The state agency that certifies Wyoming’s law enforcement officers doesn’t have the authority it needs to effectively investigate misconduct violations, the agency’s top official says.
The Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission has been repeatedly denied access to officers’ personnel records — including those belonging to controversial former Albany County sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling — Director Chris Walsh told lawmakers on the Joint Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
In response, the committee agreed to draft legislation to help POST do its job.
The issue was recently brought to light by Albany County Sheriff Aaron Appelhans’ refusal to provide POST with Colling’s personnel records.
Colling shot and killed Robbie Ramirez following a traffic stop on Nov. 4, 2018 in Laramie while serving as a sheriff’s deputy. Ramirez, who was unarmed and living with mental illness, was the third person Colling killed on duty. While serving with the Las Vegas Police Department, Colling shot two people — both shootings were later deemed justified — and was fired for beating a third. He then returned to his hometown of Laramie to join the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.
Following Ramirez’s killing, POST received seven complaints, 14 letters and 2,608 signatures in favor of Colling’s decertification, according to POST.
Colling resigned from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office in 2021, but could still conceivably work, wear a badge and carry a gun for a different agency in the state. A decertification by POST would disqualify Colling from future law enforcement work in Wyoming.
“So what we’re talking about is an issue that has significant gravity to it,” Director Walsh told the committee. “In order to make these investigations effective, it requires all necessary data to support the complaint or disqualify the complaint.”
Yet Walsh has been unable to obtain Colling’s personnel file from Albany County.
When the sheriff’s office refused to provide the records, POST filed an administrative subpoena. Both the sheriff’s office and Colling fought the subpoena in district court in Albany County and won. On Aug. 25, Judge Misha Westby denied POST’s request for Colling’s personnel files.
Westby concluded that the Wyoming Public Records Act provides grounds to deny access to personnel files, as well as medical, psychological and sociological data, and that nowhere in state statute is there an exception granting POST access to this information for investigatory purposes.
A Legislative Service Office memo drafted in advance of Tuesday’s meeting echoes Westby’s ruling.
There is a personnel-file exception, the memo explains, but only for “duly elected and appointed officials who supervise the work of the person in interest.” However, “it is unclear whether the POST Commission could be considered as appointed officials who supervise the work of the person in interest,” the memo states.
Walsh, who has been with POST since 2019, told the committee that law enforcement agencies have denied three of his seven requests for records. But that’s not because sheriffs and chiefs don’t want to give him the information, Walsh testified.
“Their legal counsel is saying, ‘well, you’re opening up our county or our city to litigation, because there’s no protection for us to do that,’” Walsh told lawmakers.
Law enforcement officers would be a likely source of litigation, committee co-chair Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper) said.
Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Director Allen Thompson also testified in favor of a fix. “The general information that I’m receiving from our membership,” Thompson said, “is they’re interested in providing these records to POST as long as it doesn’t open them to any kind of liability or violation of other statutes.”
Debbie Hinkel, the mother of Robbie Ramirez, traveled from Laramie to Casper to call on lawmakers to address issues with POST’s authority.
“The only check and balance that you have in place is POST,” Hinkel testified. “And you haven’t given [Walsh] any meat to work with. You got to have a law that gives him the right to get this information. So somebody that clearly should not be a police officer isn’t allowed to continue.”
Hinkel sued Albany County in 2020 for the wrongful death of her son. The suit was eventually settled, but the county has refused to provide information about payments to Hinkel, despite a recent Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that found settlements with government entities are public records.
Washut and Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Albany) brought House Bill 173 – Records available to POST last session to address the legal ambiguities inhibiting the decertification process, but it died.
The Joint Judiciary Committee agreed Tuesday to use HB 173 as a starting place for the draft legislation it will review at its Nov. 6-7 meeting in Douglas.