers have received a mixed reaction from the public, with some people praising their efforts and others saying their actions failed to protect Petito.  Burbank says cases of domestic violence are emotionally complex, making it extremely tricky for police to reach out to people who need help.

“It is such a tragic situation, and we start ‘what iff-ing.’  Did we do the right thing at this moment, at that moment?’” Burbank said.  “You never want to over-emphasize any one given moment.”

Burbank says there have traditionally been problems with investigations into police behavior.  In this case, he believes investigators will focus solely on the facts of this particular interaction and see if the officers were following department policy and state law.  Burbank says looking at any one case will not give law enforcement agencies insight on how officers should behave.  He believes the investigation should focus on several different domestic violence cases to see if the current policies are working, or if they need to be changed.

“This is how you make the organization better, not just appease the call for action at the moment,” Burbank said.

 

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