3rd-degree burns and dislocated joints: Adams County police academy has ‘unprofessional and dangerous’ culture, state officials say

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Flatrock Adams County Regional Training Center.

State officials have found an “unprofessional and dangerous” culture at the state’s largest law enforcement academy in Adams County, calling it a training ground that perpetuates hazing and abuse and has a pattern of egregious cadet injuries that stretch back to 2018. 

Since August of that year, trainees have reported more than two dozen injuries — including third-degree burns after doing pushups on hot asphalt, a dislocated jaw reported by one cadet after being punched in the face by an instructor and an eye contusion after an entire class of recruits threw dodge balls at another cadet’s head for an alleged infraction — according to the state’s Peace Officers Standard and Training board, or POST, which board regulates law enforcement officers and training academies.

The state alleges Flatrock Regional Training Center instructors have particularly targeted women, small-framed men and Aims Community College cadets.

“Females are scared to go to academy because they think this is the way things are,” said Kasandra Altman, a 21-year-old, 5-foot-2 inch cadet who was shot 38 times earlier this year with “simunition” wax projectiles as part of a training exercise. “Flatrock is very paramilitary and they have that old mindset that people learn by physical punishments.”

In June, state officials ordered the Adams County sheriff into a remediation plan to improve its training academy curriculum and safety protocols with deadlines starting this summer. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Flatrock Adams County Regional Training Center.

It is the second remediation plan ordered by state officials to Adams County in a single year.

“The trend of injuries remains a significant concern,” POST Director Erik Bourgerie wrote in a June 15 letter to the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, which was obtained by CPR News. “Failure to satisfactorily implement the measures … could result in the immediate suspension of all operations at Flatrock,” 

Adams County Sheriff Gene Claps, who was elected last year, said he has spent the bulk of his first year in office internally investigating reported problems at the training academy, which had more than $2 million in fund reserves for the sheriff’s department last year, according to county records.

“I didn’t know we had a problem with Flatrock,” said Sheriff Claps. “When I got this letter, it was a very hard blow for us and that's why we took such a deep dive into what has been occurring and if there is a problem, we need to fix it.”

State officials track serious bodily injuries that occur at any of the 33 law enforcement training academies across Colorado. In 2022 alone, there were 17 injury reports statewide. More than half were from Flatrock. 

Officials worry there could be more that went unreported, though. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Adams County Sheriff Gene Claps.

An audit conducted last fall found at least one — and maybe three — incidents since 2019 resulting in serious injury were not reported to state officials. 

That included a cadet being struck in the face with a dodgeball during a sanctioned game as part of physical fitness training. The cadet reported that during the required game, he accidentally hit an academy commander with a ball. As punishment, he was directed to stand against a wall while the other 58 cadets threw balls at him from a close distance. He suffered a contusion to his eye. 

Other unreported incidents included a fractured hand during a weapon retention drill and a cadet being transported to the hospital for a head injury, according to the POST letter to Claps.

A state investigation found a number of flaws in the academy's training

Alarmed at the number of injuries, particularly during the arrest control tactics — or ACT — drills, state officials conducted a surprise inspection of Flatrock last September, according to audits and documents obtained by CPR News through records requests.

“While it is not uncommon to receive injury reports from POST academies during ACT training, it seemed the injuries were occurring on the drill/scenario and ground fighting days,” POST officials wrote to Flatrock managers just a few weeks after former Adams County Sheriff Rick Reigenborn lost his seat. “POST had no option but to further investigate to ensure a safe training environment existed in the Flatrock ACT program.”

In that unannounced visit, state officials found a number of flaws in the training that were likely leading to injuries. 

That included no briefings provided to recruits prior to training, inaccurate or non-existent lesson plans, lack of communication from instructors about what cadets were to expect in certain training exercises and safety officers not checking before drills for weapons the trainees might be carrying.

Morgan County Sheriff David Martin had two cadets get injured during training at Flatrock and neither of them completed the academy. Martin met with Claps earlier this year and expressed concerns, and said with that new leadership, he feels confident the academy will improve. 

“I will continue to use it barring anything unforeseen or unethical,” said Martin, who said the county pays about $6,000 per cadet to Adams County for arrest control, firearms and driving training at Flatrock. “I think they’ve made some changes and I won’t know until I try.”

Since taking office in January, Claps said the problems plaguing Flatrock have consumed his short tenure. He said he has not found any evidence of hazing or problems with picking on small-framed men or female cadets.

“From our information, we’re not finding that but we are continuing to work on that,” he said.

'They just kept shooting me'

Kasandra Altman wanted to be a law enforcement officer since she was a teenager in the south metro suburbs and officers helped her family and mother get away from what she described as a difficult home life.

“There was a whole situation and they were the ones who got us out of the situation and got the ball rolling for my mom to have full custody of us when I was 15,” Altman said. “And I wanted to give back.”

After graduating from Chatfield High School, Altman joined the Air Force Reserve, which gave her some credits towards a criminal justice degree. When she got out of basic training, she went to Arapahoe Community College and worked security jobs at Home Depot and Lowes. 

She applied for a code enforcement position in Fort Morgan and the police chief called her and instead offered her a job as an officer. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Fort Morgan Police Officer Kasandra Altman.

