SALT LAKE CITY, UT — A polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border has hired an outsider as its new police chief, selecting a retired Salt Lake City area police officer with no ties to the fundamentalist Mormon group that controlled the town for a century until federal government crackdowns.
The appointment of Mark Askerlund as town marshal – announced Thursday night in a joint news release from Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona – is designed to help bring fairness to a department that a jury found had discriminated against people who aren’t members of the dominant religious sect.
The selection was approved by the town councils after it was made by independent monitors appointed by the U.S. government to supervise the towns for 10 years as a result of the religious discrimination case.
The hiring of the 63-year-old Askerlund is the latest move designed to pull the town into modern society and away from the cloistered religious philosophy it had for decades. The new mayor and town council of Hildale are not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS.
Askerlund’s 33 years in law enforcement included a nine-year stint helping the Salt Lake City suburb of Cottonwood Heights get its new police agency established.
“I think it’s a perfect fit for what we’re needing right now,” said Jared Nicol, a new Hildale City Council member who is an outsider. “We’re kind of at that ground level where we need to start building up, we need to start getting past a lot of this stuff that has happened.”
The previous chief, Jerry Darger, was fired in March. He is a member of FLDS, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism with members who believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church abandoned the practice in 1890 and now prohibits it.
The community on the Utah-Arizona border has a population of 8,000 people and is nestled against picturesque red rock cliffs. Its demographics are rapidly shifting as former sect members seem to outnumber FLDS followers.
Many FLDS members have left the town amid government-ordered evictions because group members refused to pay occupancy fees.
Askerlund’s selection follows the election victory last November of Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop, a former FLDS member who became the first woman and first non-member of the polygamous sect to hold the seat.
While new town leaders and others are happy with the changes, sect members believe the town they built and love is being ripped away from them. They believe jailed leader Warren Jeffs is their prophet and was wrongly convicted. He is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.
Askerlund said Friday he agreed to a three-year contract and plans to build a professional organization with officers who watch over the community without bias, prejudice or favoritism.
He said he’ll meet all seven officers next week. He plans to lay down ground rules while getting them proper training and equipment, then hold them accountable.
If they can’t be unbiased, he’ll replace them, Askerlund said.
He acknowledged that finding outside police officers to replace them could be difficult due to the remoteness of the area and because of a nationwide struggle to attract and retain police officers. He said he may be able to entice retired officers who want to get back to work.
Askerlund starts next week and plans to live in the outskirts of St. George in an area that fits within the requirement of living within 35 miles of the community.
The lifelong Utah resident said he’ll treat everyone equally – whether they are FLDS or not. He said being an outsider should help as he begins meeting people and hearing about their concerns and hopes.
“I can go in there with no preconceived notions or biases,” he said.