By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
Tensions have run high in recent years over officer-involved shootings around Wyoming.
Fatal shootings by police officers and sheriffs deputies in Rawlins, Laramie, Casper and Riverton have sparked lawsuits or protests. Activists and elected officials have raised questions about how uses of deadly force are investigated, and some are asking to move away from “cops investigating cops,” in pursuit of more transparency and accountability.
As the controversies mount, at least two Democratic lawmakers from communities where high-profile shootings have occurred are eying reforms. Neither lawmaker is certain what direction to pursue, however, illustrating the challenges of reform even as rancor over the incidents mounts.
With no state statute governing the aftermath of such incidents, investigations today are handled by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.
“It has been my experience that DCI is requested to investigate all officer involved shootings (OIS) throughout the state,” DCI director Steve Woodson wrote in an email to WyoFile.
Unlike a growing number of states and cities, Wyoming does not have any widely used citizen oversight process for officer-involved shootings. In 2016, the group National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement identified 144 such oversight bodies nationwide. The number has been steadily increasing over time.
Calls for more citizen oversight in Wyoming have met pushback from local law enforcement. An attempt by the Fremont County Coroner to convene an inquest to examine a recent shooting was derailed in December 2019.
Woodson defended the current system and players.
“DCI recognizes that officer involved shootings are traumatic and tragic events for all parties involved as well as the community,” he wrote. “DCI takes the responsibility for these investigations very seriously and welcomes and appreciates the independent review and determination provided by the District/County Attorneys who, in our experience, also take their roles in this process very seriously.”
Recent events hold up his assertion that shootings can traumatize a community. They also split it. In Riverton, Laramie and Rawlins in 2019, citizens leveled accusations of conflicts of interest against officers who investigated the shootings and county attorneys who ultimately decided whether to charge the shooter. Public officials took potshots at one another, or at activists, in the pages of local newspapers. Activists took to the streets and social media calling for change.
On Nov. 4, 2019, more than 80 people gathered in front of the Albany County Courthouse, a large crowd for a Laramie protest on a bitingly cold day.
They were gathered on the one-year anniversary of the death of Robert Ramirez, a Laramie resident with a history of mental illness. Derek Colling, an Albany County sheriff’s deputy whose career includes a previous controversial shooting and an alleged assault on a civilian, shot and killed Ramirez during a confrontation.
Albany County for Proper Policing, or ACOPP, an activist group born in the wake of the shooting, has pushed for reforms and Colling’s removal for over a year. The group has met pushback from local officials, and Colling remains in the sheriff’s department.
“We don’t want your killer cops out here making traffic stops,” the crowd in front of the courthouse chanted.
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, a local defense attorney, spoke at the protest. He told the crowd he hoped to bring a bill to the Wyoming Legislature to create a uniform “mechanism” to investigate such killings.
But two months later, on Jan. 6, Pelkey said he was “still struggling with how to draft [the bill].” He is now leaning toward a legislative study over the course of the year, Pelkey told WyoFile in an interview, as opposed to bringing a bill for the legislative session beginning in February. A study would allow him to include law enforcement officials and representatives in the process, Pelkey said.
Law enforcement is a powerful constituency in the Wyoming Legislature.
“If there’s strong opposition from law enforcement, it’s going to be a tough row to hoe,” Pelkey said.
The Legislature rejected taking up the topic for study after the 2019 session, according to Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent. She said at a public meeting last spring that she had asked lawmakers for a study and been rejected. Trent presented the Ramirez case to a grand jury that chose not to indict Colling, drawing accusations of conflict of interest and a lack of transparency.
While the path may be unclear, Pelkey does have a goal in mind, he said.
“My honest gut reaction is I don’t want cops investigating cops,” he said.
Several county attorneys and other law enforcement officials have told WyoFile they turn to DCI because it is an agency outside the community. That’s preferable to a police department investigating its own officers, for example, or a police department investigating its county sheriff’s deputy, they said.
Pelkey considers such perceived impartiality largely illusory.
DCI officers often come up from county level law enforcement departments, or vice versa, he said.
In the Ramirez case, the Wyoming Highway Patrol called DCI immediately after the shooting.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. This story was edited for space. The full story can be found in its entirety at wyofile.com.