Laramie’s city government is preparing for a conversation about it’s police department amid national and local protests against racism and police violence, but so far there’s no interest among officials in defunding or dismantling the department.
After almost two straight weeks of nearly daily protests disrupted life in the city, the Laramie City Council is slated to host a work session on policing Tuesday.
City Manager Janine Jordan said its meant to review the Laramie Police Department’s policies and police oversight.
“A few days after the horrific news of George Floyd’s death, we scheduled the June 23 work session intending to review Laramie’s use of force policy and oversight,” Jordan wrote in an email.
Police Chief Dale Stalder said a myriad of topics will be covered, from use of force, responding to people with mental health crises, de-escalation training, body cameras and more.
City Councilwoman Erin O’Doherty, who told the Boomerang she brought the work session idea to the city’s administration, said she wants to involve voices from the public in the conversation, but knows it will be more difficult amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would love to be able to figure out a way to have a public conversation where people can say what their concerns are, and we and the police can listen, and the police can say, ‘Here’s what we do in that situation,’” she said. “It’s frustrating because it’s hard to take all those actions when we’re also having a pandemic.”
The work session won’t be the first time the City Council has addressed Floyd’s death. During its regular meeting June 2, Mayor Joe Shumway read a statement from the council and city followed by a moment of silence:
“The City Council of Laramie has noted with deep sadness the death of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of the city police of Minneapolis, and disturbances in our country precipitated by this dreadful incident,” Shumway read from the dais. “We want Laramie residents to know that this city also mourns Mr. Floyd’s death and recognizes this took place in a larger context which our country must address. We are committed to continuing Laramie’s efforts to protect and guard its citizens only in a civil and professional manner. We are also committed to preserving rights of citizens to peacefully protest. We welcome comments to the council for how the city can best pursue these goals because we’re all in this together.”
The demandsIn a list of demands the organizers delivered to the city, protesters call for:
- Amending the city’s 2021 budget — which now allocates just more than $8.2 million to the LPD for one-year budget cycle — to reallocate at least $42,846 to “community-oriented social programs and local school lunch debt.”
- An immediate hiring freeze with an objective of reaching a decrease in total officers.
- An update to the city’s bias crime ordinance to include community input on the provision establishing guidelines for data collection and evidence of prejudice.
- Cycling an undetermined number of officers to a “non-emergency unit” who would respond without firearms.
- A cap on overtime.
- The elimination of paid suspended leave for officers under investigation.
- An immediate posting of annual reports from 2017-2019.
- And an undetermined allocation of LPD funding to a phone line for mental health crises, domestic abuse, suicide prevention and other “social services that do not require armed police response.”
During a demonstration at the courthouse on Monday, protest organizer Timberly Vogel also voiced an interest in having police disciplinary records of all police officers available for public review. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at, among other things, creating a national database to track police misconduct. Congress is also trying to tackle legislation, but has so far found itself tied in what has become typical partisan gridlock.
Stalder said it’s important to understand the $8.2 million figure includes not just administrative costs, but also grants, animal control and the LARC, or the Laramie/Albany County Records and Communications Center, which is the division of the Laramie Police Department that provides emergency 911 dispatching and records services.
The police department is allocated funding for 47 sworn officer positions, a decrease from the 51 positions Stalder was given before 2017. Of those positions now filled, there are 32 positions allocated for patrol, 28 of which are patrolling Laramie streets today, varying by how many are ideally assigned to each shift. Stalder said there’s always a minimum of four officers on patrol, but ideally there would be five or six.
That allocation of 32 is the same it was when Stalder joined the force in 1980.
“The patrol allocation is exactly the same as it has been for all of my career,” Stalder said.
On Tuesday, Jordan met with protest organizers to discuss a list of demands. The meeting went well, Jordan said, and established a “good dialogue.”
Freezing personnel and other defunding measures would be “incredibly damaging” to the LPD’s ability to provide adequate public safety, Stalder said. He points to a 2015 study conducted by the Center for Public Safety Management, LLC., found that the 51-officer level of five years ago was the minimum needed to Laramie’s population.
“If I did the same study with the same consultant again, they would tell me I don’t have enough officers to protect the citizens of this town,” Stalder said.
Those calling for police assistance would ultimately see longer response times, and officers would have to limit or eliminate some of the calls they currently respond to, such as VIN inspections and welfare checks.
Whatever happens, Stalder said his department will continue to do its job with all it has, but warned people to consider what reducing available to it really means.
“The bottom is it doesn’t matter if I have 51 officer or 15 officers — we have a duty to protect the citizens of this community, but it would have impacts across the board,” Stalder said. “What I want people to know is the Laramie Police Department is the most well-trained, most professional police department, not just in Wyoming, but among the best in the country.”
Defund the LPD?
While the list of demands delivered to Jordan did not include a specific demand to “defund the police” — the slogan now linked to the protests nationwide — organizers speaking at protests have called for such a measure. Social media associated with the protests on Tuesday expressed appreciation for Jordan being “fruitful for the transparency of the LPD, but” that “the city is hesitant to consider defunding.”
“The goal is to abolish the police,” Vogel told those gathered at the Albany County Courthouse Monday.
As with many movements across the U.S., those in favor of police reform have suggested the resources that go into law enforcement could be repurposed to community organizations whose services could ultimately prevent crime and tasking specialists with responding to emergencies such as mental health crises.
