Judge rejects request to disband police department in polygamous sect on Utah-Arizona border

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SALT LAKE CITY — The police agency that oversees Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border will remain intact after a federal judge rejected the latest request from the Arizona attorney general to disband the department.

U.S. District Judge James Teilborg acknowledged in a ruling last week that disbanding the police unit could decrease discrimination in the twin communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. But, Teilborg said removing their authority and handing power over to county sheriffs would burden the twin cities and the states "with a layer of bureaucracy extending into potential perpetuity."

Arizona prosecutors filed court documents earlier this summer arguing the agency is the splinter religious group's de-facto law enforcement arm. They presented new evidence from the then-police chief who said officers are influenced by sect leaders and discriminate against nonmembers of the religious group.

Blake Hamilton, the attorney for Hildale, told The Associated Press that the ruling was the fair and the right thing to do. He has said there is no basis for the accusation that the officers are under control of sect leaders, pointing to the fact that no officer there has been decertified by the state in seven years. There are currently seven full-time police officers, three of whom just went through the police academy, Hamilton said.

"I'm happy for the officers," he said. "A lot of them are very good officers."

The request from Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne came as part of a case where an Arizona jury determined in March that a family living in the community was denied a household water connection for religious reasons. Ronald Cooke said his family was awarded $5.2 million, though they have since agreed on a settlement with the towns.

The terms of that settlement are not being released, Hamilton said.

Though the polygamous towns won the right to keep their police agency, they and the utilities were ordered to pay a combined $200,000 to the Cookes in Teilborg's final ruling issued last week. He also called on the twin towns not to discriminate for 10 years. The ruling was first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1tn45ep ).

The towns and the utilities argued that Cookes were denied utilities because they did not fill out the correct forms, and not because of their religious affiliation.

This summer's attempt to get the police agency disbanded was not the first time Horne had tried to take authority from the police department. He contends the agency has for a decade taken orders from church leaders at the expense of legitimate law enforcement work.

His office didn't immediately return phone calls for comment Monday.

Their latest request was based on information from former police chief Helaman Barlow, who went to authorities earlier this year after he was put on leave from his position and received immunity from prosecutors.

Barlow told prosecutors in April that church leaders choose who goes to the police academy, have access to surveillance cameras around town and ordered officers to follow a church edict that bars Internet use even though it inhibits police work, court records show.

Barlow was fired last week, Hamilton said. Sgt. Sam Johnson is the interim police chief, he said.

Known as The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Mormon church, but the faith abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.

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