Rogue cops still licensed to carry a badge despite government reforms
(This is the long version of this story. Shorter version can be found here)
Rogue cops still licensed to work despite government reforms
UNDISCIPLINED: Colorado promised transparency around police misconduct, but is still not holding most rogue cops publicly accountable.
By Susan Greene, Colorado News Collaborative
and Andrew Fraieli, The Sentinel in Aurora
A Denver Police officer bragged to coworkers that he shot a carjacking suspect once in the head to kill him, then at least 16 times more to see his “face fall apart.” They told investigators that he spent months trumpeting his second on-duty killing and saying he was eager for a third.
Shane Madrigal resigned in 2022 while under investigation for what his supervisors deemed racist, homophobic and “grossly inappropriate” comments about killing people while he was on duty. Yet the man colleagues say has “zero regard for human life” still has a clean disciplinary record with the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board, the state agency responsible for regulating police. In the eyes of the law, Madrigal – who denied any wrongdoing – remains qualified to keep serving in law enforcement.
He isn’t the only officer who is still certified despite a pattern of alarming misconduct.
“We had some terrible police in our community who’ve lost their jobs, but …are still able to find jobs elsewhere,” says Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola, a member of the POST board. “If we’re going to make law enforcement more professional, and if we’re going to make the state of Colorado more safe, we need to hold these people accountable.
“We have to be able to police our police.”
Reporters from the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), Rocky Mountain Public Media, 9News, Colorado Public Radio and The Sentinel newspaper in Aurora used data made public by a 2020 reform law to take an unprecedented look at police discipline throughout the state. An investigation by COLab, The Sentinel and Rocky Mountain Public Media revealed a host of loopholes, mistakes and regulatory blind spots that have kept officers with documented records of abusive conduct in good standing with POST.
We found that cops involved in some of Colorado’s most-high profile misconduct cases – including Elijah McClain’s 2019 killing in Aurora – show up, falsely, in the state’s new police database with clean disciplinary records. We identified several who continued breaking policies and laws as they’ve been able to bounce from police job to police job. And only after we started asking questions about certain officers whose departments had months earlier reported their misconduct did the state take away their right to carry a badge in Colorado.
We also found:
- POST’s practice of publicly disclosing disciplinary actions taken against police only since 2022 has shielded the identities of most cops with proven records of misconduct.
- POST relies on local departments to report on their officers’ misbehavior, yet has not used its power to sanction those that don’t.
- The Attorney General’s office says POST has no authority to investigate or discipline officers whose departments have ignored their misconduct, leaving no other state agency to do so.
- And POST’s legal criteria for decertification are so narrow that it cannot decertify officers even when their records strongly suggest they are unfit for police work
More than three years after state lawmakers vowed a new era of police accountability, our findings cast doubt on how much progress Colorado has made keeping the public safe from rogue cops.
“What kind of system allows the certification of an officer who takes pleasure in riddling people with extra bullets?” asks Trish Vigil, mother of the carjacking suspect whose fatal shooting Madrigal’s fellow officers say he gloated over. “That’s not police discipline. It’s a free pass. And it’s disgusting.”
Law enforcement officers need to be certified by POST, an arm of the state Attorney General’s office, to make arrests in Colorado. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the state started specifying the kinds of misconduct that would cause an officer to lose that status.
In 1992, the legislature directed POST to deny certification to any officer convicted of a felony. Eventually, convictions or plea deals for certain serious misdemeanors were added to the list. Those misdemeanors include assaults with weapons, sex assaults and offenses, harassment, sexually exploiting children, obstruction of justice, bias-motivated crimes and certain drug offenses.
But by far the biggest efforts to reform police discipline have come in the last four years, starting with a 2019 law that makes “untruthfulness” the first non-criminal reason for decertification.
“Peace officers make too many critical decisions to rely on the credibility of known liars,” says Michael Phibbs, at the time the chief of the Auraria Campus Police Department and chairman of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, which proposed the bill.
Since it passed, 53 officers statewide have lost their POST certification for falsifying criminal justice records, misrepresenting facts during internal affairs-, administrative- and disciplinary investigations, and/or lying under oath.
In 2020, Colorado made national headlines as a leader in police reform when lawmakers, responding to the outrage following McClain’s, George Floyd’s and other police killings, passed a landmark bill targeting law enforcement integrity. One provision of the sweeping reform package ordered POST to create a public database to flag officers who’ve lost their certification. It’s also supposed to record “disciplinary actions” against those found to have been untruthful or who become the subject of a criminal probe, those who resigned while under investigation, in lieu of termination, or get fired “for cause” – meaning for intentional wrongdoing or misconduct.
Colorado is one of 14 states with such a database.
State Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) co-sponsored the reform package and says winning approval for the database was long considered “an insurmountable task” given years of opposition by powerful police unions that argued it would embarrass officers, breach their privacy and unfairly keep those who’ve lost their jobs from finding new ones.
“The key was to make sure these officers who were decertified wouldn’t get a job in another jurisdiction, and for people considering hiring them to understand the liability,” Herod says. “Against the odds, we achieved that.”
A year later, the legislature began requiring departments to use the database to check job applicants’ disciplinary records. The assumption was that the information in the database would be complete and accurate.
It is neither.
In an interview, Attorney General Phil Weiser acknowledged the system isn’t performing as envisioned and said his office is working to ensure local departments know their responsibilities when it comes to disciplining rogue cops.
“I will not say the system is perfect,” Weiser said. “I always believe there is room for improvement.”
Glitches, question marks, delays
The database is beset with glitches.
