Colorado’s rogue police officers continue to stay in law enforcement due to lenient state laws
Colorado’s lenient police discipline system allows rogue officers to jump from department to department despite committing transgressions that would bar them from law enforcement jobs in many states.
Michael Jimenez resigned from the Denver police force in 2008 after he allegedly had sex with a prostitute he picked up in his squad car. But that did not stop the Custer County Sheriff’s Office from hiring him in 2009. He lost that job, too, in less than a year.
Then the Fowler Police Department, whose chief knew Jimenez from Denver, hired him. Jimenez never showed up for work and was later fired after pleading guilty to driving while ability impaired.
Still, his certificate to work as a police officer remained active.
It was not until he pleaded guilty again, this time to vehicular assault while driving drunk, that the panel that decides who can and cannot work in law enforcement in Colorado finally revoked Jimenez’s certification. Jimenez had plowed his van into a car driven by a 27-year-old man, leaving the man temporarily in a medically induced coma with a shattered pelvis and broken left leg.
Jimenez, who declined comment, got pass after pass because Colorado requires a felony conviction or a conviction of one of 44 misdemeanors specified in statute to bring an end to an officer’s career in law enforcement.
In Colorado, a police officer can be fired or resign for egregious violations of moral turpitude, such as destruction of evidence, lying under oath or excessive use of force. But so long as there is no conviction of a felony or one of the misdemeanors, the officer is free to seek employment at another agency. Small towns, eager to find officers willing to work for low pay, sometimes will hire them despite their past.
“You’ve got to remember with smaller jurisdictions, down south or out east (in the state), it’s tough to get cops when you’re paying less than 20 bucks an hour,” said Tony Webb, the former Fowler police chief who hired Jimenez. “Everyone deserves one screw-up.”
The Denver Post reviewed a decade of state police personnel findings as well as discipline logs at the Denver Police Department and hiring records at select agencies and found officers still working in Colorado despite serious transgressions.
In some instances, these problem officers went on to commit crimes or cause harm.
The extent of the problem is unknown. The Colorado attorney general’s office refused to release to The Post a state database that tracks the employment history of officers and would provide only limited information on hundreds of officers the newspaper submitted for review. The database contains information on about 9,000 law enforcement officers actively working at agencies and an additional 6,000 who are certified but are not employed in law enforcement.
Colorado is one of only a handful of states to have such a high threshold for bringing an end to a career in policing.
Most states will take that step for reasons short of a conviction, such as ethical violations, personnel issues or fitness for duty. Even training failures or alcohol abuse can bring an end to a law enforcement career elsewhere.
At least 39 states have rules that make it easier to ensure a rogue officer never polices again. At least 18 of those states also require agencies to inform state review panels when an officer is fired or resigns — something Colorado does not do.
Former Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, now chief of the Miami Beach, Fla., Police Department, said Colorado needs to make it easier to get rid of bad officers and should do a better job tracking those with past issues. Many rural agencies in Colorado do not do thorough background checks on applicants, which takes up to 80 hours, Oates said.
In Florida, Oates must inform the state review panel when an officer leaves his department and give the reason, and that information is public. Colorado only requires police agencies to annually report their rosters to the state. Colorado will not even share the employment history it does have with chiefs wanting to know about an applicant’s background.
“Your employment decisions are everything, and knowing everything you can about a candidate is crucial,” Oates said. “All you have to do is look at the scrutiny on American policing in the past year to know that your people are everything.”
Roger Goldman, a nationally recognized expert on officer misconduct who has helped write laws establishing state police review panels, said Colorado’s lenient rules allow unfit officers to continue doing harm.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, we have a decertification system in place, and we’ve done what we need do,’ and that’s very misleading,” Goldman said. “You have to have a vigorous statewide agency that can protect people because there are these small, underfunded police agencies that are willing to hire these cops who are not fit to be on the streets. If you can just decertify for criminal convictions, that’s worthless. You need to broaden it.”
Among The Post’s findings:
• At least six Denver officers who were fired or resigned amid allegations of wrongdoing in the past decade found work at other smaller agencies.
• Rogue cops can negotiate to keep past transgressions secret. Nadia Gatchell was fired from the Denver police force in 2012 for lies she told superiors during an investigation into abuse of off-duty secondary employment. The officer, who previously had been disciplined in Denver for destroying marijuana evidence, was able to keep the decision to fire her out of her personnel file by agreeing to drop a Civil Service appeal. The city’s safety manager at the time, Alex Martinez, agreed to remove her dismissal letter from her personnel file and have her file reflect that she had resigned.
Gatchell, who declined to comment, went on to work at the Elizabeth Police Department for about a year after her firing. Now she’s working as a parole officer for the Department of Corrections, her fourth law enforcement job.
• Officers who have their certificate for police work revoked often are repeat offenders. Of the nearly 280 officers who have been decertified in the past decade in Colorado, at least 29 had past serious personnel issues or arrests. Many more likely are repeat offenders, but how many could not be determined because many agencies in the state won’t release discipline or personnel files for public review.
• About a third of those 280 decertified for police work in Colorado had worked at more than one police agency. Seven of those officers had shuffled to four or more police agencies before they ended up with a conviction that brought a final end to their careers in law enforcement.
• The state’s review panel, the Colorado Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, does not always keep up with those who aren’t employed by a police agency but remain certified for law enforcement work.
Patrick Strawmatt, who resigned from the Lafayette police force in 1987, was arrested at least 10 times, including one that led to a felony conviction for animal cruelty after he shot a dog to death. It wasn’t until Strawmatt was convicted in 2007 of killing two teenagers while fleeing police in a drunken-driving homicide that the state review panel revoked his certificate for police work, records show.
