All three Albany County commissioners expressed an interest in convening an ad hoc committee to study policing reforms for Wyoming, but how to form that group became a source of contention during Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent had suggested forming the committee in the wake of two hours of public comment provided a month ago, when Albany County for Proper Policing organized a group of local residents to urge commissioners lead policing reforms in the wake of the November death of Robbie Ramirez, a 39-year-old Laramie man who was fatally shot by an Albany County sheriff’s deputy.
Two weeks ago, Trent had floated the idea of a policing-issues committee that would consist of both public officials and community members.
On Tuesday, however, she was adamant that the committee consist only of retired police officers — from within Wyoming and other states — who would volunteer to craft a report recommending legislative changes on how officer-involved shooting are handled in the state.
“What that committee would do would be to invite public input at the appropriate times as they so desire as a committee,” Trent said. “I believe the reason that change occurs is that it comes from within — from within law enforcement and prosecutors.”
Trent said she’ll also ask UW if they’re interested in helping with the report.
Once that report is completed, Trent said the county board would review the contents, take public input, and share the report with statewide organizations like the Wyoming County Commissioners Association to lobby the Legislature.
“I know from my discussions with the county commissioners’ association that they’re very interested in this,” Commissioner Terri Jones said.
Trent said that, during the 2019 legislative session, she pushed for police-involved shootings to be an interim committee topic for the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee. Legislators rejected that idea.
“Are you saying that since the Legislature declined to study this as an interim topic that we will send them some information with a bow wrapped around it as though it is one?” Commissioner Heber Richardson asked.
“Yes,” Trent said.
Richardson said the ad hoc committee would be a prudent response to the public’s concerns about Ramirez’s death. Richardson said the county has limited power to institute reforms without legislative changes.
“It might be challenging for the public to understand, but the commissioners and even the sheriff and the prosecutors, have rules that may be antiquated or kind of not workable,” Richardson said. “It’s not my area of expertise, but I’m learning a lot and it’s frustrating. … We’re pretty boxed in at the county level. … It’s a shame that an incident like this has to identify the shortcomings of what the system is, but government is typically reactive.”
Trent said Albany County’s mental health board is also reviewing how it handles its own handling of mental health issues, including people who are involuntarily committed for been deemed a threat to themselves or others, criminals who are deemed not guilty of their crimes by reason of insanity, and mental illness that involve the Department of Family Services.
Once she consults with the Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool, Trent said she’ll craft a resolution to create the committee that commissioners can consider at their next meeting.
“I believe that what we’re proposing would be acceptable,” she said.
Commissioner Pete Gosar said he’d also like mental health professionals and other community members, along with retired police officers, to be on the committee.
Trent didn’t like that idea.
“Law enforcement hasn’t had a chance to come together on the issue and talk it out. … And quite frankly, you haven’t been the one who’s been attacked on social media,” Trent told Gosar.
Insurers want silence
At the commissioners’ previous regular meeting, the elected officials said they wanted representatives from the Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool to attend a county board meeting to explain their stance that the commissioners should not publicly discuss Ramirez’s death.
The insurer declined that offer, and instead provided only a statement reiterating their request for commissioners to stay silent amid the possibility of Ramirez’s family suing the county.
“Due to the anticipated litigation, the Board of County Commissioners, employees, elected and appointed officials have been requested by legal counsel to refrain from giving their opinions, or discussing their factual knowledge of this fatal shooting with the public, or the media. LGLP’s position on this matter is not unique,” the insurer wrote in their statement to county officials. “It is standard protocol with LGLP, as well as other commercial liability insurance carriers, that when an incident occurs which will likely end up in litigation, that the governmental entity and its representatives are asked to refrain from discussing the facts of such a matter.”
Trent and commissioners have expressed concern that snubbing their insurer’s demands could end the county’s liability coverage and create an enormous threat to the county’s finances.
However, Trent said she believe an ad hoc committee on policing that focuses on statewide reforms wouldn’t compromise their liability coverage.
Officer-involved shootings “are an issue statewide, not just in Albany County,” Trent said. “As you’ve read in the newspaper, there have been other officer-involved shootings that have spanned throughout the state of Wyoming as recently, as this past weekend in Cheyenne.”
At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, it appeared commissioners were on the cusp of a breakthrough in earning the trust of Albany County for Proper Policing, a local activist group that formed after Ramirez’s death, and other community members angered by the local man’s death.
In the initial public comment period, ACoPP representatives offered only one comment: Praise for the commissioners.
“We just want to go on public record and let you know that we’re really grateful for the commission’s response over the last couple weeks and we are genuinely looking forward to working with the commission as we move forward,” ACoPP member Yana Ludwig said.
Richardson suggested that ACoPP’s new-found attempt at collegiality was “disingenuous.”
On April 16, the county board’s public comment period grew heated when ACoPP members and other residents expressed frustration about Ramirez’s death and the continued employment of Derek Colling, the sheriff’s deputy who killed Ramirez during a traffic stop.
When Derek Colling’s father, Rick Colling, offered a 17-minute defense of the shooting and the county’s response, a few attendees grew angry and tried the drown him out by shouting or yelling over him.
While most attendees — and all of ACoPP’s main players — listened quietly as Colling and other dissenters spoke, the conflict colored the entire proceeding and ultimately became the primary focus of the Laramie Boomerang’s coverage of the meeting.
A few attendees later confronted Richardson in the hallway after the April 16 meeting, accusing his body language of showing disdain for their concerns.
“You’ll never get elected again. You shouldn’t even run,” one attendee yelled at him.
