SALT LAKE CITY — Eric Moutsos doesn’t believe he should have to leave his personal convictions at home when he walks out the door to go to work — particularly his religious beliefs.
But his former boss, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, says when an officer shows up to work for his department, that officer is expected to do their job. And if there is any hint that any personal biases may get in the way of doing their assigned duties, then that’s a problem.
Moutsos was placed on leave in June after allegedly trying to switch assignments to avoid participating in the city’s gay pride parade. He resigned from the force after his suspension became public.
On Monday, Moutsos issued a six-page statement about that experience, the first time the former Salt Lake police officer has told his side of the story.
In light of current debate on Utah’s Capitol Hill concerning legislation to balance anti-discrimination with religious freedoms, Moutsos said he felt now was an important time to speak out.
At first, he wanted to remain anonymous. But after the KSL independently verified his identity, Moutsos agreed to an interview with his name being used.
By stepping forward, Moutsos hopes all sides can agree to come together, even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue.
“These issues need to be addressed. There are so many good people, no matter what it is you believe,” he said. “I think what’s happened here is that we’re just getting more divisive on this issue. (Some might say) just because you may disagree with somebody means that you hate them. And that’s just not true. Because I love people. I’ll take a bullet for you. I’ll protect you. But I will not advocate certain things in people’s lives.”
In June of 2014, the Salt Lake City Motor Squad Unit was asked to participate in the Utah Pride Parade in Salt Lake City, which included performing choreographed maneuvers on motorcycles.
Moutsos, a member of the unit, was told to participate. But because of his personal beliefs, he said he felt uncomfortable doing so.
Moutsos said he had no problem performing his duty to protect and serve. The officer had previously provided security as same-sex couples flocked to the Salt Lake City-County Building to be married following a federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
But in this case, Moutsos felt that what he was being asked to do was more for entertainment.
“I felt that by being an actual participant in the parade, I would be perceived to be supporting certain messages that were contrary to who I am,” he said. “I will protect their parade. But I just don’t want to be in the parade.”
“I felt that by being an actual participant in the parade, I would be perceived to be supporting certain messages that were contrary to who I am. I will protect their parade. But I just don’t want to be in the parade.”
Moutsos said he sent an internal email asking to swap assignments with another officer. He said he was not opposed to providing traffic control for the parade and blocking streets for pedestrians.
But his request was denied.
“That’s when I knew there was going to be a problem,” he said.
Moutsos told his supervisor he was still willing to be part of the parade and sent an email saying he’d be ready for practice and to participate in the parade itself.
“Two days later I was brought into one of the commander’s offices. They took my badge and my gun for discrimination. My sergeant then drove me home and took all of my equipment, said I could not perform as a police officer. I thought I was in a dream. I was devastated,” he said.
Two days after being placed on administrative leave, Moutsos’ story became worldwide news. Moutsos said he was immediately branded a “bigot” and knew he would no longer be able to work in Salt Lake City. He resigned from the department a short time later.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t think anyone would touch me,” he said.
Since then, Moutsos has been hired by another Utah law enforcement agency. But he said the past six to seven months have been a “battle.”
“I wanted to just hide,” he said. “I think about it every single day. I haven’t been able to sleep a full night’s sleep.”
Now Moutsos wants the public to know that reports saying he refused to work the parade were inaccurate.
“I have protected free speech events several times that I disagreed with. But I will protect them. I believe in the First Amendment — so much that even if I disagree with a particular message, I will still be there to protect it. Because without them being able to say what they want to say, I wouldn’t be able to say what I want to say.
“It wasn’t about protection or security. What I felt was that, ‘You are going to be a participant and look like you advocate this particular cause. And I don’t,'” he said. “We should be there to protect everybody’s rights. But I felt the participation was a little much.”
Moutsos believes his request to switch assignments was blown out of proportion and could have been resolved quickly and quietly internally.
Burbank, however, said Moutsos resigned before internal affairs investigators had a chance to sit down and talk about it.
Officer refuses Utah Pride Parade assignment, placed on leave
SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake police officer has been placed on leave for refusing an assignment at this weekend’s gay pride parade. “We don’t tolerate bias and bigotry in the department, and assignments are assignments,” said department spokeswoman Lara Jones.
However, the chief said, once there’s a hint of bias in his department, he will address it immediately.
“I will not tolerate bias, bigotry or hatred in the organization,” he told the KSL Tuesday. “In order to be a police officer, you are to do the duties as assigned. And those duties cover a broad range of activities.
“With police officers — and this is the problem across the nation right now — you have to be able to do your job and set your personal feelings aside in order to equally distribute law enforcement and good will from the police department no matter where you are in this country, to every individual regardless of their religion, their race, their creeds, what gender they are or what sexual orientation they might be,” he said.
Once someone outwardly expresses bias towards an individual or group, Burbank said, “how are you ever going to limit the liability and the exposure that you give to the public for someone who may be in plain bias? How can they ever say, ‘No, I never let it come into play when it came into play in other aspects of their job?'”
Moutsos has a message to the LGBT community: “I say to them that I love you. I probably agree with 95 percent of your life or more. And I wish we could find the things that we do agree with and build from there. But there are just certain messages that I will never advocate.”
One of the statements that Moutsos said hurt him the most was when he was told to leave his personal beliefs at home.
“I don’t think there’s a possible way that I could be a police officer and check that at home. Because I desperately need my faith — especially in this line of work,” he said. “And I believe that’s not what America was intended to do. Everybody says that the separation of church and state means you can’t talk about God anywhere. But all that really means is the government can’t force you to believe a certain belief. And I truly believe I should be able to think and talk and be who I am wherever I’m at.”
Burbank acknowledged that officers frequently ask to switch shifts with each other. “But you have to ask yourself, ‘What are you really thinking if you’re going to put forth that view to other people in the police department and to the administration of the police department? Are you really fit to be a police officer? That calls into question someone’s judgment if you ask me,” he said.
“To actually say or indicate that that’s the reason, then that’s also a question of judgment that I have. They’re not setting their personal feelings aside. Everyone comes to this job with bias and prejudice. But in order to do the job appropriately, you need to be able to set that aside or otherwise you’re not going to do that job for me.
“I’m not asking him to do this on his own time. This is on the police department time, representing the police department,” Burbank continued, giving emphasis to the last three words. “What the officers choose to do on their own time is one thing. But what they choose to do at work, I’m going to give direction, and you set your personal feelings aside. It’s the only way we can function best.”
Contributing: Ashely Kewish and Keira Farrimond