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Laramie effort exposes hurdles to increased police oversight

Protesters occupy 3rd Street and Grand Avenue, Laramie’s principal downtown intersection. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Civilian oversight board rejected abruptly over concerns the city would violate state statute. Lawyers say it’s not so cut and dried. 

 Jeff Victor, WyoFile

When the Laramie City Council killed a measure to advance a civilian oversight board in March, it marked an abrupt end to a long conversation about law enforcement accountability.

The debate has been intensely local, but the arguments deployed and the roadblocks encountered show what lies ahead for any Wyoming community pondering the future of policing.

The measure looked like it was going to pass until Councilor Pat Gabriel, originally a supporter of the oversight board, called for a reconsideration of the vote, flipped his “yes” to a “no” and tipped the balance against the oversight board, striking that measure from the council’s resolution on policing reform.

An investigation by the Laramie Reporterfound that Councilor Fred Schmechel had reached out privately to Gabriel after the first vote, asking him to reconsider. Gabriel did not give reasons for changing his vote, but Schmechel said later he was concerned about the legality of an oversight board and worried Laramie would see police resignations if it approved such a board.

Those stark concerns, and the urgency of those behind-the-scenes communications, capped off several years of protestspetitionscommittees and forums.

Despite the apparent finality of the March vote, issues remain unresolved. Lawyers differ on the legality of granting civilians various oversight powers. Meanwhile, those making moral arguments for or against the oversight board remain committed to their ideals.

Opponents argue it’s unfair to outsource an HR process to a nongovernmental entity, and unfair to punish the Laramie Police Department for the bad behavior of other agencies in Wyoming and beyond.

But oversight advocates counter that police occupy a unique station in society, and the power they wield demands closer scrutiny.

The grassroots campaign for civilian oversight

Albany County for Proper Policing started calling for an oversight board on Jan. 4, 2019.

Just two months before, then-Deputy Derek Colling with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office had shot and killed Robbie Ramirez following a traffic stop near Ramirez’s home. The shooting would eventually kick off a larger local movement for police accountability and the ouster of the sheriff. But almost immediately, it inspired Karlee Provenza and others to start organizing around an issue that had bubbled informally under the surface for years: a distrust of the sheriff’s office and the suspicion that a network of “good ole boys” wielded immense power in Laramie.

More than 80 people gathered in front of the Albany County Courthouse on Nov. 4, 2019, to mark the anniversary of a controversial officer-involved shooting in Laramie and call for reforms. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“Before Robbie Ramirez was killed, a lot of it was just conversations in the community among friends,” Provenza, a Democratic state representative, said.

There were plenty of isolated, anecdotal stories about officer and deputy misconduct, but no formal efforts to deal with them.

The 2018 shooting — by a deputy with a documented history of violence — changed that. Just days after the shooting, Provenza and her partner invited friends over to share deer chili and discuss it. Word spread and 24 people showed up, some of whom Provenza had never met.

“Robbie’s uncle showed up that night,” Provenza said. “He was the one who broke to us that it was Derek Colling.”

ACoPP was born out of that gathering, and the new organization hosted a community forum in January, inviting locals to discuss policing and avenues for reform. There were tables dedicated to police policies, mental health responses and community oversight.

It was clear from the forum that some segment of Laramie — both progressive reformers and staunch small-government conservatives — wanted a community oversight board. After the forum, ACoPP started researching what other communities were doing and speaking with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement about the forms oversight could take.

“The point of oversight being you have people from the community that aren’t already entrenched in law enforcement culture who can say, ‘This is how the policy lands on me, this is how I think about it,’” Provenza said. “There’s a disconnect between what the public thinks is reasonable use of force and what law enforcement thinks is reasonable. So how do you bridge the gap?”

In response to George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer, people took to the streets across the country with a resounding call for police reform and increased accountability. In Laramie, ACoPP members were in touch with local march organizers and shared what they had learned.

A civilian oversight board made it onto the list of demands circulated by demonstrators that summer. And as those protests moved into the city council chambers, an oversight board was one of the items councilors agreed to consider.

