The police officers who investigated a domestic dispute between Gabby Petito and her fiancé shortly before her death made several mistakes and should be placed on probation, according to an independent review released Wednesday.
The report found that the two Moab police officers who contacted Petito and Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12, 2021, after being alerted to a "domestic problem" failed to cite Petito for domestic violence, misinterpreted Utah's assault code, did not take photographs of her injuries, and neglected to contact the 911 caller who reported seeing Laundrie slap Petito, among other issues. The mistakes they made, however, were not intentional, and it's impossible to say what impact they may have had on her death, concluded Price City, Utah, police Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe, who conducted the review.
"The officers did not know what they were doing was wrong at the time and did not make the decision to benefit themselves in any way," Ratcliffe wrote. "They both believed at the time they were making the right decision based on the totality of the circumstances that were presented."
In addition to placing the officers on probation, Ratcliffe recommended that Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins receive additional training on report writing and investigating domestic violence, as well as overall reviews of how the Moab Police Department approves reports and its requirements on gathering photographic evidence of injuries sustained by and offering medical assistance to all individuals involved in an incident. He also advised that Moab police follow up with the 911 caller that the officers failed to interview, despite the time that has passed since their report.
In a statement, the city said it planned to implement the recommendations.
"As the Moab City Police Department continues its daily mission to serve our community, efforts are underway to provide additional resources and tools to assist the[m] in addressing domestic violence incidents," the statement read.
The disappearance and death of Petito, the 22-year-old aspiring social media influencer who went missing while documenting her #VanLife cross-country road trip with Laundrie on Instagram and YouTube, captivated the internet last year. After a coroner determined the cause of her death was strangulation, domestic violence survivors and advocates raised concerns about what they believed should have tipped off Moab police that Petito's life was in danger.
"If this case was handled flawlessly, would it have changed anything?" Ratcliffe wrote in his report. "Nobody knows."
In his report, Ratcliffe concluded that Petito was likely "a long-term victim of domestic violence," but he suggested that officers could not have known that from the information they had at the time.
He described the ways in which Laundrie tried to control Petito's movements and said that the act of grabbing Petito's face — which survivors told BuzzFeed News was a red flag for potential future strangulation — was probably "his attempt to 'make' Gabby calm down or 'make' her shut up."
"Although the act of grabbing someone’s face, like in this case, rarely causes any significant injury, I find that the specific act of grabbing someone’s face is extremely personal, violent, and controlling," Ratcliffe said. "Just because there may have been some signs that Brian was the long-term predominant aggressor, law enforcement could only act on the information they were provided."
Based on his review of the body-worn camera footage, incident reports, and interviews with Pratt, Robbins, and Assistant Moab Police Chief Braydon Palmer, Ratcliffe said Petito was determined to be "the predominant aggressor" in this incident. Petito told the officers that she and Laundrie had been arguing all morning; when she saw the sirens as police tried to pull them over, she hit Laundrie to get his attention, causing the car to swerve.
Ratcliffe explained that her statements along with what Laundrie and another witness told police "would lead the officers to believe that Brian was acting in self-defense." However, he noted that officers failed to further investigate the complaint Petito made about Laundrie grabbing her face, causing a scratch on her cheek.
The officers in this incident had probable cause to arrest Petito, according to the report. But they misinterpreted the state's statute on assault as requiring intent when that was not necessary. They also miscategorized the incident as "disorderly conduct" when it should have been recorded as a domestic violence incident, Ratcliffe said.
"Despite knowing the history of those involved, we have had to make a decision based on the information presented to law enforcement at the time, despite our personal feelings and the known history of the relationship," he wrote.
While it's clear the officers made several mistakes in their interactions with Petito and Laundrie, Ratcliffe concluded that it was unclear whether any of their missteps ultimately contributed to her death.
"Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently? That is an impossible question to answer despite it being the answer many people want to know," he wrote. "Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question."