Updated Dec 12, 2023 - News

How rogue officers stay on the job in Colorado

Illustration of a magnifying glass shaped like a badge.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included a photo that misidentified a police officer. The photo has been removed.

A series of loopholes and blind spots are allowing Colorado law enforcement officers with documented records of misconduct to get new policing jobs, often in the state's smaller, rural departments, a new investigation finds.

Why it matters: The state is working to crack down on rogue officers with new accountability measures, but the challenges showcase the limitations of a 2020 law that created a database of disciplined officers.

Threat level: How many of these so-called wandering officers are employed in Colorado is not clear, but an investigation led by the Colorado News Collaborative found a handful of examples that fit a broader pattern. Among them:

  • Christopher Valko resigned from the Denver Police Department for an unconstitutional search and went on to leave his next job at Parker Police during an investigation into his arrest of a suspect by reaching through their doorway without a warrant. He's now working as an officer in Sheridan.
  • Washington County sheriff's deputy Leotis Johnson was fired for inappropriately messaging a woman he pulled over but took a job in Morgan County, only to be fired there for doing the same to a female colleague.
  • Federal Heights officer Pablo Vasquez, who was labeled a "significant" liability risk, landed a new job as a sergeant in Platteville. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to a misdemeanor after parking his police car on railroad tracks. A woman put in the back by another officer was seriously injured when a train collided with the car. He received a deferred judgment and is eligible to remain a certified officer.

The intrigue: Troubled officers often land in rural communities because it's tougher to hire there given the lower salaries and remote locations, officials told reporters.

  • Rural agencies typically pay 30%-50% less than larger urban departments, officials and scholars said.

What they're saying: "I worry, especially in rural communities like ours, about the caliber of applicants we're getting," Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola told the collaborative.

  • "So it's hugely important that we know β€” and everyone knows β€” as much as possible about their backgrounds. It's a matter of public safety."

The other side: Valko could not be reached for comment, and Vasquez declined to comment.

  • Johnson told reporters he saw nothing inappropriate with what he called his "friendly text messages" to women he met on the job.

Between the lines: A 2020 law creating a new database of disciplined officers is designed to help prevent this dynamic, but it is incomplete and countless episodes of misconduct are not included because Attorney General Phil Weiser decided not to include incidents prior to 2022.

  • In Johnson's case, the database lists him as "terminated with cause" in August 2022, but there is no record he was untruthful with superiors, which could get him decertified by the state.
  • Valko resigned from the Parker Police Department "in lieu of termination," but he was able to have that resignation omitted from the database during an appeals process last year.
  • The Sheridan Police Department told the Colorado News Collaborative that Valko told them that he stopped working for Denver police not because of an unconstitutional search, but because he didn't want to take a COVID shot.

Of note: The public database maintained by Colorado's Peace Officer Standards and Training doesn't list officers' full employment histories.

  • The Gazette newspaper and the Invisible Institute β€” a nonprofit news site based in Chicago β€” filed a legal challenge to disclose the information. The institute reports that Colorado is one of just 15 states that keeps such information hidden.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show Chirstopher Valko resigned from the Denver Police Department and wasn't fired. He also left his job at Parker Police while under investigation for an unconstitutional arrest, not a search.

  • This story has also been updated to include comments from the Sheridan Police Department about why Valko said he left Denver police.
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