What followed was a lengthy bureaucratic process. Councilors established a selection committee; that committee established a working group. That working group met, behind closed doors, for more than six months and returned to the council in February 2022 to present recommendations.

Almost no one was happy with the result.

The recommendations were vaguely worded. Progress on the working group, one co-chair alleged, was intentionally hindered by “obstructionists” who joined the group specifically to stop the civilian oversight board.

The city council advanced some recommendations from the working group, including measures for reevaluating the city’s mental health response model and the establishment of a new anonymous complaint system. But the measure calling on city council to “investigate the creation of a civilian oversight board” was eliminated when Councilor Gabriel flipped his vote.

Two central issues emerged during the oversight board conversations that were hammered repeatedly whenever there was a public debate. Opponents of the oversight board worry about the legality of asking citizens to review police conduct; others object to the idea in principle, claiming it is unfair, unjust and ill-advised to give citizens with no background in law enforcement any control over the agencies that protect and serve the community.

Lessons from Cheyenne

Laramie is not the first Wyoming community to have this conversation. Cheyenne’s model of police and community interaction was frequently cited by those in Laramie arguing both for and against a civilian oversight board.

There are two bodies that serve as communication channels between the people of Cheyenne and their police department.

The first is a police-community relations committee, formerly known as Police and Community Together, or PACT.

“The whole thing is set up to be transparent with the community,” said Cheyenne Police Chief Mark Francisco. “We can’t reach out individually to everyone in the community, but this is a way to kind of bridge the gap. It’s a two-way communication process for them. It’s just a really good way for us to make sure we have a good pulse on what the community’s thinking and a way for us to feed back information about how and why we do the things we do.”

But PACT President Fernando Muzquiz said the committee is now restructuring and will return under a different name. The new iteration will do what the old group was formed to do, he said.

“The reason that PACT went away is just because it grew into a larger animal than it was intended to be,” Muzquiz said. “We started dipping our toes into areas that we shouldn’t be as an advisory group, per se.”

Muzquiz said the citizen advisory group is supposed to serve as a “sounding board” for the police chief, help the department organize non-enforcement activities and channel citizen feedback on department policies and procedures.

“It turned into something different,” he said. “They wanted to be the go-between for people who had complaints in the community, they wanted to be the organizers and the leaders of community-type events or presentations — it just went outside the bounds of the intent of what we were offering the chief of police.”

PACT had grown to include more than 30 members. The new group will be limited to 10-12 individuals from a defined cross-section of the community, including business, government and church leaders, Muzquiz said. PACT does not review use-of-force incidents, and neither will the advisory group that replaces it.

Those incidents are reviewed by a separate body: Cheyenne’s use-of-force review board.

Staffed by three members of law enforcement and three members of the public, the review board meets monthly to review encounters Cheyenne Police officers had with members of the public involving use of force.

“Month to month, there’s no set amount we look at,” said Stephen Latham, a Cheyenne pastor and civilian member of the review board. “It’s not just every encounter with a police officer. And even with use of force, we don’t look at everything because there’d be too much for us to do.”

The board focuses on uses of force designated level two and level three. Those include anytime a person is injured — for example, whenever tasers, dogs or firearms are employed.

The board’s voting members rule on the incident, determining whether the officer’s use of force fell within department policy or outside of it. If the use of force was in accordance with department policy, the board can vote to say no further action is necessary or even that the officer should be commended. They can also determine whether there should be a review of the policy itself.

On the other hand, if board members believe the use of force breaks the department’s policies, they can vote to say an internal or even a criminal investigation is needed.

Thus far, the board has never made that determination, Latham said.

Only on paper does the review board have equal law enforcement and civilian representation, Latham said. When it comes to actually voting, the three law enforcement members vote every month. But the three civilians rotate through, so that only one votes each month.

Of the four votes cast on any given use-of-force incident, only one is cast by someone outside of law enforcement.