“You’re an idiot,” someone else yelled at Richardson as he left the meeting.
Since that April 16 meeting, ACoPP’s leaders have urged for a more civil tone.
Their Facebook posts have asked their supporters to maintain “courteous and respectful conduct for these public meetings.”
The group also praised commissioners for pursuing an ad hoc committee and urged their supporters to “show our support for the steps being taken and provide community accountability.”
Ultimately, the tone of Tuesday’s meeting tone devolved quickly from congenial to virulent when Richardson and Trent made their disdain of ACoPP well known.
That happened after both Debbie Hinkel, Ramirez’s mother, and ACoPP leaders requested that community members without police backgrounds also be a part of the ad hoc committee.
“Essentially our position is that this needs to come from the community, because we’ve kind of allowed law enforcement to come up with their practices already and who’s impacted by this is the community,” ACoPP’s executive director, Karlee Provenza, told the commissioners. “Although I feel like ACoPP’s been listened to and we have a voice, it’s kind of really the beginning of that discussion, and I would urge that we look into other practices other than an ad hoc committee, like community oversight boards that have community buy-in. … It’s the community that’s outraged and it’s the community that’s impacted, and if they’re not part of the process to the point it feels legitimate, it might raise more concerns. But I do want to thank everyone here today for looking into something different.”
Trent and Richardson said that the tone of comments on ACoPP’s Facebook page, as well as the tone and assertions of certain official ACoPP statements, have given them no interest in appeasing the group’s request.
“I can tell you right now that the attacks I receive online and other officers receive online from ACoPP and social media, it’s very hard to put aside the personal attacks that we hear to focus on the issues at hand,” Trent said.
After ACoPP attended the April 16 meeting, the group suggested in a press release that the presence of Sheriff David O’Malley and other deputies who sat in the back of the room and listened — was threatening to attendees.
“Each person who bravely got up to speak with us was met with applause when they finished,” ACoPP’s statement said. “And bravery was needed, since there were eight fully armed officers in the room, including Sheriff O’Malley and Derek Colling’s father, Rick. Whether deliberate or not, that lent an extra layer of intimidation to the meeting.”
When ACoPP organized a community forum to discuss policing issues in January, Trent was personally called and asked not to attend.
Trent lambasted ACoPP for suggesting that “if law enforcement is in the room, other people feel unsafe to talk.”
“We want to move forward, not have retribution on individual office holders,” she said.
A broad brush?
Hinkel also criticized some of the ridicule county officials have been subject to on Facebook, but she said it was unfair for Trent to dismiss ACoPP as a whole.
“I’m not a member of ACoPP, but I do attend some of the meetings, and they’re not all directed on frying any officials here,” Hinkel said. “It really is about change. Yes, there’s been a lot of things on social media, but most of the stuff I’ve seen from them has not just been a slam on the elected officials. They have a lot of knowledge and they have a lot of research that they’ve been doing and they have an incredible amount of intelligence within that group. … It’s not just police officers that are going to be able to look at our concerns. They’ve always looked at it from the police officer’s perspective. That’s their profession. That’s what they’ve always done, so how can they switch from that completely and look from the other perspective? Maybe they can, but I don’t have evidence of that so far.”
Richardson said he wants citizens to participate in the ad hoc committee but only after “there’s a basic, organized framework for the conversation, otherwise it’s going to turn into a — show, like it already has,” he said.
“The hearing we had in the courtroom was ugly,” Richardson said. “The fact of the matter is there is an outcome, maybe even that I want, but I can’t make it happen. I got pretty attacked at that meeting and it frustrated me a great deal because people don’t know me. … Even if you really don’t like the sheriff’s department, ACoPP’s rhetoric has caused other law enforcement agencies in this community to suffer because it’s been so charged and so critical and in some ways, misinformed. Everybody just needs to cool down.”
Richardson became emotional as he began discussing members of his family who’ve struggled with mental illness. He recounted the emotional toll he’s faced from watching two of his sisters’ health deteriorate to the point they’re living on the streets.
“You are not all as well-informed as you all think,” he told ACoPP members. “Not about us. Not about what we think. … You guys don’t know. You don’t know s— and you need to calm it down. You need to knock this s— off and let us do the process that we need to do.”
He also rebuked those who’ve characterized him as an “insensitive son-of-a-b—-.”
“I may face the same type of situation as (Hinkel) one day,” Richardson said.
“I’m sorry, Heber,” Ludwig told Richardson. “I’m sorry that you got yelled at. And I want to ask of you the same thing you’re asking of us: Please draw some distinctions here. No leadership from ACoPPattacked you in the hallway.”
“Just realize that all the people that were out-of-line in that courtroom were not members of ACoPP,” Hinkel said. “Just because they came, we don’t have control of everybody in that room. … It was inappropriate. There were plenty of us in that room that were trying to get them to knock it off. It wasn’t the way that any of us want us to have it handled.”
Richardson also offered particular criticism of the Laramie Boomerang’s ongoing coverage of Albany County’s response to Ramirez’s death.
“If the media asks for an answer that they can't have, they can’t go trolling social media to write a news article,” he said. “Because that’s not news. That’s the National Enquirer. It’s trash, tabloid fake news. And I’m looking at (Boomerang reporter Daniel Bendtsen), and he damn well knows it. He knows it and he should write what I’m saying about him too.”
-A previous version of this story contained a typographical error that incorrectly quoted Heber Richardson. The incorrect version of story previously stated that Richardson said "if the media asks for an answer they can't go trolling social media to write a news article." The correction was made May 8.