May 16, 2024 - News

How a 2019 law to crack down on dishonest law enforcement officers has fared so far

Illustration of a police badge in the tray of the scales of justice.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A 2019 law has led to 70 officers losing their badges over dishonesty, but some have been allowed to stay on the job, a new Colorado News Collaborative investigation has found.

Why it matters: The problem with dishonest cops is bigger than lawmakers initially imagined.

  • Instead of four decertifications a year, which they estimated, the state is seeing about 20 since the law took effect.

How it works: The law mandates revocation of certification of an officer found to be dishonest, but the process being hidden from public view and other gaps in the state's police conduct law can result in such an officer remaining on the job.

  • To revoke an officer's ability to work in Colorado, the officer must be untruthful in a police report, internal affairs investigation or statement under oath. Other dishonesty could lead to disciplinary action but not decertification, the law states.

Driving the news: A review of internal affairs documents found that law enforcement agencies allow officers to resign, retire or transfer without punishment and without being reported to state authorities, according to a review by Colorado Public Radio and 9News.

  • Even when officers were found untruthful, state officials didn't decertify them in some cases.
  • In other cases, inconsistent rulings on what constitutes "clear and convincing" dishonesty allows officers to remain on the force even if internal reviews found them to be deceptive.

By the numbers: 15 law enforcement officials who were found being untruthful remained certified, per the review. More cases possibly exist but agencies refused to provide the records, citing caveats in the state's open records law.

Case in point: A southern Colorado sheriff's deputy who didn't respond to a 911 call for an armed trespass told his supervisors he did. He was later fired after the local district attorney intervened.

  • An officer whose patrol car was damaged but wasn't honest about it. He was fired but later found a job with the Summit County Sheriff's Office.

What they're saying: "It shows to me a flaw in the laws, the way we allow people to be officers despite deception," said Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who has studied policing since 2015.

  • The findings, she added, suggest "significant gaps" in the law and too narrow a definition for what leads to decertification.
  • In some cases, the paperwork needed for a state investigation is not completed nor disclosed by local law enforcement leaders.

Reality check: The weaknesses of the law are evident to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. A series of investigations about gaps that allow rogue officers to stay on the job pushed his office to seek more power to investigate cases, but the bill failed to win support in the just-finished legislative session.

  • "We … don't have authority in our office to investigate or even hold accountable law enforcement agencies if they fail to tell us that officers were fired for cause. I'd like to have that authority," Weiser told Axios Denver in an interview Tuesday.

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