Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Policing the Police

By Christopher Smart

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  Before he knew what had hit him, 80-year-old Frank Bruno Romano was face down on the concrete floor with a Salt Lake City police officer on top of him, twisting his arm forcefully behind his back in a hammerlock.

The longtime Salt Lake Valley resident was handcuffed and cited for "interfering with a police officer." He suffered a broken nose, six broken teeth and torn rotator cuff muscles that have resulted in permanent injury to his right shoulder, severely limiting mobility.

What had Romano done to justify the harsh treatment? He had failed to unlock his wife's car outside the Delta Center without setting off the alarm. Romano apparently had a lot to learn, including that there is no reasonable mechanism, outside of a lawsuit, by which a citizen can protest police brutality.

Following an NBA championship basketball game between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls on June 14, Romano set off to retrieve the car from a parking garage at the Triad Center. His wife can't walk long distances, so she waited for him outside the Delta Center. But since he doesn't drive his wife's vehicle often, he unintentionally set off the car's alarm as he approached it, he explained to City Weekly.

Feeling somewhat foolish for attracting attention to himself, Romano then accidentally dropped the car keys as Officer Stephen D. Huffaker approached on his bicycle. "The key fell on the ground and the cop said, 'You're drunk,'" Romano recalled.

But the elderly man wasn't drunk and, in fact, almost never drinks alcohol. The only thing he had consumed was a hot dog and a Coke at halftime, he noted. Nevertheless, the keys were difficult to grab.

"I had a hard time picking up the keys. I said, 'Hey buddy, here's the keys, see if you can do any better.'" As Romano offered the car keys to the officers, he added, "I don't have to take any of your shit."

The next thing he knew, he was on the ground. His shoulder was in so much pain that he begged the officer to remove the handcuffs. But the cop just grinned, Romano recalled.

Several days later, after a trip to the hospital, Romano appealed to the Internal Affairs Unit at the Salt Lake City Police Department. He had worked for 20 years as a private investigator and has deep respect for the Salt Lake City Police Department, he said. "They aren't all like that," referring to the officer who had thrown him to the ground.

But three months later, the Internal Affairs Unit notified him that Officer Stephen D. Huffaker had been exonerated.

Frank Romano's run-in with a police officer ended in permanent injury.
photo: Fred Hayes
"The injuries to both the officer and you appear to have occurred when the officer tripped and fell to the ground, also causing you to fall," says a letter from police Capt. Susan Neeley. "For these reasons, I conclude the complaint of excessive force is not sustained, meaning there is insufficient evidence to support a conclusion as to whether or not the officer violated policy."

Officer Huffaker reportedly suffered a scraped elbow.

According to Huffaker's report, he unintentionally "ground stabilized" Romano when the elderly man struggled to be released from the hammerlock. "As I tried to pull [him] to the ground, I lost my footing and fell," the officer stated.

A witness to the events, Ted Housekeeper, who was assigned to the garage as a security guard, said in a sworn statement that the officer's actions were excessive.

"Mr. Romano did not at any time threaten, use any force against, or commit any violence against Officer Huffaker. Neither did Mr. Romano do anything to deter, interfere with, or prevent Officer Huffaker from doing anything," the statement says.

Feeling dissatisfied, Romano and his attorney, Ross C. Anderson, approached Salt Lake City's Civilian Review Board, based on a pamphlet put out by the municipality that appears to indicate the review board might offer help. "If you are not satisfied with the decision of the police department," the pamphlet reads, "you may request a review by the Civilian Review Board."

The document is signed by Mayor Deedee Corradini and Police Chief Ruben Ortega.

But much to Romano's chagrin, he received a response noting that the Civilian Review Board could not change the decision made by the Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit. "Please be advised that the board is not an appeals body that can change decisions or discipline in individual cases," the letter reads. "Cases brought before the board are reviewed and analyzed as a whole and serve to illustrate the need for systemic changes in department policies and procedures."

The letter was signed by Katherine Gardner, the board's vice chair. In an interview, Gardner reiterated the policy: "People do think we can do that," she said of appealing or overriding an Internal Affairs decision. "But that's not what we are at all. We give reports to the Police Department and the mayor quarterly to report any trends--if police are too aggressive, or not aggressive enough, or other things."

The volunteer review board has been organized for about one year, Gardner explained. In that time, the board has seen no trends. "We're concerned with what makes a trend. Is it three cases or does it take 10 cases to make a trend? We're watching certain things, but they don't appear to be trends at this point."

Gardner said she could not comment on the Romano case.

But Romano's attorney sees the Civilian Review Board as something of a sham. "When all you have is a pretense of protecting citizens, such as the so-called Civilian Review Board in Salt Lake City, that's worse than if you had nothing at all because it misleads everyone into believing that a system providing safeguards is actually in place," Anderson said.

Among the problems with the present system, Anderson contends, is that any cases of alleged police brutality can't get an independent review. "If there is any one instance of egregious behavior by the Police Department, the inquiry is finished by the time the Police Department makes its determination. When the Police Department, through its own Internal Affairs Unit, fails to hold its officers accountable, that sends a message to all officers that abusive conduct will be condoned."

Anderson, who is a candidate for mayor, said he is dedicated to implementing a civilian review board with teeth. "I've been calling over the past 10 years for a civilian review board with independent investigation and review powers in each individual case."

Establishing a review board with real power in Salt Lake City would not be reinventing the wheel, Anderson said. "This kind of review board has been implemented in numerous cities across the U.S. It's proven to be a good thing for the police departments and the communities because it adds credibility and helps hold the few abusive officers accountable, which protects the majority of officers."

Until then, people like Romano will have to get justice in the courts. He has notified Salt Lake City of his intent to file suit.

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