Colorado law requires untruthful officers to lose their jobs and their licenses. But not every agency is complying with the law.
Updated Jan. 27, at 12:02 p.m.
Three years ago, state lawmakers tried to significantly boost the penalty for law enforcement officers who are untruthful on the job: Not only would they be fired, they were supposed to lose their license too.
But a year and a half after the bill was implemented, two of the state’s largest police departments haven’t been routinely reporting untruthful officers to state officials.
That’s because those departments use a lower standard to decide whether an officer should be fired than the state requires for decertifying an officer. The result: those officers are free to go seek other jobs — even if their previous employer finds them to be untruthful.
Since the state law requiring that officers get licenses stripped for untruthfulness was implemented in 2020, the Denver Police Department has not reported any officers to the Peace Officers Standards and Training, or POST, board for license revocation for this infraction.
Aurora has reported one officer in the last 18 months.
Both agencies have a lower standard of proof for firing people, so those officers were usually terminated, but the agencies have not regularly gone beyond that to report the offenses to the POST board to get the officers’ licenses revoked.
Just two weeks ago, Denver Police changed this standard and now, moving forward, if an investigation found “clear and convincing” evidence that an officer had been untruthful, he would get reported to the POST board for license revocation.
Within the Aurora Police Department, Detective Matthew Longshore said the department’s policy has always been to fire officers who were untruthful. In fact, Aurora Police officials have, in the last year, released press releases every time they fire an officer.
“Chief Vanessa Wilson has shown over the last two years that she will not shy away from holding officers accountable and still continues to do so,” Longshore said. “We feel that it’s important to highlight that she is continuing with the promises she made when she took over as chief of police.”
After an officer is terminated for untruthfulness, Longshore said that the department continues to investigate whether the infraction merited a report to the POST board for revocation.
But since the law took effect, only one officer met the “clear and convincing” standard and was reported to state officials for license revocation. That officer, Robert Lyons, was fired last year for cheating on his time card and skipping out early on his shift, according to his APD disciplinary record.
How to determine a standard of truth (and untruth)
Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, said that the POST board operates with the authority it has in statute.
“The untruthfulness statute relies heavily on the agencies to perform their own due diligence before POST gets involved in decertification. POST has to rely on the agency’s investigation, findings, and reporting,” he said.
This means, depending on where an officer works, they could face varying consequences for being untruthful on the job — from termination to license revocation. The Lone Tree Police Department, for example, with 53 sworn officers has reported two officers for untruthfulness since the implementation of the law.
This is something even law enforcement officers say contradicts the spirit of the law.
“If Denver is firing people for a lesser standard than would get them decertified, I would applaud that,” said Michael Phibbs, chief of the Auraria Campus Police Department, who helped write the legislation to try and root out troublesome officers. “Letting someone go at a preponderance standard doesn’t bother me, but if they’re saying that’s it … that’s a problem.”
Democratic state Rep. Dylan Roberts, who carried the legislation in the state House of Representatives, said he was unaware some agencies were employing a different standard than state law requires, but he encouraged the Peace Officer Standards and Training board to spread the word to every police department about what the rules are.
“If law enforcement or POST needs clarification or assistance from us, I think people on both sides of the aisle would be ready to help,” Roberts said.
James Karbach, director of legislative policy at the state public defender’s office, acknowledges that determining untruthfulness among law enforcement officers is an act of nuance.
“The question is whether all police departments are in good faith trying to figure out when they should and must report or is there a game being played to delay or avoid reporting to protect dishonest cops?” Karbach said. “The fact that several smaller agencies have reported dishonest acts by officers who the POST board then decertified, while other large departments with the most officers, like Aurora and Denver, have not had any officers decertified, does not square. ”
How many officers have lost their licenses for being untruthful on the job so far
The POST board released a database earlier this month listing all the law enforcement officers who have been decertified since the 1970s. That includes officers convicted of certain misdemeanors and any felony. Some of the infractions are for on-duty conduct and some are not.
Since 2020, 25 officers have lost their licenses for being untruthful on the job. This means they lied on a criminal justice record, while testifying under oath, during an internal affairs investigation or during an administrative disciplinary process.
This is out of 39 officers total who were decertified since 2020. There are roughly 13,000 sworn officers statewide.
The details of those disciplinary actions were not published with the database, but the officers’ names and agencies are part of the public record.
“We see this as fundamental to a fair and just criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Phil Weiser, who helms the Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, board. “Every single institution needs to earn its trust.”
'The whole goal of this is to make sure we’re weeding out the ones who shouldn’t be in law enforcement'
Janet Huffor, chief of staff to El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and a spokeswoman for the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said the goal of law enforcement is to weed out the “bad actors.”
