Tensions have run high in recent years over officer-involved shootings around Wyoming.
Fatal shootings by police officers and sheriffs deputies in Rawlins, Laramie, Casper and Riverton have sparked lawsuits or protests. Activists and elected officials have raised questions about how uses of deadly force are investigated, and some are asking to move away from “cops investigating cops,” in pursuit of more transparency and accountability.
As the controversies mount, at least two Democratic lawmakers from communities where high-profile shootings have occurred are eyeing reforms. Neither lawmaker is certain what direction to pursue, however, illustrating the challenges of reform even as rancor over the incidents mounts.
With no state statute governing the aftermath of such incidents, investigations today are handled by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. “It has been my experience that DCI is requested to investigate all officer involved shootings (OIS) throughout the state,” DCI director Steve Woodson wrote in an email to WyoFile.
Unlike a growing number of states and cities, Wyoming does not have any widely used citizen oversight process for officer-involved shootings. In 2016, the group National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement identified 144 such oversight bodies nationwide. The number has been steadily increasing over time.
Calls for more citizen oversight in Wyoming have met pushback from local law enforcement. An attempt by the Fremont County Coroner to convene an inquest to examine a recent shooting was derailed in December, 2019.
Woodson defended the current system and players.
“DCI recognizes that officer involved shootings are traumatic and tragic events for all parties involved as well as the community,” he wrote. “DCI takes the responsibility for these investigations very seriously and welcomes and appreciates the independent review and determination provided by the District/County Attorneys who, in our experience, also take their roles in this process very seriously.”
Recent events hold up his assertion that shootings can traumatize a community. They also split it. In Riverton, Laramie and Rawlins in 2019, citizens leveled accusations of conflicts of interest against officers who investigated the shootings and county attorneys who ultimately decided whether to charge the shooter. Public officials took potshots at one another, or at activists, in the pages of local newspapers. Activists took to the streets and social media calling for change.
Protesters, family seek ‘justice for Robbie’
On Nov. 4, 2019, more than 80 people gathered in front of the Albany County Courthouse, a large crowd for a Laramie protest on a bitingly cold day.
They were gathered on the one-year anniversary of the death of Robert Ramirez, a Laramie resident with a history of mental illness. Derek Colling, an Albany County sheriff’s deputy whose career includes a previous controversial shooting and an alleged assault on a civilian, shot and killed Ramirez during a confrontation.
Albany County for Proper Policing, or ACOPP, an activist group born in the wake of the shooting, has pushed for reforms and Colling’s removal for over a year. The group has met pushback from local officials, and Colling remains in the sheriff’s department.
“We don’t want your killer cops out here making traffic stops,” the crowd in front of the courthouse chanted.
Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie), a local defense attorney, spoke at the protest. He told the crowd he hoped to bring a bill to the Wyoming Legislature to create a uniform “mechanism” to investigate such killings.
But two months later, on Jan. 6, Pelkey said he was “still struggling with how to draft [the bill].” He is now leaning toward a legislative study over the course of the year, Pelkey told WyoFile in an interview, as opposed to bringing a bill for the legislative session beginning in February. A study would allow him to include law enforcement officials and representatives in the process, Pelkey said.
Law enforcement is a powerful constituency in the Wyoming Legislature. “If there’s strong opposition from law enforcement, it’s going to be a tough row to hoe,” Pelkey said. The Legislature rejected taking up the topic for study after the 2019 session, according to Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent. She said at a public meeting last spring that she had asked lawmakers for a study and been rejected. Trent presented the Ramirez case to a grand jury that chose not to indict Colling, drawing accusations of conflict of interest and a lack of transparency.
While the path may be unclear, Pelkey does have a goal in mind, he said. “My honest gut reaction is I don’t want cops investigating cops,” he said.
Several county attorneys and other law enforcement officials have told WyoFile they turn to DCI because it is an agency outside the community. That’s preferable to a police department investigating its own officers, for example, or a police department investigating its county sheriff’s deputy, they said.
Pelkey considers such perceived impartiality largely illusory; DCI officers often come up from county level law enforcement departments, or vice versa, he said.
In the Ramirez case, the Wyoming Highway Patrol called DCI immediately after the shooting. Two months later, a DCI officer was called to testify at a closed-door grand jury proceeding held by Albany County Attorney Trent. The grand jury cleared Colling of any wrongdoing.