“If the citizen voted something different — like if we said it needs to be under criminal investigation — 100% of the time the other three officers are going to say they don’t agree,” Latham said. “So technically, our vote doesn’t really count. Even if we did have 2-2, the fifth person who would vote is also an officer, so it’s still going to go in their favor.”

It’s not merely a hypothetical, Latham said. He wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the case out of respect for the confidentiality of the civilian involved, but Latham said he once cast a vote calling for a criminal investigation. It was overruled by the officers on the review board.

Latham was “livid,” he said. 

“That blue mentality is there whether they see it or not,” he said. “I listen to them every time we go into a meeting and I see them trying to justify everything that’s been done. And sometimes it’s not necessarily that anything was done wrong, but it could have been done better. I don’t dislike law enforcement. I’m not against them. I want everything that’s done to be done right, no matter who it is. But they have that mentality, they’re going to stick behind one another.”

All that aside, Latham said most incidents the board reviews are indeed within policy. And despite his criticisms, he still believes the review board is a meaningful step in the right direction for the community.

“It’s not the best, but you have to start somewhere,” he said. “This was a good start but I feel there needs to be some other changes.”

In Laramie, the city’s working group recommended both a police-community committee and an oversight board. The measure calling for a committee passed. The measure calling for an oversight board did not.

A police-community committee could potentially mirror Cheyenne’s citizen advisory group in its roles and responsibilities. It could also include some elements of oversight or use-of-force review, depending on what proposal city staff bring to council in the coming months.

But the arguments in Laramie surrounding oversight highlighted vastly differing opinions on what would even be considered legal.

Personnel wielding ‘the ultimate power’

Laramie City Attorney Bob Southard does not believe an oversight board would be illegal. With such a broad and undefined term as “oversight,” there’s a great deal the city could legally implement if it so chose, he said.

But Southard did advise the council and working group that particular elements of oversight board proposals could prove to be major stumbling blocks for advocates with a specific kind of oversight in mind.

Namely, an oversight board of select or appointed citizens could not fire police officers.

“What I expressed to the community was that an oversight board could do many things, but that I believed that if it was intended to have control over personnel matters, that would be difficult, if not impossible, under state law,” Southard said. “Ultimately it comes down to even our city manager does not have the power to fire, demote or discipline police officers. That power rests entirely with the Civil Service Commission.”

The Civil Service Commission approves new hires and promotions in the Laramie Police Department and Laramie Fire Department, and “monitors” dismissals. It also hears complaints from police and fire-department employees and sets out requirements for employment in both services. Among other standards, police officers are required to not have a “notoriously bad character” or lack “ordinary physical courage.”

And there’s an additional wrinkle, Southard said.

“The second level has to do with voluntarily turning over personnel information to community board members, where I believe that personnel information is confidential by law,” he said.

The matter of confidential personnel information was raised as early as February 2021, when Chief Stalder presented his oversight board research to the Laramie City Council. Because use-of-force incidents could potentially lead to discipline or termination of an officer, Stalder said, files related to that use-of-force incident are automatically personnel files.

“I have extreme concerns about personnel records,” Stalder said at the time. “From the minute a use-of-force review is entered into our process system, that’s a personnel matter and I don’t feel comfortable, at this juncture, exposing that personnel matter to members of the community.”

The oversight board measure, as it was written, specifically stated that any oversight board established by the city council would have to keep within the confines of the law. But that did not convince the councilors opposed.

“It’s kind of like saying ‘I’m going to rob banks within the confines of the law.’” said Councilor Schmechel, who convinced Councilor Gabriel to flip his vote. “It’s still not something we could do.”

But not every lawyer agrees. Bruce Moats — an attorney specializing in media law and public records — said the records of interest to a civilian oversight board are likely accessible.

“Are these records only placed in the officer’s personnel files?” he asked. “I suspect not.”

Information about a use-of-force incident would likely be found across a variety of police files, Moats said, from arrest reports to investigatory documents.

