As the mother of Robbie Ramirez, I am heart-broken not only by his death, but by the tragic events surrounding it. The last thing anyone wants to do is bury a child, but I am only one of the many people that have had to experience such a loss. There is nothing anyone can do that will bring Robbie back. It is hard to heal from the loss of a child, and perhaps one never really does, but I do want to move forward.
The negative impact Robbie’s death has had on this community saddens me. It has caused many people to experience fear and distrust of law enforcement. We have seen media coverage of police shootings of unarmed individuals from all over the country. I, for one, never thought I would see that in our community. I have spent many hours in trainings and in meetings with local law-enforcement and the vast majority of these officers care about the citizens and are still interested in protecting and serving.
Robbie had many contacts with police, some due to his mental illness, some car accidents, numerous related to his run-away dog. He somehow managed to interact with these officers without altercations. In fact, when it did concern his mental health, they were able to talk him into taking his medication and help him get back on track or convince him to go to the hospital for treatment. I sincerely thank those officers for their kindness, patience and determination to help him. It wasn’t always easy. He did have one incident when he was in his worst mental health crisis where he strongly resisted the officers holding him down in the hospital so the doctor could inject him with an anti-psychotic medication. The officers had no training on how to handle the situation and actually escalated the problem by their actions. This incident is what prompted me to begin the conversation with law enforcement about CIT (Crisis Intervention Training). The officers that have received this training are better officers in all situations because of it, but it is not a panacea.
The circumstances around Robbie’s death have highlighted problems within law enforcement and most particularly the Albany County Sheriff’s department. Because of my involvement with CIT, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the Mental Health Board and owning the Ranger for so many years, I am friendly with many police officers. I am very impressed with Laramie Police Department Chief Dale Stalder’s leadership and believe that his officers are highly vetted and well-trained. He expects them to de-escalate situations whenever possible.
That said, there are also very good officers in the sheriff’s department but the department does not appear to have the high standards of the LPD. There are far too many officers that the LPD chose not to hire that have been hired in the sheriff’s office, including Derek Colling. Many in the community questioned the wisdom of hiring Derek Colling with his previous history, yet he did get hired and he did kill again. CBS recently did a program about police officers that have been dismissed for shootings or excessive use of force that simply move, manage to get a law enforcement job elsewhere, and once again continue their tendencies for escalation and excessive use of force. Perhaps we need to look at de-certification of these officers so they do not continue to have opportunities to injure or kill citizens.
I believe that there needs to be an expectation that officers attempt de-escalation, particularly when there is no weapon involved. Specific protocols could be set and if they are not adhered to, there should be consequences. Hopefully an officer could learn and grow and become a better officer. If not, perhaps he or she should be looking for different employment. An officer never knows when they might be dealing with an individual with mental illness or some type of mental impairment that keeps them from reacting according to normal expectations. I realize that I am not in law enforcement, but these seem like reasonable changes to me.
It has been six months since Robbie’s death, and yet our community has not been able to heal. Anger, fear and frustration is pervasive. Public officials that neither hired Derek Colling nor pulled the trigger have been strongly criticized. The insurance company has forbidden elected or appointed county employees to discuss any facts about this specific case. The Albany County commissioners are legally limited as to what actions they can take. The ACoPP organization that was formed as a result of this tragic incident has provided a forum for people to vent, and yet that same venting has given some people the impression they are anti-police. I personally do not believe that is the way the founders feel and I think they have valuable input. They have not created the fear, anger and distrust. Derek Colling is the only one responsible for these feelings.
The community forum they held in January was well-organized and productive. They believe, as do I, that Derek Colling’s continued employment as a police officer is detrimental to the overall public safety, including his fellow police officers. None of us know whether Derek is still employed because Sheriff Dave O’Malley thinks he is a good officer or if the insurance company or lawyers are insisting that he be retained to avoid any impression of negligent hiring. We can only hope that Detective Derek Colling will resign out of respect for the entire community, Sheriff O’Malley for giving him another opportunity and his own family.
Resolution and healing is thwarted by Derek Colling’s continued employment, but we all need to move forward. We need to come together as a community and quit bickering among ourselves. We are all hurting and want our community to feel safe again. The public needs to know that there has been some action taken to address this issue. Sheriff O’Malley is sending numerous patrol and detention officers to the CIT training in June. The commissioners have asked the county attorney to propose a committee of police officers and former police officers from around the state to address the issues involving police shootings, excessive force and some standardization of how these matters are addressed. I am still hoping that they will consider adding a mental health professional and perhaps the state NAMI director to be part of this committee.
It may seem like these are just baby steps, but let’s try to give our county officials some positive feedback for moving forward and doing what they can within all the constraints they have been subjected to. It is unfortunate, but sometimes it takes a tragedy to be a catalyst for change. Let’s work together to make Robbie’s death truly meaningful.
Debra Hinkel is a long-time Laramie resident, former owner of the Ranger and current owner of Inner Balance Healing Centre. She has been an advocate for those suffering with mental illness for 20 years. Hinkel can be reached at email@example.com.