Contrived Ignorance In The Utah Highway Patrol

"Good evening sir! Do you know why I pulled you over? It's because I need another DUI arrest to pad my figures."

“Good evening sir! I an Trooper Lisa Steed. Do you know why I pulled you over? It’s because I need another DUI arrest to pad my figures. Get out of the car.”

This shocking story from Utah demonstrates an ethical culture truism: when superiors ask subordinates to deliver results without proper guidelines, warnings, and insistence on using only ethical means to achieve these results, misconduct is inevitable, the leadership is incompetent, and the organization’s culture is rotting.

Utah honored state trooper Lisa Steed as the first woman to be selected as Trooper of the Year for shattering all records  with an astounding number of DUI arrests. Her supervisors spoke about her “sixth sense” in being able to detect impaired drivers when most officers would not. There was a reason for this, it turned out. Steed arrested drivers for DUI whether they were in fact drunk or not. Now her record-setting arrests are being challenged as invalid, and she is out of a job.

She had many victims, innocent drivers who lost jobs, promotions, reputations and thousands of dollars, because she was determined to make her bosses think she was a star. For example, she arrested Michael Choate, a now-retired aircraft logistics specialist at Hill Air Force Base, because her “sixth sense” told her that his driving while in a Halloween costume suggested he was inebriated. She arrested and charged him even though three breathalyzer tests showed no alcohol in his system. Choate says he spent $3,800 and had to take four days off of work to get his DUI charged dismissed.

This kind of arrest padded her figures and garnered Steed lavish praise. When she was honored at the state Capitol in 2009 for a record-setting haul of 400 DUI arrests, her DUI squad boss said admiringly, “With her training and experience, it’s second nature for her to find these people who are driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” Prosecutors were suspicious of Steed’s credibility, eventually issuing warnings in 2012 that her arrests were often bad, and that her accounts on the stand could not be trusted. As early as 2010, however, other Highway Patrol troopers had noted that Steed’s arrests were questionable. A memo written in 2010 noted that most  of Steed’s arrested motorists had no signs of alcohol or drugs in their systems, yet it took another two years to get her off the road. She was allowed more time to continue abusing motorists and citizens.

Why did this happen? As usual, the income her arrests produced was probably a big factor. Utah is a state where alcohol is officially and culturally discouraged; there was probably an unusual lack of empathy for DUI offenders. Mostly, however, Steed’s reign of terror was allowed to continue because her superiors didn’t want to know how she got her impressive results. This was willful and contrived ignorance of wrongdoing, often the first sign of an organizational culture jumping the ethics rails.

There are several useful lessons that the Lisa Steed scandal should convey:

  • When law enforcement officials are rewarded for arrests, the incentive is ethically perverse, and will generate more bad arrests as well as good ones.
  • Leadership that offers such incentives have an enhanced burden of oversight and care to make sure that what happened in Steed’s case doesn’t happen. In Utah, the opposite occurred. Leadership ignored all the warning signs of a bad cop after planting the seeds that yield bumper crops of them.
  • Power corrupts. Government workers will do more of what they think they were hired to do. Officers will arrest, regulators will regulate, often without concern regarding whether their perceived duties are doing more harm than good. The overarching duty of government employees has to be to serve the public interest, and their performance should be judged and rewarded accordingly.
  • If we can’t trust the police, we shouldn’t trust the rest of the government.
  • It we do trust the police, then it makes little sense to distrust the rest of the government.

The final lesson is this: until there is an overhaul of police oversight and management, be really careful when you drive in Utah—especially in a Halloween costume. If you think Lisa Steed was the only problem, you are kidding yourself.


Source: Res Ipsa Loquitur

Facts: Fox News

Graphic: Z6 Mag

10 thoughts on “Contrived Ignorance In The Utah Highway Patrol

  1. This story reminds me of a real life version of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments of the 1960s. Milgram’s experiments demonstrated the dangers of obedience, Utah obviously did not get the message.

  2. And yet, even though she was frequently lying on the stand, she was likely often believed. We have trained ourselves to always believe the police.

    I hope the state of Utah ends up paying each person she arrested a huge pile of money – even if she managed to find someone ACTUALLY guilty of a DUI, her behavior has tainted every arrest. They should be purged for the records of those who suffered them.

    • As a defense attorney of over 36 years, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to get a judge to believe the word of a civilian witness over that of a police officer. I have had clients convicted when there were two police wintnesses who gave testimony 180 degrees different. That is, one officer testifying that the reason for the pat down of my client was that the officer was nervous because he wouldn’t take his hands out of his pockets, while the other testified that the reason was the officer got nervous because he kept taking his hands in and out of his pockets. Judges almost always believe cops, no matter what.

  3. It’s all about revenue. Local or state; if you can ticket enough people, you’re going to make money for your jurisdiction- particularly if they’re from out-of-state and it would cost them more to return and contest it. It’s an old ploy that was once considered the province of rural townships. No longer! But this Halloween caper is a new one. Who was he dressed up like to spark her “intuition”? Ted Kennedy? Percy Dovetonsils?! I need a beer…

  4. To make a bad situation worse, most police departments are becoming more and more militarized. This adds more power to the already power-mad departments. Many officers feel they have all power and have no restrictions. This culture is fostered by the entire department. There’s never a mention of public safety, or protecting anyone. It’s always about “arrests”. You’ll notice it’s not about convictions, just arrests.

    I also wonder why this ex-officer isn’t in jail. She’s perjured herself enough times to get life just for perjury!

    • I also wonder why this ex-officer isn’t in jail. She’s perjured herself enough times to get life just for perjury!

      Professional courtesy and more perverse incentives. Police unions will fight tooth and nail for one of their own, which is appropriate, but individual officers also will fight for one of their own. It the blue wall of silence. The prosecutors then have to deal with uncooperative witnesses, and, even more importantly, risking pissing off the people they rely on to do their work.

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