“Now, they might put one in the personnel file afterwards, but that doesn’t mean it’s confidential,” Moats said. “The courts have been pretty clear — you can’t just place something in the personnel file in order to protect it and say it’s not discoverable under the Public Records Act.”

Using a document in a personnel investigation, Moats said, doesn’t turn it into a personnel document.

Of course, as in many areas of Wyoming law, the issue has not generated court cases or rulings that would dictate how the law ought to be interpreted. The best Moats can do is point to case law in other states.

“There are courts in other states that have ruled that basically, given the importance of police officers and the power they possess, the public interest weighs in favor of releasing these kinds of records,” Moats said. “Now, that’s not been unanimous among the other states, but there certainly is case law out there in that regard. Right now, in Wyoming, we don’t have a case like that. We haven’t had a case that’s been ruled that way.”

All of this assumes an oversight board is limited to making recommendations to those in charge — the city manager, police chief or civil service commission. Some might want to see an oversight body with the power to fire misbehaving cops, but Provenza said the call for an oversight board in Laramie was never about gaining the authority to hire and fire officers.

“It’s always a recommendation to the hierarchy of leadership in law enforcement — in part because what NACOLE argues is that hierarchy is really important,” Provenza said. “It’s just really ingrained in law enforcement culture; they answer to their superior. If your chief of police doesn’t have power, the rank and file below them are not going to answer to them in the same way. But that chief of police, after receiving that recommendation, can say, ‘I disagree,’ but then have to say why.”

The courts in other states have generally drawn a line, Moats said, between activity that could be classified as solely a personnel matter — such as an officer showing up late to work — and activity that might have disciplinary implications, but that directly impacts the wider community — such as excessive use of force.

Moats said the courts recognize the unique place that law enforcement occupies in society.

“The officer has the ultimate power, and that is to even end your life in the proper circumstances,” he said.

The moral argument

Beyond what’s legally permissible, there’s also been a discussion of what’s morally necessary.

While those opposed to an oversight board have raised concerns about fair treatment for law enforcement officers, those calling for an oversight board have been adamant that law enforcement is unique.

“I don’t understand, quite frankly, why oversight of a government body, of an agent of the government with the legal right to kill you, is a negative thing,” Provenza said. “Law enforcement is given special rights and privileges in dealing with the public that others don’t have, so it makes complete sense from the perspective of wanting to make sure our government serves the people.”

Ramirez was shot by a deputy of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. But the debates in Laramie have focused on the possibility of attaching an oversight board to the Laramie Police Department — a distinct agency.

The protesters found more sympathetic ears in the city government and on the Laramie City Council than the county commission. Opponents of the oversight board have voiced frustration that the Laramie Police Department faces demands for civilian oversight when it was a separate agency’s actions that kicked off the local movement for police accountability.

Provenza said some level of oversight in the community is better for everyone — civilian and law enforcement alike. If a shooting is indeed justified, Provenza said, the public will have an easier time accepting it if a panel of their civilian peers has reviewed the incident and come to the same conclusion.

An oversight board is not about punishing a badly behaved agency, Provenza said. It’s about preventing tragedies in the future.

“We can reduce the likelihood that we’re going to have problems in the future if we have community oversight,” she said.

Latham, from Cheyenne, agrees the role of law enforcement is singular enough to warrant oversight.

“There’s only one other job where people get that kind of power and that’s in the military,” he said. “There’s no other job where people have the legal right to stop you and pull arms on you and even kill you if necessary. It’s not Joe Janitor on the street [that] has that. So you should be scrutinized.”

The scope and function of Laramie’s police-community committee has yet to be defined. Interested parties will likely continue to hash it out on city council Zoom calls after staff put forth concrete proposals. Provenza, who represents Wyoming House District 45, said there’s room for legislative changes that might clear up issues surrounding personnel records. There are also city council elections just around the corner, and a new balance on council could bring its different priorities, resurrect nixed ideas or fully nail the coffin on the possibility of an oversight body.

Laramie carries on without a civilian oversight board. But a conversation once disjointed and directionless has taken form and moved into the public sphere.


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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