CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained a photo that misidentified an officer as Parker Police Department’s Chris Valko. The Colorado News Collaborative has removed the photo and we apologize for the error. Also, an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that officer Christopher Valko was fired from the Denver Police Department. He resigned, according to DPD officials. The story also mistakenly referred to an unconstitutional home search that was instead an unconstitutional arrest.
An officer labeled a “significant” liability risk by the Federal Heights Police Department in suburban Denver went on to work as a police sergeant in Platteville where he parked his cruiser on railroad tracks before a train rammed into it with a woman, handcuffed, trapped inside.
A Washington County sheriff’s deputy fired for inappropriately pursuing women he met on the job – including one he pulled over on a traffic stop – went on to work as a sheriff’s deputy in Morgan County, which canned him for inappropriately messaging a female colleague.
And an officer who resigned from Denver Police Department soon after committing an unconstitutional search of a car went on to leave his next job at Parker Police during an investigation into his arresting a suspect by reaching through their doorway without a warrant. He’s now working as an officer in Sheridan.
These are among Colorado’s “wandering” cops – officers with documented misconduct records who, records show, have bounced from police job to police job, many of them landing in Colorado’s smallest and most rural departments.
In an investigation led by the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), reporters from The Sentinel in Aurora, 9News, Colorado Public Radio, and Rocky Mountain Public Media used data made public by a 2020 reform law to look at police discipline throughout the state. As part of that inquiry, the team spent months obtaining and scouring documents about disciplinary actions against nearly 200 officers listed in the state’s new database from January to mid-December 2022.
The data is supposed to include officers who’ve lost their certification, as well as those found to have been untruthful or who became the subject of a criminal probe or resigned while under investigation, in lieu of termination, or got fired “for cause” – meaning for intentional wrongdoing or misconduct.
Our review found a host of loopholes, mistakes and regulatory blind spots that have kept countless incidents of documented misconduct invisible to the public. It also revealed that even rogue officers whose transgressions are visible have been able to wander from department to department, repeating the same types of misbehavior.
“I worry, especially in rural communities like ours, about the caliber of applicants we’re getting,” says Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola. “So it’s hugely important that we know – and everyone knows – as much as possible about their backgrounds. It’s a matter of public safety.”
Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the state office that regulates police, is housed in the office of Attorney General Phil Weiser, who cited the need to track wandering cops as a key reason to launch the new database of police discipline and certification actions. But, at his direction, the agency limited the public’s ability to do just that in two ways.
One is that the information POST discloses does not detail officers’ employment histories, something that the Colorado Gazette and the Invisible Institute – a nonprofit news site based in Chicago – are fighting Weiser for in court. The institute has reported that Colorado is one of just 15 states that keep this type of police officer data secret, “preventing the press and public from adequately monitoring the state’s oversight of wandering or second-chance officers.” As that suit points out, prior attorneys general freely disclosed this very same information to reporters in the past, making prior reports, like this one, possible.
The other way lies in one of the database’s biggest blindspots: Weiser decided not to make public disciplinary actions before 2022, the year the database was launched. By doing so, he effectively has kept the vast majority of prior misconduct cases – and information showing which officers have engaged in serial misconduct – shrouded in secrecy.
Weiser defends that decision, blaming state lawmakers for not writing into a 2020 police reform law a specific timeframe for misconduct cases the database makes public. But that law merely set a floor, not a ceiling, for how many years back POST disclosures must go.
“POST can only operate with the authority it has in statute,” Weiser’s spokesman, Lawrence Pacheco, says on his behalf. Asked whether providing the public with information prior to 2022 would “violate” any law, he wouldn’t directly answer. State Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver), who co-sponsored the reform package that includes the POST database, makes a point of noting it was the AG’s office, not lawmakers, that decided not to include pre-2022 information.
Red flags about Christopher Valko, for example, date at least as far back as 2017 when Colorado’s District Court ruled the then-Denver Police officer violated a driver’s Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an “unconstitutional” search of his car during a traffic stop. Four years later, while responding to a domestic violence call as a Parker Police officer in 2021, Valko reached inside a door to grab the suspect and take him into custody – an entrance that department deemed unlawful.
Valko “resigned in lieu of termination” from Parker. That arrangement allows departments to get rid of wayward cops faster than they would firing them, a process that in many cities can take six to nine-months of bureaucratic red tape.
“It’s just a quicker way of ensuring these guys don’t keep… their badges” when the system works, says former Alamosa Police Chief Ken Anderson.