“This is the problem is that police are overfunded,” Vogel said. “The solution is that we have education, we have housing, we have food, we have security. We have so many community institutions that we depend on that are underfunded and underserved and not paid attention to.”
While she’s seen interesting ideas for police departments on the national stage, O’Doherty said she’s not going into the work session with any specific policy ideas in mind for the LPD. As far as she knows, the department can be relied on to appropriately serve and protect people in Laramie, and she commended the way they’ve handled the protests.
O’Doherty said she hasn’t had a chance to review the demands delivered to the city administration this week but she’s open to ideas.
“I’m open to looking at ways to modernize,” she said. “If that means changing, I think it’s too early to tell.”
Jordan took a firm stand behind her city’s police department and Chief Dale Stalder.
“Under Chief Stalder’s leadership, LPD works tirelessly to serve our community in an ethical, professional, and respectful manner,” Jordan wrote in an email. “LPD is a highly-trained agency that responds to about 68 requests for help every day, on average. That’s more than 25,000 calls for service each year from residents and visitors in need and, often, the most vulnerable among us. I’ve had the honor many times to witness the deep dedication our officers have for Laramie, and their mission to serve and protect.”
Even with the praise, a conversation about how policing could be improved is also welcomed from Jordan.
“I think everyday is an opportunity for our community to talk about the critical and invaluable work done (by the) police,” she wrote.
As for defunding the police, O’Doherty said she is not in favor. To do so, she said, would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, leading the city’s ability to provide public safety to an uncertain future.
“The police have to be accountable to an elected body,” O’Doherty said. “If we don’t have police, somebody will fill the void.”
While she doesn’t know what direction the discussion will go, O’Doherty and Jordan said it’s just the beginning.
“I don’t know what direction we’re going but I think it’s just a starting point,” O’Doherty said. “We need to engage the public in more conversation and then we’ll know where to take it from there.”
The vast majority of LPD’s funding, 83%, goes to personnel. Forty-seven of the department’s 75 employees are sworn officers.
After taking a day off Tuesday, protesters returned to the streets Wednesday with their chants and signs, obstructing traffic along Grand for around 30 minutes. Protesters gathered again on Thursday at First Street Plaza but did not march.
Laramie is accustomed to seeing protesters, but Jordan said this level of activity is unprecedented.
“Laramie is an active and civic-minded community with fairly frequent marches and protests, but this is the longest period of time we’ve seen protests occur on a daily basis,” she said.
While the protests were initially confined to the sidewalk, they eventually began occupying the roadway of Grand Avenue between First and 15th streets, blocking intersections on several occasions.
Jordan said she’s had safety concerns when protesters enter the street.
“Both Third Street and Grand Avenue are State of Wyoming highways with very heavy traffic and the potential for accidents and bodily injury is high in such situations,” Jordan said.
Still, it does not appear protesters have any intention of confining marches to sidewalks as Wednesday saw people walking down Grand Avenue continue.
Confrontations with apparent counter-protesters, many who were armed, began getting tense last week as those opposed to the demonstrations continued antagonizing protesters. The conflicts seemed to come to a head June 11 when a man repeatedly driving a white truck around the protest got into a shouting match with a protester on Grand Avenue just east of Third Street. A holstered handgun was brandished at the man’s chest as he exchanged shouts with the protesters.
An investigation into the man who brandished the weapon was completed, finding no violations of city ordinance or state law, Laramie Police Department Lt. Gwen Smith said in an email. To date, no one has been arrested in association with the protests. Two citations for vandalism written to protesters have resulted from activities surrounding the protests and one was issued to a driver for impeding traffic.
The sheriff’s office
Because it’s not in the city’s jurisdiction, one matter that’s been key to the protests that won’t be a topic at June 23 work session is Albany County sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling.
In November 2018, Colling shot and killed Robbie Ramirez, an unarmed man who struggled with mental health issues. Colling was not indicted by a grand jury and remains employed at the sheriff’s office, though not on patrol.
The public controversy surrounding Ramirez’s death never went away and now has intensified as protests against police violence continue. Chants of “Fire Derek Colling” have echoed through the streets each day as protesters march by the courthouse on Grand Avenue.
The sheriff’s office has been paying attention to the protests and messages across a variety of platforms, Undersheriff Josh DeBree told the Boomerang Wednesday.
DeBree said it is the department’s desire to be able to communicate openly with the public, and offered support for peaceful protests.
“The death of George Floyd has been widely condemned by law enforcement across the country to include our office,” DeBree wrote in an email. “Our office supports and defends the communities first amendment right to a peaceful and lawful protest.”
He also said the office intends to retain Colling for the time being.
“In regards to the specific requests from the protesters, the death of Mr. Ramirez was investigated by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and turned over to the Albany County Attorney’s Office, where ultimately a Grand Jury declined to indict Corporal Colling,” DeBree wrote in an email. “Although the Wyoming Peace Officers Standards and Training commission is currently investigating a complaint on Corporal Colling, related to this, he is currently certified as a Peace Officer in the State of Wyoming, and is assigned as an investigator with our office. The sheriff can’t legally terminate an employee without cause.”
A previous version of this story misspelled Timberly Vogel's name. The mistake was due to reporter error.