UNDISCIPLINED: Investigating Police Misconduct in Colorado

  • Susan Greene is a reporter, editor and coach for the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She was editor and executive director of The Colorado Independent before it merged with COLab and a longtime reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. She was selected as a 2020-2021 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, and is the inaugural recipient of the Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grant for Mental Health Investigative Journalism.

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For all the talk about police misconduct, little has been known – at least publicly – about what, if anything, actually happens to most rogue cops in Colorado. 

One journalist set out late last year to find out. 

Brittany Freeman, then an executive producer of investigative journalism at Rocky Mountain Public Media, knew that for the first time an obscure database launched in 2022 by Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board made public the names of officers who have been disciplined or decertified for misconduct. She also knew that investigating about a year’s worth of disciplinary actions against 190 officers at 103 police and sheriff’s departments statewide was more than her newsroom – or any single news outlet – could handle alone. 

So she reached out to COLab. 

Together, we rounded up a group of talented journalists from three other news outlets to find out what in POST’s never-before-seen data we could learn about whether recent police reforms are weeding out and protecting Coloradans from wayward cops, as lawmakers intended with police reforms passed in 2020 and 2021. We used that information to mine for hundreds of internal affairs reports and other records about misconduct ranging from officers fudging their time cards to harassing women they pulled over on traffic stops to gloating about the details of their on-duty killings. Then we interviewed officers, their supervisors, victims of their misconduct, state officials, police watchdogs and criminal justice scholars. 

The result of that 10-month COLab-led collaboration between Rocky Mountain Public Media, The Sentinel in Aurora, KUSA/9News and Colorado Public Radio is a multi-story, multimedia investigative series we’re calling “Undisciplined.”

Today, we’re making the first story in that series available, for free, to the 180+ news outlets throughout Colorado that partner with COLab. The piece exposes the legislative loopholes, mistakes and regulatory blind spots that allow many officers with proven records of disturbing misconduct to keep working in law enforcement. Among other findings, it also raises questions about whether the legal criteria are so narrow in Colorado that POST cannot decertify officers even when their records strongly suggest they are unfit for police work.

“We have to be able to police our police,” says Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola, who is especially frustrated with the caliber of officers applying to work in rural communities.

After Freeman left Rocky Mountain Public Media for another job last winter, I partnered with Andrew Fraieli, a terrific reporter seeking to build a career as an investigative journalist. He quit his job with a community weekly to glean hands-on training by working on this project since March as part of a fellowship with The Sentinel in Aurora. He, in turn, has been helping me train reporters throughout the state on how to identify and investigate misconduct by local officers.

Andrew was also key to building a database with linkable documents about misconduct cases we hope Coloradans will read to learn more about the disciplinary records of individual officers in their communities. We think POST’s own database should, by policy, reflect the level of transparency we offered.

We also hope this first story – along with forthcoming reporting as part of this “Undisciplined” series by The Sentinel, KUSA/9News, Colorado Public Radio, Rocky Mountain Public Media and several local outlets in the coming weeks and months – will spur conversations statewide about how, and for what types of misbehavior law enforcement officers in Colorado should be disciplined. 

Collaborative reporting is a new frontier in an industry that long has clung to competition rather than teamwork between outlets. As our name suggests, COLab is a laboratory of sorts – a place to experiment with finding the best ways to maximize limited resources in Colorado’s news landscape to ensure watchdog reporting continues to be practiced in and available to people in all corners of our state.

We are enormously proud of this project and committed to our work not only helping outlets up their game journalistically, but also broadening their reach and modernizing their business operations. This is our cause. We hope that commitment inspires you to subscribe to your local news outlet (you can find yours here) and to support COLab and our work to make democracy stronger by making local news outlets stronger.

Thank you, as always, for caring about the news.

This post was sent as a letter to our email subscribers on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Join our email list to learn more about COLab and the work we are doing.