Nothing is publicly visible about Valko’s search and seizure violations because, in an appeals process in 2022, he was able to convince POST to omit his resignation in lieu of termination from its database. The data shows Valko, who could not be reached for comment, is working today as an officer with the Sheridan Police Department. As that department tells it, Valko says he stopped working for Denver police not because of the car search episode, but because he didn’t want to take a COVID shot.
Likewise, red flags about Pablo Vasquez — the officer who parked his cruiser on train tracks resulting in serious injuries to an arrestee — also aren’t visible despite his documented record of liability risks at two police departments.
As reported by CBS News Colorado, the then police sergeant was the subject of five internal affairs investigations at the Federal Heights Police Department in 2019 and 2020. His 2019 evaluation deemed his work to be of “poor quality,” and a supervisor wrote in his performance improvement plan that “Sergeant Vazquez’s documented failure to provide adequate supervision presented a significant risk of liability to the City of Federal Heights and the safety of the officers under his supervision.”
“We identified significant concerns about his ability to operate as a police officer in our department,” says Mike Domenighini, who was until recently Federal Heights’ police chief.
Vasquez resigned from that department to work at the Platteville Police Department where in September 2022 he left his patrol car on railroad tracks after chasing a road rage suspect. Another officer put that suspect handcuffed in the back of the car and a freight train slammed into it, causing the suspect serious injuries, including brain damage.
Platteville fired Vasquez last December, and it appears from POST’s data that he is not presently working in law enforcement. He is facing multiple charges, including five charges of reckless endangerment. But nothing about those counts – nor his record of liability risks – shows up on POST’s database, where it appears, falsely, that he has a clean disciplinary record. The Platteville police department did not return calls about whether it reported Vasquez’ firing and pending criminal case to POST, as state law requires, and Vasquez has declined comment on the case.
In 2021, while on a short stint as the undersheriff in Cheyenne County Sheriff’s Office, Adam Hanna printed bogus photo IDs falsely claiming he was a retiree with more than 10 years of police experience that qualified him to carry a concealed handgun. He later included one of those cards in his employment application to the Prowers County Sheriff. That office investigated and slapped him with, among other counts, forgery, criminal impersonation and first-degree official misconduct, all charges that if he were convicted would strip him of the POST certification. He entered into a pre-trial diversion program in exchange for the charges being dropped – an agreement that nevertheless should have yanked his POST certificate. But Hanna managed to snag a job with the Morrison Police Department in March 2022 before he was decertified in December of that year. The 24-member POST board voted at the end of an appeals process to decertify him for lying to them about the ID.
Morrison’s Police Chief Bill Vinelli wouldn’t say whether he checked Hanna’s background when hiring him, but even if he had, the POST database would have shown him still certified to work in law enforcement.
Most sheriffs and police chiefs we interviewed told us they do extensive background checks on job applicants. In fact, the sweeping 2020 and 2021 reform laws calling for public disclosure of officers’ misconduct requires agencies to check POST’s database before hiring officers. Our reporting since has found many holes and inaccuracies in it.
Meanwhile, several criminal justice scholars with whom we spoke say the vast majority of departments do not fully investigate the background of an officer they are hiring.
“Many just don’t take the time to do it,” says Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police accountability.
Given the record number of law enforcement officers who have been retiring and resigning in recent years – especially since the national uproar over George Floyd’s murder – scholars say even departments that do thoroughly investigate applicants’ backgrounds are having such a hard time filling vacancies that some ignore misconduct records when hiring.
Recently retired El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder laments that many departments don’t do their homework when hiring.
“I know that there were people that left the (El Paso Sheriff’s Office) that went to work in other local agencies, and you just shake your head,” said Elder, who wishes more police and sheriff’s departments would call and ask about the applicants they’re interviewing. “You know, hey, if it’s right here, all you have to do is ask. And if you asked, and you knew and you still made the decision, well, then the result is on you.”
Morgan County Sheriff Dave Martin, for example, hired deputy Leotis Johnson in 2022 fully aware, by checking Johnson’s background with his previous employer, the Washington County’s Sheriff’s Office, that Johnson had been fired from that job in 2019 for inappropriately messaging a woman he pulled over on duty.
That woman, Jaiden Severin, was 19 when Johnson stopped her, but then let her go for speeding. By the time she got home, she had a message from him on Facebook: “Lucky you are cute that’s why you got a warning LOL.” She was eventually contacted by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and asked if she wanted to press charges. She declined, but now emphasizes that if she had been told Johnson had a pattern of harassing women, she would have pursued charges.
“He’s supposed to be more reliable, being in a position of trust,” she says.
