The suspension of two Boulder police officers who are being investigated in the shooting of an elk on New Year's Day comes after a number of arrests in the last year and a half of officers and former officers on criminal charges ranging from DUI to attempted murder.
Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner said he knows the accusations affect how the public views the department.
In an interview with the Camera, Beckner said he wants the public to know he takes each accusation seriously, and he asked Boulder residents to look not just at the bad actions of some officers but also at how the department handles these cases, with thorough internal investigations.
"It's embarrassing to all of us, the officers, the dispatchers, the record clerks, the detectives, we're all embarrassed," Beckner said. "We pride ourselves on being an ethical, responsible police organization."
The investigation into the actions of officers Sam Carter and Brent Curnow on Tuesday night, when a large bull elk was shot and killed on Mapleton Hill, is still underway, and no criminal charges have been filed.
According to Boulder police, an on-duty officer said he shot the elk because it was injured but did not report killing the animal or firing his weapon. An off-duty officer took the animal home for meat. Carter was on-duty that night, according to police records, and Curnow was not.
All of those actions violate the typical procedures followed by Boulder officers in animal cases, police officials said, and an internal investigation is also underway, in addition to a criminal investigation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Boulder police, the Boulder County District Attorney's Office and the City Council have been inundated with phone calls and emails demanding the officers be charged and fired.
Beckner said officers have due process rights that are important to protect, and proper investigations take time. He asked the public for patience.
the public's anger is shared within the department, Beckner said.
"One good sign for me is that there is a lot of anger here over these recent activities," Beckner said. "It's not like people are circling the wagons to protect people who don't make good decisions."
Elk shooting is only the latest serious mis-step
Beckner acknowledged there have been a concerning number of serious incidents in the last 18 months, and he said department officials are looking at whether any procedures or protocols need to be clarified or whether the "messaging" to officers needs to change.
In April 2012, a former Boulder police officer, Eric Shunglik Lee, pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing an unregistered
firearm, a charge stemming from an accusation that the 33-year-old patrol officer stole and sold Army-issued assault rifle silencers.
Lee was hired by the Boulder Police Department in January 2010 and resigned in November 2011 after being placed on leave during an internal investigation.
Federal officials said Lee gave silencers he brought back from a tour of duty in Iraq to another National Guardsman, who sold them to an undercover informant.
In May, a Boulder police officer on medical leave, Christian McCracken, was charged with attempted murder for allegedly plotting to murder his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend.
McCracken sustained a head injury in the line of duty in 2011. McCracken, who is scheduled to stand
trial in February, resigned after an internal affairs investigation into his case.
Two Boulder police officers are currently on administrative leave after being arrested on suspicion of DUI.
Scott Morris was pulled over by Boulder County sheriff's deputies in November. According to a police report, he had been pulled over 44 times in the last several years and some of the deputies were familiar with him from those incidents. He is scheduled to appear in court on Monday.
Then in December, Boulder DUI officer Elizabeth Ward was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in Thornton.
Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said the City Council doesn't get involved in individual police officer disciplinary matters,
but the community is concerned. He said there probably should be a public discussion with Beckner and City Manager Jane Brautigam about how the police department plans to restore public confidence.
"The bigger picture of how they handle incidents like this and how they ensure we're not seeing the beginning of a trend we don't want to see, I think we should talk about that," Appelbaum said.
Appelbaum said he suspects that each incident was the result of individual factors that don't reflect a department-wide cultural problem.
"I think this is just an unfortunate confluence of events, but I think it's important for the community to know that," he said. "We're the voice of the community. We need to look at the erosion of public confidence."
Judd Golden, of the Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Boulder police department often trades on its good reputation when his organization pushes for more scrutiny on certain practices.
When the ACLU recently asked for regulations around how officers use license-plate readers, Boulder City Attorney Tom Carr wrote in an email: "Considering the excellent history and reputation of the Boulder Police Department, I do not see that we are in a position where the council needs to pass preemptive legislation."
But the recent cases show that not all Boulder police officers can be equally trusted, Golden said.
"These incidents suggest that we live in a world of imperfection, and some of those imperfect people are police officers," Golden said. "This is how abuse of these kinds of government surveillance tools occur. There is temptation."
"It calls into question whether 'trust us' is a good policy," Golden added.
Smaller departments pose internal challenges
Diop Kamau, a former police officer who is now the CEO of Florida-based policeabuse.com, said dealing with misconduct in smaller police organizations can be harder because internal affairs officers and other officers tend to have a history together.
And, even when bad officers are fired, their conduct erodes confidence in the department and represents a loss of the community's investment in their training. Kamau said close monitoring and counseling of officers who are suspected of more minor infractions or who have had allegations against them can help salvage police officers whose behavior could become a problem and sends a good message about the department's expectations to other officers.
An outside, independent monitor can also help, he said. One of the worst things an officer can do, said Kamau, is lie.
"When a police officer feels comfortable lying, it's a problem for the whole community because the whole court process starts with their testimony," he said.
In addition to the criminal cases, Boulder police conduct an internal investigation into every accusation of misconduct.
Commanding officers make recommendations about disciplinary action, and so does an internal affairs review board that includes six civilian members and six members from the department. Beckner makes the final decision.
In the cases of Lee and McCracken, the officers resigned because it was clear they would be fired. Beckner said officers facing termination frequently resign first, but if they ever apply for another law enforcement job, those departments can have access to the results of the internal investigation as part of their background check.
In recent years, there have been between three and eight internal affairs cases per year. There were four serious cases in 2011 and six in 2012, Beckner said.
The Boulder Police Department has 280 employees, of whom 173 are police officers. Beckner said that if even 1 percent of employees engage in misconduct, that would be two to three cases a year.
For years, the ACLU has pushed for a citizen oversight committee whose members are not chosen by the police department. So far, that idea hasn't seen much traction.
Beckner said he believes the department does a good job disciplining officers who break the rules.
"The issue is not whether people are going to make bad decisions," Beckner said. "It's how you deal with it when problems come up. If you cover it up and circle the wagons, that's when you have problems."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or firstname.lastname@example.org. ___