By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE – In response to last week’s public outcry over the November death of Robbie Ramirez, Albany County commissioners are expressing a growing desire to publicly discuss a range of policing reforms called for by ACoPP – Albany County for Proper Policing – the advocacy group formed in the wake of Ramirez’s death.
On Tuesday, the commissioners directed Clerk Jackie Gonzales to request representatives of their liability insurance provider, the Local Government Liability Pool, attend the Commission’s next meeting and explain their position that county officials should not publicly discuss Ramirez’s death nor other concerns about policing that have arisen from the incident.
“We’ve really been hobbled,” Commission Chair Terri Jones said. “They need to come over here and talk to us in an open meeting so everybody can hear what they have to say.”
As county officials prepared for a potential lawsuit from Ramirez’s family, the Local Government Liability Pool has urged commissioners not to discuss the issue.
Both Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent and the commissioners expressed frustration at that directive, especially after several constituents urged the commissioners last week to end their silence.
The liability insurer can drop the county for "failure to cooperate in defense of a claim or lawsuit” and has threatened to do so if county officials discuss the case and other policing issues only tangentially related to Ramirez’s death.
“As a commissioner, I can’t expose the taxpayers of Albany County to millions of dollars worth of liability, but we need to have an open government, and right now, we can’t have an open government,” Commissioner Heber Richardson said Tuesday. “I have to make a choice between an open government and millions of dollars of liability, and I think that’s a false choice.”
After last week’s public comment, Trent met with Gonzales and Jones to discuss ways the county board could address some of ACoPP’s proposals.
Some of the proposed actions – like firing sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling – are outside the power of the Commission, Trent said.
However, she did say commissioners could address some of ACoPP’s suggestions by forming an ad hoc committee, consisting of community members and elected officials, to discuss three issues raised by last week’s public comment:
n Developing protocols on how officer-involved shootings should be handled by the county;
n How mental health is being addressed in police investigations, including traffic stops, and;
n Exploring ways a citizen committee or the county’s human resources department could be involved in hiring decisions made by the sheriff
Richardson said any possibility of discussing those subjects only highlights the need to re-negotiate the stance taken by the Local Government Liability Pool.
“How in God’s name are we supposed to develop new protocols for an officer-involved shooting when … we aren’t even allowed to discuss a basic civics lesson with our constituents about what the (current) process is?” Richardson asked. “We have a whole bunch of people who think we don’t follow any of the rules, when there is, in fact, a process and we followed it to a T – and we have these insurance liability guys stuck in the last century who won’t let us discuss anything.”
While Sheriff Dave O’Malley has not publicly discussed his office’s internal investigation into Ramirez’s death, his policy manual includes policies on when deadly use of force by a deputy is authorized. The manual also includes a policy on how the sheriff’s office should investigate any deadly use of force.
Trent said when she discussed with Local Government Liability Pool representatives the possibility of forming an ad hoc policing committee, the insurers expressed opposition.
“As I reiterated in this conversation, I didn’t run for office for the paycheck – I ran for office to do policy and to change how we do things in Albany County. And they’re telling me that, as an elected official, I can do nothing,” Trent said. “Even by me having this discussion, they may decide I’m moving in a direction that’s counter to protection of litigation. I probably should have brought this into an executive session for litigation, but I feel the public needs to know what we’re experiencing at this point.”
Ramirez was fatally shot by Colling during a Nov. 4 traffic stop. While serving as a police officer in Las Vegas, Colling had previously been involved in two shootings, and was later fired from the city’s police department for violating the department’s policies.
After Ramirez’s death, Trent convened a grand jury, which opted not to indict Colling for manslaughter.
After the public comment given last week, a group of attendees suggested Richardson’s body language conveyed disdain toward their comments.
On Tuesday, however, Richardson said he’s sympathetic to the concerns and thought many of ACoPP’s supporters brought forth legitimate suggestions.
“I was really sympathetic. My heart broke in that meeting,” he said. “It made me really, really upset, which was why I couldn’t attend the regular meeting. I was so upset I would’ve been a distraction to the process. The thing that frustrates me the most is that, as the red-headed freckled stepbrother of the state, we get a certain set of tools in our toolbox and it’s a broom and a dustpan and that’s it. We have to try and clean up a mess that we don’t have any control over on the front end. We need more tools from the Legislature. Most of the issues have to be addressed at the legislative level. A lot of what (ACoPP would) like us to do, we cannot.”
After Ramirez’s death, Trent said local legislators unsuccessfully pushed for the Legislature to study statewide protocols on officer-involved shootings this year as an interim committee topic.
If the county were to convene an ad hoc committee on policing, and that committee comes up with suggestions for legislative action, Trent said Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, has expressed some interest in advancing the legislation.