Martin read Johnson’s termination letter, which shows a supervisor warned Johnson that Washington County’s Sheriff’s Department “was not a dating service and you were not to contact anyone on Facebook that you had just had contact with in your official capacity.” The letter shows that, although Johnson agreed, he went on to do so, anyway.
Martin says he didn’t want to rule Johnson out as a job candidate because it’s difficult “finding someone who wants to live in rural America without all the amenities of the Front Range.” Small and rural departments often pay 30-50% less than larger, urban ones, chiefs, sheriffs and criminal justice scholars say. So, the Sheriff had Johnson undergo a lie detector test to gauge his truthfulness about the aspects of his firing from Washington County Johnson said had been misrepresented.
“The person who administered it said he was telling the truth. So we gave him a shot on the condition that we would not tolerate such behavior,” Martin says.
But Johnson’s misconduct persisted in his new job in Morgan County, where records show he surfed for women on Tinder while on duty within weeks of being hired, and texted while driving his cruiser with an arrestee in the back. He messaged a colleague at one point, bragging that he, “Killed two birds today hit them going 105.”
[Leotis Johnson – Washington County SO.jpg] – given to us from Washington County
He also messaged a female deputy over Facebook that “I would never write you a ticket. I’d let you break the law…I’d look the other way” and “I’d stalk your house [laughing emoji] if I knew where you lived anyways [laughing emoji].”
When we asked about those messages, Johnson told us, “I’m not going to lie. The lady I was talking to, she’s a pretty girl, she’s single, and a lot of the commanders and other officers there have hit on her. I’ve been there and witnessed it.”
As Sheriff Martin tells it, “When we called him out on similar behavior that was coming to light, he lied about it. We fired him for untruthfulness and reported it to POST.”
Although Johnson is listed on POST’s database as having been “terminated with cause” in August of 2022, there is no record of his alleged untruthfulness, which is potentially de-certifiable.
“Why not? I can’t answer that. I don’t know. We sent in the paperwork,” said Martin, who serves on POST’s board, yet noted he hadn’t familiarized himself with the database in the more than a year and a half since it launched. He did not, when asked twice, provide a copy of that paperwork.
For his part, Johnson sees nothing inappropriate with what he calls his “friendly text messages” to women he met on the job. He says he was “set up to fail” by both rural sheriff’s departments because he is Black – an assertion both sheriffs deny.
Now that his firing is visible on POST’s database, he laments he’s having a tougher time finding another job in law enforcement.
Eric Feola also is feeling the sting of having his disciplinary record made public.
The former officer was fired from the Westminster Police in May of 2018 because of an alleged affair with a dispatcher. Feola, who is married, went on to be fired from the Thornton Police Department in April 2022 after records from the agency show he threatened to kill a married woman who was having his baby. This was after swearing in his interview with Thornton that he wouldn’t repeat that adulterous behavior, even as he was in the midst of doing so with the woman he allegedly threatened. He was charged with harassment and domestic violence for the threats, but those charges eventually were dropped. Feola denies the woman’s accusations against him, bemoaning that the “terminated for cause” notation on his POST disciplinary record has ruined his police career.
“I’m a super private person. But, like, the fact that you know all of this just kind of pisses me off that it’s even out there.”
Too bad, Professor Walker says.
“That’s exactly the point of having the database.”
9News journalists Zack Newman, Aaron Adelson and Jeremy Jojola contributed to this reporting, as did Alison Berg and Brittany Freeman of Rocky Mountain Public Media.
The Data Behind the Project
Good journalism requires facts, and facts often stem from data. The Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) and our partners are committed to full transparency and to offering members of the public an ability to look for themselves at the data and documents at the foundation of our reporting.
Undisciplined: The data behind the project is a spreadsheet we hope Coloradans will use to look up rogue officers, see disciplinary actions among officers within their local police and sheriff’s departments, and seek more information about the alleged misconduct of specific officers listed.
The tab called “2022 POST Disciplinary Actions – Documents” links to documents that came from our freedom-of-information requests to 103 law enforcement agencies. We asked for deeper information about disciplinary actions against officers that were listed on the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board’s database on one day, December 14, 2022. We realize it is merely a snapshot of nearly one year of police discipline, and that its scope is limited, especially because many law enforcement agencies denied our requests. Still, we are making public the fruits of our document requests for the 2022 timeframe we analyzed as a way to augment the limited information available on POST’s database.
The tab called “Updated POST data through October 18, 2023” is a direct download from POST’s database taken on October 18, 2023. While it doesn’t have links to background documents about specific cases, it does have more recent disciplinary actions than that in the first tab, and is more searchable than the state’s POST database.