Liddick: A limit on second chances for police (column)
January 25, 2016
I agree with Angela Williams, a Democrat state representative from Denver, about at least one thing. She plans to introduce legislation in this session changing aspects of the hiring process for law-enforcement agencies. Specifically, she plans to close loopholes in the exemption process that allows those with criminal convictions or deferred judgments to become police officers.
You read that right. Since 2010, almost 200 people have applied for exemptions to Colorado's rule that generally bars those with felony or serious misdemeanor convictions from becoming policemen and women. 170 applications were approved. Of the 46 applications for waivers to criminal convictions, only six were denied. There were drug crimes, which one might see as somewhat antique in the state of elevation that Colorado has become. But there were also assaults and domestic violence — no laughing matter in a person who is asking for a gun, a badge and a certain degree of leniency regarding the use of force.
Case in point is that of officer Michael Jimenez, who — after leaving the Denver Police Department in 2008 following an incident involving a prostitute, his squad car and allegations of rape — was hired by Custer County. He lost that law enforcement job in a year, moved to Fowler County and was involved in a drunk driving crash that badly injured a 27-year-old. It was only then that Colorado's Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) agency lifted his certification to be a police officer.
Or one could consider Kirk Firko, who joined the Mountain View police after being fired from the Colorado State Patrol in 2010 following a shooting incident. Or Todd Vecellio, who left a five-year trail of domestic violence and child sexual-abuse arrests stretching from Calahan to Pueblo to Colorado Springs. Or Nadia Gatchell, who negotiated expunging the reason for her 2012 firing from the Denver Police Department. She has since had three other law enforcement jobs. Or….
You get the picture.
None of which is to argue that people don't deserve a second chance. One knows that sometimes youthful indiscretions happen; they shouldn't forever stand in the path of a decent career for a person who has genuinely reformed his or her life. Nor should there be bureaucratic obstacles to smaller police departments that decide, after careful consideration, to hire an officer who has made a mistake but is otherwise suitable and will work for $25 an hour.
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But when prior events include rape, destruction of evidence or an attack that leaves the 16-year-old victim with a lacerated liver, kidney damage and four broken ribs, more than a little analysis and care in hiring should be required.
State Sen. John Cooke, former Weld County sheriff, balances concerns of small, rural police departments nicely. While giving the POST agency more authority to deny exceptions could stop the worst abuses, he notes it would be costly for the state and for local agencies. But, in the end, "There are a lot of smaller agencies that will overlook a few things … shame on them for doing it."
Yes, this is the West. The opportunity to start over, to begin a new life is part of our scenery. And redemption is part of our folklore for a reason. But there are also considerations of public safety and fiscal responsibility. An experienced officer who will work for $40,000 a year might seem a bargain until a million-dollar civil-damages lawsuit arrives, and, with a history like that of Jimenez, arrive it will.
Do not doubt that humans are creatures of habit; in similar situations under similar circumstances, their responses will be similar to those in their past. This is why knowing a potential law-enforcement officer's employment history — blemishes and all — is a necessity to the hiring process.
So perhaps Rep. Williams and Sen. Cooke have a point. Perhaps POST exemptions should be limited to cases not involving violence, assault or bodily injury. And perhaps the state attorney general's office, which keeps track of the employment histories of about 15,000 certified law-enforcement officials statewide, should make at least some aspects of this information available to the public — such as the specifics of a firing for cause when criminal conduct is involved. At the moment, this information isn't even shared with chiefs of police who seek it, so it may be less "shame" that rests on Cooke's smaller agencies and more a lack of time, resources and cooperation from the state.
The last of which our state legislators have it in their power to fix. So contact them and ask that they do so before a clone of Vecellio menaces the public and the image of his or her department.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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