Ramirez’s family, ACOPP members and Trent all criticized DCI’s investigation. The official report focused heavily on Ramirez’s history and mental illness and paid less scrutiny to Colling’s behavior during the encounter or the officer’s checkered past.
“How this was investigated and how this matter was handled needs to be reviewed,” Trent said during a January, 2019, press conference.
Woodson did not respond to a question about the Ramirez investigation. DCI’s goal in such investigations is to gather facts for a prosecutor’s review, not rule on the shooting, Woodson said in an email to WyoFile.
“Generally speaking, [officer involved shooting] investigations are conducted in a fashion similar to other investigations,” Woodson wrote. “We collaborate with the appropriate District/County Attorney’s office, interview suspects and witnesses, collect evidence, and submit appropriate evidence for analysis. The goal of any investigation is to collect the facts which are then provided to the prosecuting authority for independent review and charging decisions.”
If there are cases with the potential for conflict of interest, “we will attempt to bring in investigator(s) from another part of the state,” Woodson wrote.
DCI should not approach an investigation seeking to draw conclusions about the officer’s conduct one way or another, said Byron Oedekoven, a former sheriff and executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. “It would be improper,” he said, “you do not conduct an investigation with an outcome in mind.”
Oedekoven believes much of the tension over officer-involved shootings arises from “the public’s desire to have information faster than investigations will allow,” he said. His organization is hosting a class in the spring to educate departments in pushing out information faster, he said.
If there was a legislative study, “we would be involved in it,” Oedekoven said.
In the Ramirez shooting, ACOPP also criticized the grand jury proceeding, which was closed to the public. ACOPP previously argued Trent should have recused herself since she works closely with the sheriff’s department as a prosecutor.
“I would make the same argument for every single county attorney across the state,” ACOPP executive director Karlee Provenza told WyoFile.
ACOPP is not content to wait for legislative change.“We cannot wait years for state statutes to change,” Provenza said at the November rally.
Instead, the group is circulating a petition calling for Colling to be decertified by the Wyoming Attorney General, meaning he could no longer carry a badge and gun. The petition had 959 people’s signatures as of this week, Provenza said.
ACOPP will present the petition to the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training board, Provenza said, which has the power to decertify an officer. The board is made up of law enforcement officials, including Woodson and Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, as well as Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill and some training specialists.
Price of protection?
Officer-involved shootings can be expensive affairs both for the county in which they occur and the state.
On Dec. 30, 2015, two Rawlins Police Department officers shot and killed Colorado resident John Randall Veach as he was trying to drive away from them in a pickup truck. The officers had approached Veach following reports he was trying to sell marijuana to gas station customers.
He was driving at less than five miles per hour when the officers shot him three times through the driver’s side window of the car, according to court documents. The officers claimed that they shot Veach out of concerns he was attempting to strike one of them with the truck.
DCI investigated the incident. Seeking to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, the Carbon County attorney at the time outsourced the charging decision to Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson.
Howieson ruled the officers acted reasonably, but the attempt at avoiding the conflict-of-interest appearance fell flat. Howieson had attended high school with one of the officers, leading some Rawlins residents to criticize the process.
“We believe that there was a conflict of interest there as well,” Matthew Cron, a Colorado-based lawyer for the Veach family told WyoFile in early December. “In my opinion the county attorney took the position that if the officers said they were in danger, then case closed,” he said.
In 2017, Veach’s ex-wife and children sued the city of Rawlins. Cron and his colleagues argued that video evidence contradicted the police officers’ account of being in danger. Lawyers from the Wyoming Attorney General’s office represented the officers and chose not to go to a jury trial.
In May, 2019, the family won a $925,000 settlement. Some of that was paid by the state through a “risk pool” local governments contribute to. But around 80% came from the state itself, Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool Director Mark Pring said. While the local government liability pool covers officers in their official capacity, the state indemnifies officers as individuals, Pring said.
In wrongful-death lawsuits like the ones brought by Veach’s family, it’s commonplace for attorneys to name officers both in their official capacity and their individual capacity, Pring said. Wyoming is therefore on the hook for a settlement in Rawlins.
In August, Rawlins residents in a contentious public meeting called for the officers’ removal, according to reporting by the Rawlins Daily Times. But in defending the police department, Rawlins City Manager Scott Hannum said “I don’t know why we’d fire somebody for doing their job.”
