Oct 19, 2023 - News

Colorado's police accountability system is broken, investigation finds

Illustration of a police badge casting a large, cracked shadow on a wall.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Colorado allows bad cops to remain certified law enforcement officers through a series of loopholes, mistakes and self-imposed limitations, an unprecedented investigation finds.

Driving the news: The state's Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board — which certifies officers and is overseen by the Colorado attorney general — has shielded the identities of most law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing prior, allowing them to move from job to job, and failed to sanction local agencies that don't report misbehavior.

  • Colorado officers need POST certification in order to make arrests in the state.

Why it matters: The findings, culled from never-before-seen data and public records as part of a 10-month investigation led by the Colorado News Collaborative, raise doubts about whether the state is keeping the public safe three years after promising a new era of police accountability that drew national praise.

State of play: One of the major reforms approved by Colorado lawmakers after the 2020 murder of George Floyd was the creation of a public database, launched in January 2022, listing officers who lost their right to carry a badge and a record of those under investigation for wrongdoing.

Yes, but: The information in the database is incomplete and inaccurate in certain cases, the records reviewed by four Colorado media organizations show, making it unreliable to filter out bad cops.

What they found: One malfunction — which POST has known about for a year — displays "certified" next to the names of officers who lost their certification. It lists dozens as "terminated for cause" but doesn't list the reason. In other cases, the information is outdated by three months or more.

  • Officers involved in some of Colorado's most noteworthy misconduct cases — including the 2019 death of Elijah McClain in Aurora — are listed with no disciplinary histories because the database doesn't contain any reports prior to 2022.
  • Moreover, the state relies on local agencies to report bad behavior, which often doesn't happen, and does not impose the allowed sanctions on those that fail to report.

The other side: POST says it doesn't have a timeline or budget to correct mistakes in the database, nor does it have the ability to investigate officer misconduct.

  • In some cases, reporting delays are attributable to ongoing disciplinary inquiries.

What they're saying: "If we're going to make law enforcement more professional, and if we're going to make the state of Colorado more safe, we need to hold these people accountable," says Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola, a member of the POST board.

  • "We have to be able to police our police."

The intrigue: In some situations, the state only decertified officers reported for misconduct by their departments after reporters asked questions about the discrepancies as part of this investigation.

Of note: A 2019 state law allowed an officer to lose certification for untruthfulness. Since that new accountability law took effect, 53 officers have lost their certification for falsifying records, misrepresenting facts during internal or administrative investigations or lying under oath.

Zoom in: Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Aaron Laing was fired in November 2022 for altering official case reports to remove references to the involvement of a federal agency in an undercover operation.

  • But POST only decertified him in September 2023 after reporters questioned the delay.
  • Laing declined to comment as part of the collaboration's story.

Between the lines: In one highlighted example, Denver police officer Shane Madrigal remains a certified law enforcement officer, even though he allegedly bragged to coworkers about shooting a carjacking suspect to death and then 16 more times to see "his face fall apart," an internal investigation found.

  • Madrigal resigned in 2022 while he was under investigation for "grossly inappropriate comments" about killing people on duty but his disciplinary record is clean, the POST database shows. The Denver district attorney determined the shooting to be legally justified.
  • Madrigal denied making the comments. He said he stopped shooting when he believed the suspect was no longer a threat.

What they're saying: "What kind of system allows the certification of an officer who takes pleasure in riddling people with extra bullets?" asks Trish Vigil, mother of the carjacking suspect shot by Madrigal. "That's not police discipline. It's a free pass. And it's disgusting."

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