After assuring state legislators that he would seek a proper balance between public safety and civil liberties, law enforcement veteran Keith Squires was unanimously recommended Thursday as the commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety.
The Senate Judiciary Committee's vote sent Gov. Gary Herbert's nomination of Squires to head up the state's law enforcement operations, including the Utah Highway Patrol, toward a final confirmation vote by the full Senate. Squires' decades in law enforcement impressed the four lawmakers on the committee who cast the vote, but he was also subjected to some grilling, mostly by committee chair Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, about whether police can adequately protect citizens without trampling on their rights.
Recent news about the federal government's collection of data from private online and phone communications through the National Security Agency cast a long shadow on the proceedings. Madsen asked Squires a lengthy series of questions about what Squires thought about such tools as license plate scanners, which Madsen wondered might aid in the collection of citizens' data in the pursuit of criminals.
As deputy commissioner of DPS for the past six years, Squires was instrumental in designing the Statewide Information and Analysis Center, one of the Utah's largest hubs for sharing law enforcement data. The center was created to help police agencies in Utah share information on criminals across jurisdictions, Squires said.
Squires said that only officers with a valid case number and probable cause can access and use that information for their investigations, and that anyone caught breaching that rule could be out of a job.
"Information sharing is critical to law enforcement, but when I talk about information sharing and intelligence, I'm talking about information that we've lawfully gathered," Squires said.
Referring to the NSA scandals, Squires said governments can find themselves on a "slippery slope" when they ignore the limits to police power.
"I think there is a line there, and I don't want to see us go past it," he said.
In an interview after the hearing, Squires also addressed his approach to the department in the wake of the scandal involving former UHP Cpl. Lisa Steed, who is accused in lawsuits of falsely arresting drivers and was fired after judges found her to be untruthful on the witness stand. In making sure something like that doesn't happen again, UHP needs to make sure its troopers are properly trained and that their supervisors are keeping a close eye on their performance, Squires said.
Assuming he passes confirmation in the Senate, Squires said he would begin his new position by studying the staffing needs of UHP and begin working with the legislature to bring those numbers up as needed.
"We're still close to trooper numbers from the 1970s and 80s," Squires said. "There hasn't been a lot if increase," even though the number of drivers in the state has gone up since then.
Squires began his law enforcement career as a Vernal Police officer in 1987. He began working as a UHP trooper in 1989 and later headed up one of the patrol's internal affairs divisions. Squires served as one of the deputy commissioners over DPS under his predecessor Lance Davenport and was also the governor's homeland security adviser. He attended the confirmation hearing with his wife, Keryl, his son and his granddaughters.