Some police agencies have become havens for what officials call “second-chance cops.” At the tiny Mountain View Police Department, west of Denver, The Post found six current and former officers, including the chief, who have had past personnel issues at other departments.
Chief Mark Toth was charged with assault, false reporting and official misconduct as a Westminster police sergeant but was acquitted. He said he retired from Westminster after the accusations but declined to say whether he was forced out.
“Because of my experience in Westminster, do I have empathy for officers? Yes,” Toth said. “In my opinion, I have a better understanding of what they went through and what they’re going through. But that’s where I draw the line. I don’t use that as an excuse to hire anyone.”
Toth hired Randy Hurst, an officer fired from Denver, after he admitted to having sex with a woman in a Taco Bell restroom while on duty. Denver agreed to pay $5,000 to settle a federal lawsuit by the woman, who accused Hurst of rape. Hurst said the sex was consensual, and no criminal charges were brought. Hurst resigned from the Mountain View force in 2013.
Mountain View employs Kirk Firko, fired from the State Patrol after the 2010 shooting death of a Grand Junction man. Firko kicked in the door of the home of a drunken-driving suspect, and his partner fatally shot the man. Both officers were charged, but Firko’s charges were dropped after a jury acquitted his partner. The state paid $1 million to settle a wrongful-death suit.
Toth also hired Luis Rivera, fired from the Denver police force in 2010 for his involvement in a stomping that left a 16-year-old Latino with a lacerated liver, broken ribs and an injured kidney. Officials in Denver concluded Rivera and two other officers used excessive force and failed to timely disclose that force to superiors. Denver agreed to pay $885,000 to settle a lawsuit filed for the teen. Rivera no longer works in Mountain View.
The state legislature tried to address the issue of police shuffling this year. A new law requires police departments to disclose to agencies seeking to hire their former officers in instances in which they had sustained violations for making “knowing misrepresentations” during their employment.
But the law has loopholes. It deals only with officers who lie during internal investigations in court or on arrest affidavits. Disclosure wouldn’t be required for violations of excessive force or destruction of evidence or other violations, unless the agency found the officer lied about those acts.
It will not prevent smaller agencies from hiring officers when they know about a troubled past but choose to ignore it, said one of the sponsors, state Sen. John Cooke, a Republican and former Weld County sheriff.
“There are a lot of smaller agencies that will overlook a few things, unfortunately,” he said. “Shame on them for doing it.”
Cooke said giving the review panel more authority could be costly for the state and burdensome to local agencies.
“Arizona has 11 people who do state review investigations,” he said. “It would be a huge fiscal note to do something like that here and add people here and do hearings.”
This year’s Colorado legislative efforts to add new misdemeanors to the list of offenses that could result in revocation of an officer’s certificate went nowhere. Officials at the state review panel had hoped to broaden the list of disqualifying misdemeanors, but nobody took up the cause.
That means officers convicted of second-degree arson, invasion of privacy for sexual gratification, certain theft charges, some child abuse charges, patronizing a prostitute and abuse of a corpse, as well as dozens of other criminal offenses, still won’t be in danger of losing their certificate for police work in Colorado.
List of rogue officers
Meanwhile, the list of rogue Colorado officers getting second and third chances grows.
Christopher Pinder was able to find work in law enforcement after his firing from Denver, where he had a long, troubled history.
As a recruit at the Denver police academy in 2007, Pinder got in an altercation outside a bar and fled the scene, personnel records show. In 2012, he was suspended twice — both for drinking-related problems. In one case, he got drunk and ridiculed and struggled with a homeless person.
Denver authorities placed Pinder on leave that year after a doctor found him unfit for duty because of depression, panic attacks and alcohol dependence.
The next year, a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy found a drunken Pinder slumped over his Jeep Wrangler’s steering wheel around midnight, records show. “Bro, I’m a cop,” Pinder told the deputy. On the way to booking, Pinder continued to plead for special treatment he said he would have given the deputy if their roles were reversed.
Denver fired Pinder in 2014, but the Park County Sheriff’s Office still hired him as a deputy.
“We were aware of his history in Denver, and we decided to give him a shot,” said Park County Undersheriff Monte Gore.
In one instance, a mayor pleaded with the state review panel to decertify an officer, to no avail. John Cullyford, then mayor of Calhan, wrote in a 2002 letter to the board that Todd Vecellio, then chief of police of Calhan, was “not fit to be on the street” and could leave “tragedy in his wake” if allowed to remain a cop.
The officer had been reprimanded three times and had once violated policy in Calhan. He had refused orders to return a $1,500 submachine gun he purchased, The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported.
He had been convicted of abusing a 4-year-old girl, a conviction that earlier had cost him a job at the Pueblo Sheriff’s Office. He also had been arrested twice for domestic violence, cases that were dismissed.
But the review panel was powerless to act. He had done nothing sufficient to decertify him under Colorado law.
Vecellio went on to get hired as a campus police officer for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
During his employment there, he was arrested in an Internet sex sting in 2007. He had tried to set up sex with someone he believed to be a mother and her 13-year-old girl.
It took four felony convictions on child-sex charges for the state review panel to finally revoke Vecellio’s certificate for police work.
The past warning from the mayor was prescient.
“We can terminate Vecellio and we will very soon,” the mayor told the state’s review panel in the letter. But other communities, the mayor said, should be kept from hiring wandering cops such as him and “becoming victimized by the Todd G. Vecellios of this world.”
Christopher N. Osher, “Colorado laws allow rogue officers to stay in law enforcement”, The Denver Post, 07/12/2015, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_28470805/colorado-laws-allow-rogue-officers-stay-law-enforcement