Altman started training in January through Aims Community College and went to Flatrock for arrest control, driving and firearms training in February.

“It was not the best experience,” she said, noting instructors rarely offered guidance or support, they only yelled at cadets. “There was no winning in the scenarios. Even if we did good, it would be wrong. We would get talking to's that none of us in the room would be good cops and we wouldn't make it in the real world. I think it was just a scare tactic.”

Towards the end of the training, Altman was participating in a drill, practicing how to pull someone over. As soon as she got out of the car, two men exited the truck and started shooting her with rifles loaded with what is called “simunition” — wax projectiles.

“But my gun, the simulated gun they gave me, would not fire rounds, it would continuously double feed. I would try to shoot rounds and it would just jam up and I just kept trying to hide and clear my weapon,” she said. “Eventually I was out of rounds, I didn’t have any more mags and that was when they continuously shot me in the legs. I had 36 different rounds in my legs. I looked up and held up my glock and said, ‘I have no ammo, I don’t know what you want me to do,’ and they just kept shooting me.”

Altman, who is now a Fort Morgan Police Department officer, didn’t have protective gear on her legs. 

“My legs were getting destroyed,”  she said. “They wanted us to feel the pain of getting shot. I guess it made it more real, to see how we would react.” 

Altman didn’t immediately report the incident to anyone except her husband, who was also in the training academy. He was only shot twice in the legs. 

“I didn’t want to cause problems,” she said. “I just wanted to get through the academy. At first, I thought everyone was shot that many times, too.”

But at a workout the next day at Aims Community College, Altman was wearing shorts and an instructor noticed the bruising. She eventually told her Fort Morgan commander, who reported it to the chief.

“I had never seen anything like this. I knew immediately we had to do something,” Fort Morgan Police Chief Loren Sharp said. “Our first step was to talk to the new sheriff and tell him that it was unacceptable, that we are sending people there and we will not do that if this is the type of behavior happening. I had never seen anything like that.” 

Claps, who acknowledged meeting with Sharp and Morgan County Sheriff Martin, said he couldn’t talk much about what happened to Altman because the incident is still under investigation. He declined to say whether anyone faced discipline for what happened to her.

“I had no words for how many times she was tagged. I don’t know the specifics as to why,” he said. “But to us, it’s excessive and it’s not going to be tolerated … It was uncalled for and unnecessary.”

POST officials wouldn’t comment on the incident beyond what was in the reports to the Adams County sheriff, but in an emailed statement, they acknowledged the case could be referred to a prosecutor for a criminal investigation.

“If POST believes there is potentially criminal conduct that falls outside its jurisdiction to investigate, it will refer the matter to the local district attorney,” a spokesman said.

Adams County District Attorney Brian Mason declined to comment on any active investigation referred to his office.

In the June letter to Claps, state officials called what happened to Altman the “most concerning report to date” and her incident sparked the second remediation plan ordered in June.

“There is significant concern that Flatrock staff purposefully target females, males with smaller physical stature and Aims Community College cadets,” POST Director Bourgerie wrote. “Failure to satisfactorily implement the measures identified above by the specified deadlines could result in the immediate suspension of all operations at Flatrock.”

Adams County sheriff is appealing the requirements

Sheriff Claps has filed an appeal to the latest round of remediation requirements, arguing that Flatrock is not being compared fairly to other law enforcement training academies and that many of the injuries in the remediation letters don’t qualify as “serious.”

“I don’t know if you can call it a problem,” Claps said. “My question is what are you comparing this to? To look at every single sprained ankle, every single hurt finger, everything that is reported to us that isn’t required to be reported … That is what we’re asking for is a clarification. It is very unusual.”

Claps said he has taken steps to strengthen the curriculum and ban certain activities, like arm wrestling and punitive dodgeball. One report noted a cadet broke his arm in a competitive arm-wrestling match in 2021.

“Our goal is to protect our people, to protect our cadets,” Claps said. “We are here to provide a service. Our goal is to not hurt people and to provide high-quality cadets and not intentionally try to injure them or hurt them in any way. We are moving forward on that.”

State officials have said that use of force and physical activities — like runs — are not permitted as forms of punishment. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Flatrock Adams County Regional Training Center.

Adams County appealed that decision requesting “short physical activities, including push ups, sit ups, burpees” not to exceed 10 minutes be ordered to “address minor infractions.”

“Short physical discipline serves many purposes,” Claps’ appeal to POST said. “These physical activities will focus on teaching discipline and will not be used for the purpose of retaliation or humiliation.”

The problems at Flatrock, which graduates between 90 and 140 cadets a year, come at a time when law enforcement agencies across the state are struggling to fill hundreds of open positions — and many are trying to recruit women to be officers. 

Altman said she is now in a supportive place at the Fort Morgan Police Department, where she currently works overnight shifts on patrol with a supervising sergeant.

“I want females to feel comfortable going to the academy,” she said. “If someone is not 100 percent sure they want to be in law enforcement because of how they’re being treated, they may think departments treat them this way as well. Why would you want to work for somebody that makes you constantly feel like a failure the whole time?”

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