Arizona’s attorney general has asked a federal judge to disband the US Marshal’s office in two Arizona and Utah communities that are under the control of the polygamist church founded by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs.
Based on new evidence, and in conjunction with a federal lawsuit against the municipalities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne submittedproposed judgment documents on Tuesday asking for the disbandment of the Marshal’s office in the cities where about 7,000 people live.
The move comes after the former police chief admitted to lying under oath during the lawsuit hearings. He also acknowledged that Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) exercised various levels of control over the office throughout the last four decades.
“The disbandment of the Colorado City/Hildale Marshal’s Office is the only remedy that will stop the FLDS-controlled towns of Hildale and Colorado City from using their willing participant Marshal’s Office as a tool to perpetuate their historical discriminatory pattern,” Horne wrote in the request, addressing the alleged violations of fair housing and other rights of non-FLDS individuals.
“It’s a tandem effort between the state of Arizona and the Federal Government to get real American justice for people who have lived in these communities.”
Horne said the authorities had become “the de facto law enforcement arm of the FLDS Church” in order to support the group’s policies.
“It’s about time, Arizona has struggled to get the right balance,” Marci Hamilton, a church/state scholar at Cardozo Law School. “It’s a tandem effort between the state of Arizona and the Federal Government to get real American justice for people who have lived in these communities.”
“For years, the police force in these two cities have worked only to obey the words of their despot, now-imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs,” Nancy Mereska, who founded the Stop Polygamy in Canada Movement, told VICE News.
In late March, an Arizona couple was awarded $5.3 million in a lawsuit they brought against the communities alleging religious discrimination in relation to housing and utilities. A parallel lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice that accused Colorado City of violating the Fair Housing Act Amendments also reached the courts in March.
During the trial, the Colorado City/Hildale Chief of Police Helaman Barlow testified on behalf of the municipalities saying that the Marshal’s office was not under FLDS control, treated everyone equally, and did not give the church access to security cameras. He also denied aiding and abetting Warren Jeffs while he was on the run. The polygamist sect leader was given a life sentence in 2011 for sexually assaulting underage girls.
Less than two weeks after the March trial, Barlow took administrative leave and subsequently sought immunity from the Attorney General and DOJ prior to participating in a deposition about the lawsuit. In the April deposition, Barlow changed his tune dramatically and revealed a laundry list of questionable activity between the Marshal’s office and the FLDS church.
According to the judgement request, Barlow, who is no longer an FLDS member, expressed concerns that some employees in his office were more loyal to local bishop Lyle Jeffs than to their oath of office. He said he had lied during his testimony when he claimed the Marshal’s office did not give preference to FLDS members.
Barlow confessed to altering police reports to benefit church members and secretly recording meetings to send to Jeffs. He said his office ignored underage marriages, that the church participated in selecting police academy attendees, and that municipal cameras were linked to the FLDS Church.
“Marshal Barlow’s sworn confessions of perjury prove that the Colorado City/Hildale Marshal’s Office has operated for decades, and continues to operate, as the de facto law enforcement arm of the FLDS Church,” Horne wrote.
The judgment proposal is Horne’s fourth attempt to disband the department, with the previous three being failed legislative measures.
The attorney for the towns, Blake Hamilton, said the attorney general is overreaching with the judgement request and that his team is will issue a response.
“Now they’re trying to do what they couldn’t accomplish in legislation,” he said. “We don’t believe there’s authority there with what they’re proposing with disbanding the Marshal’s office.”
According to Blake Hamilton, losing the Marshal’s office is a grave concern for the community.
“With respect to the nature of those communities [the Marshal’s office] has their trust more than anyone in the outside world,” he said, adding that there is already a mechanism in place to decertify problematic officers — an action that hasn’t been taken in seven years.
“You can’t pretend that serious crimes aren’t happening at the hands of these religious communities.”
Giving religious groups like the FLDS communities in Arizona and Utah preferential treatment because of perceived sensitivity, is exactly what Marci Hamilton sees as the problem. She also points to political voting blocks as a key deterrent for authorities to crack down on these communities.
“You can’t pretend that serious crimes aren’t happening at the hands of these religious communities,” she said. “Who suffers when elected officials kowtow to the political power of religious groups?”
Mereska agrees that officials have been scared to crack down on the religious sects, especially because of historical efforts gone wrong.
“Scenarios like Jonestown and Waco have done much to make officials afraid of taking action when they know wrongs are being done,” she said, referring to the 1978 Jonestown massacre in which government involvement triggered a mass suicide of more than 900 People Temple members and the federal law enforcement siege of a Davidian compound in Waco, Texas that left 76 members of the sect dead.
But according to Marci Hamilton, the recent efforts in Arizona, speak to larger nation-wide progress in addressing extremely religious groups. According to Hamilton, society has gotten more comfortable discussing problems in these communities in a way that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago and cites attention placed on the sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church as the catalyst for this change.
“The federal government is finally getting interested and we’ve just reached a time in our society that we are less deferent to religious communities harming people,” she said. “We have a political culture where instead of being blindly deferent to religious groups, they are standing up against abuse.”