The meeting was reminiscent of several heated Albany County Commission meetings where attendees debated the Ramirez shooting. There, both officials and community activists shouted and swore.
“We were screamed at… because we asked to be involved in conversations about how to handle these things,” activist Provenza said.
Can coroners help?
The most recent officer-involved shooting death in Wyoming occurred in September in Riverton, where an officer shot and killed an intoxicated Northern Arapaho man who officials say attacked the officer with a knife. The shooting inflamed racial tensions in the town and led to marches by residents critical of local officials’ lack of transparency.
The deceased, 58-year-old Anderson Antelope, was known to have a history of alcoholism, and family members have said he was physically disabled as well, according to reporting by Wyoming Public Radio.
On Nov. 29, 2019, Fremont County Attorney Patrick Lebrun ruled the officer, who remains unnamed by authorities, used appropriate force. The ruling followed Lebrun’s receipt of a DCI investigation.
The Riverton case had an additional variable: Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen. The coroner attempted to hold an inquest into the shooting, a process in which three members of the public would have served as a jury decided whether it was justified. Wyoming statute does not allow an inquest to result in any criminal charges, Stratmoen said.
“The inquests are to be something that is outside the judicial or the legal process to give an independent outlook,” he said. “You can bring some of the public questions into the mix and maybe get some answers.”
Stratmoen held an inquest earlier in 2019, in the case of a fatal shooting in Riverton involving federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But on the Antelope shooting, his efforts were blocked by local law enforcement. The Riverton Police Department denied his records requests, he wrote in a Dec. 5 press release. Lebrun, the county attorney, criticized the inquest in newspaper editorials and articles as expensive and likely to be biased. (Stratmoen said it would have cost around $800.)
Stratmoen needed Lebrun’s cooperation to hold an inquest, he told WyoFile in late November. Otherwise, the subpoenas his office issued could be flaunted. On Dec. 5, 2019, he abandoned the effort.
“I am disappointed that some have forgotten who we are supposed to serve,” he wrote in the press release, “and [at] the loss of opportunity to answer the public’s questions or concerns in this case.”
Stratmoen had considered including Rep. Andi Clifford (D-Riverton), a Northern Arapaho tribal member and the only statewide elected official from a Wyoming tribe, in the failed inquest. Some Riverton officials questioned Clifford’s impartiality after comments she made at a legislative committee meeting shortly after the shooting.
Her tribal affiliation would not have kept her from being an impartial juror on an inquest, she told WyoFile on Dec. 10, 2019. “I’m there to advocate for my tribal member, but there’s police protocol, procedure,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to make the call to exonerate that officer.”
Now, as a lawmaker, Clifford too is looking for a statute change, she said, including the possibility of strengthening county coroners’ ability to hold inquests. For Clifford, the Antelope case illuminated a “statute problem that was never brought to the forefront until now,” she said.
An inquest “would’ve helped and gave answers,” Clifford said. “Even if the answer was the police officer didn’t do anything wrong.”
Both Provenza, the ACOPP director, and Pelkey, the Laramie lawmaker, say they don’t think inquests offer the ultimate answer to Wyoming’s problems. That’s because that process still leaves the decision making in the hands of an official who has to work closely with law enforcement most of the time, Provenza said.
Provenza would like to see civilian oversight boards in every county, she said, that could investigate shootings and other citizen complaints against law enforcement. Those boards should have subpoena power, she said, and issue public opinions about incidents and suggestions for reforms.
There could also be a statewide oversight board, she said.
Oedekoven, the police and sheriff lobbyist, was critical of citizen oversight boards. “You have a professional investigator doing an investigation and a citizen who has minimal or any knowledge is going to somehow look at a report and go ‘yes, that is thorough?’” he said, “yes that is complete, yes that followed the latest in DNA trends or firearm examination?”
But Provenza called oversight a democratic need, and said the boards could lead to positive change in the wake of shootings. “If the school district has a school board why do we not have a body that oversees an organization that has the legal rights to kill us?” Provenza asked. Law enforcement in Wyoming is too insular, she said, and unaccountable to the people it is supposed to protect and serve.
“We should always put public transparency at the forefront and we continue to see case after case that that’s not what the good old boys want,” she said.