Since 2020, three El Paso deputies have lost licenses for untruthfulness.
“You’re always taught from the very beginning, you know, you can make it through anything except lying. It’s totally unacceptable in law enforcement,” Huffor said. “You know what? Cops make mistakes. They may not follow policy to a tee, but the one thing that’s reinforced is never lie about it. Ever.”
Sheriff's agencies use varying legal standards on determining whether an officer lied on the job. In El Paso County and Denver, deputies use the “preponderance” standard. The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office uses a "clear and convincing" standard.
Because there are no union contracts within sheriffs departments across the state, the deputies are at-will employees and can be terminated at any time, Huffor said.
Same goes for Lone Tree Police. That agency, with 53 sworn officers, has terminated two officers in the last two years for untruthfulness — both cases were referred to the POST board for license revocation.
“The whole goal of this is to make sure we’re weeding out the ones who shouldn’t be in law enforcement. We’ve done enough to tarnish our reputation,” said Lone Tree Police Commander Ron Pinson. “That’s my whole life right now is hiring good officers and making sure that we’re not bringing in people who shouldn’t be there.”
Pinson said he was disappointed that some agencies have not reported officers found to have been untruthful to the POST board.
“I would hope they weren’t doing that to avoid getting rid of bad officers,” he said.
More consequences and transparency than there used to be, but not all details are public
Phibbs, who wrote the untruthfulness language on behalf of the police chiefs in 2019, said he wanted to have greater consequences for law enforcement officers who repeatedly got into trouble.
He said he chose the higher “clear and convincing” burden of proof to give officers breathing room if they were wrongfully accused.
“To take away someone’s career we wanted to make sure the standard was high,” Phibbs said.
Phibbs said he thinks there will eventually be a declining number of people every year decertified for untruthfulness.
“The people who are causing problems in law enforcement are not the majority,” he said. “The older I got in law enforcement, the more years I had, I kept recognizing the names of people who came up in these situations ... There were just a few bad actors causing harm to our community and our agencies. ”
It’s not new that officers get fired for being untruthful under oath. In testimony during the law’s passage at the legislature, officials estimated that roughly 70 officers a year are fired across the state for being untruthful.
Public defenders and criminal justice advocates applaud the new transparency around releasing the names, the agencies and the dates the officers’ licenses were revoked, but say it raises questions about the details of those investigations — which are not a part of the public database.
Most law enforcement internal affairs records remain sealed in Colorado — unless they are excessive force investigations.
“While this law is a great improvement, there are some things that need to be looked at,” said Karbach, at the Colorado Public Defenders Office. “The change in law was so important, but the fact is what actually happened has evaded public view.”
Arapahoe County Sheriff’s deputy Benjamin Sadler faked a threat to himself after getting turned down for a job he was seeking as a school resource officer, according to a KDVR report.
The Arapahoe County district attorney filed criminal charges against him and he was terminated from the sheriff’s office.
Sadler took a plea deal last year and was fined $100, according to court records. His attorney said in a statement he was seeking a new career outside of law enforcement. Sadler’s officer license was revoked last month for untruthfulness.
There's no standard in the U.S. for how an officer loses their license
The laws around how easy it is for a law enforcement officer to lose a license vary widely across the country. In Louisiana, an officer must be convicted of a felony to lose his license. In other states, including Colorado, Arizona and Florida, officers will be decertified after certain misdemeanor convictions, including perjury, and any felony convictions.
Many other states don’t revoke licenses for untruthfulness — though agencies usually fire officers for it, said Michael Becar, the CEO of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.
Megan Ring, the state’s chief public defender, said staffers in her office have created a spreadsheet with the names of officers to see whether they had testified in previous criminal cases.
If those officers found to be untruthful had key testimony that convicted one of their clients, even years earlier, she would consider reviewing it for appeal or clemency.
“The pursuit of justice is important to us. I can’t think of a trial I did where a police officer’s testimony didn’t have a significant impact on the trial and the outcome of the trial,” she said. “Officers walk in the courtroom, uniform on, their badge, their belt … The entire set up right there, the jurors believe they’re going to hear the truth from this really experienced law enforcement person.”
Ring added: “They carry with them credibility because they’re officers.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to report that the El Paso County Sheriff's Office uses a "preponderance" standard to determine whether a deputy has lied on the job.
More stories about law enforcement in Colorado:
- Who wants to be a cop in 2021? They do
- After police and sheriffs deputies left agencies in droves in 2021, Democratic leaders try to stem the tide
- Nearly two years into the pandemic, a rise in Aurora gun violence shows the kids are not alright
- Colorado doesn’t have enough resources to treat people deemed incompetent to stand trial, so the state is turning to private hospitals
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!