One crucial defect causes it to show a checkmark in a box reading “certification” for some officers who have been decertified. Another causes the word “CERTIFIED” to appear in capital letters next to the names of other officers who, further clicks into the database show, have lost POST certification.
POST says it has known about the malfunctions for about a year, but the office does not have a timeline – nor the budget – to fix them.
In several ways, the information on POST’s database raises more questions than answers.
It lists dozens of officers as having been “terminated for cause,” for example, yet doesn’t say what the cause was. And although the database may indicate that an officer is “subject of criminal investigation,” it removes that language once the case is closed without, in most instances, indicating whether the officer has been convicted, and if so of which offenses.
“If it’s misconduct, it’s misconduct. It ought to be in there, no matter what the (severity) of crime,” says Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police accountability.
POST’s records are also frequently outdated. Some delays are legally necessary because of due process rights officers have in the decertification process, as well as a work backlog among POST’s staff. Other delays, we found, stem from confusion about POST’s reporting process, miscommunication between local law enforcement agencies and POST, and paperwork errors. The office says decertification takes at least 70 days and then an average of three months to show up on the website. We found more than 20 cases that took far longer.
The effort to decertify Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Aaron Laing, for example, sat in 10 months of bureaucratic limbo after he was fired in November 2022 for materially changing dozens of case reports written by members of a Smuggling, Trafficking, and Interdiction Section (STIS) team he led, and then lying about those changes. Among them, documents show, he altered a report about a 2021 traffic stop by removing references to the involvement of an undercover Homeland Security Investigations vehicle driven by a special agent.
Laing refused to comment when we called. POST decertified him in September, after we asked about the delay.
It took POST nine months to decertify Officer Joseph Kanson who worked for the Evans Police Department but never finished field training and was convicted and sentenced in January on charges of impersonating an officer and a public servant. POST revoked his certification in September – again, only after we asked about the hold-up.
Kanson, too, declined our invitation to discuss his case.
Alamosa Police Chief Ken Anderson says he has reported two of his now-former officers to POST for untruthfulness – misconduct that he assumed would have led to both being decertified. But in both cases, he says, his reports were snarled in bureaucracy and ignored by POST. Both officers remain certified, so any other law enforcement agency in the state is free to hire them.
“I feel like we’re following the rules and it’s frustrating if we’re not being listened to seriously,” Anderson says.
Quinten Stump was a Kiowa County sheriff’s deputy with a record of excessive force when, in April 2020, he took part in killing an unarmed man, Zack Gifford, with three bullets to the back. That shooting led Kiowa County to pay a $9.5 million civil settlement to Gifford’s family and a jury to convict Stump of attempted manslaughter. He is serving a three-year prison sentence at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, yet, as of this writing, he is still POST certified.
POST would not comment on why Stump is still certified.
“It feels as though he’s still sort of getting away with it,” says Carla Gifford who, more than three years after her son’s killing, wonders how much longer her family will have to wait to hear Stump will never again work as a cop.
In 2016, Denver sheriff’s deputy Waylon Lolotai resigned while under investigation for excessive use of force.
The Boulder Police Department hired him about a month after that. Within three years, that department had launched its own use-of-force investigation against Lolotai for arresting Sammie Lawrence, a disabled Black man, by grabbing his walking aid and forcing him to the ground. Boulder ultimately paid Lawrence a $95,000 civil settlement for that arrest. While that inquiry was underway, Boulder Police launched another internal affairs probe against Lolotai – this time because he called for “use-of-force Fridays” on Instagram. He resigned during that investigation in September 2020.
None of those investigations into Lolotai, nor his resignations during them, show up on the POST database. Lolotai, whom we could not locate, remains certified to work as a police officer in Colorado.
Likewise, the POST database has no information about the involvement of three Aurora Police officers in one of the most high-profile excessive force cases in state history: the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain. Responding to a complaint that the 23-year-old Black massage therapist and violinist looked “sketchy,” officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt wrestled him to the ground before Woodyard put him into two dangerous carotid holds. They’ve each been indicted in connection with McClain’s homicide. The trial against Rosenblatt and Roedema started Sept. 18, and Woodyard’s is scheduled to start Oct. 16. None, however, shows up as subjects of criminal investigations because, as with Lolotai, their alleged misconduct took place before January 1, 2022, the date POST launched its database.
Most disciplinary actions that would land Colorado officers in the database don’t in fact show up if, like the cases above, the incident in question happened prior to 2022.
It’s not that POST doesn’t have that older information. The office keeps police discipline data dating as far back as 1979.
Nor do the laws that created the database expressly prohibit POST from listing records dating before 2022. Limiting the time frame never came up during 17 hours of public testimony about the 2020 bill, nor in the nine hours of testimony on the 2021 bill.
State Rep. Herod said she expected POST to include pre-2022 records when the database launched – and for a time it did. But the office deleted most of that information earlier this year after we asked about the timeframe of the misconduct listed. The result: The vast majority of Colorado officers who have disciplinary actions taken against them or who quit or were fired during misconduct investigations have effectively had their disciplinary records shielded from public view. And, more importantly, those “bad apples” remain eligible to carry weapons of deadly force, and a badge, on public streets throughout the state.
POST Director Erik Bourgerie would not comment on the deletion of the pre-2022 data – nor, for that matter, on anything related to the office he has run for almost six years. He referred all questions to the office of Attorney General Phil Weiser, who chairs POST’s board and has led efforts to crack down on bad cops since taking office in 2019.
Weiser campaigned for his seat as Colorado’s top law enforcer partly on a call to create the database. He says the 2020 session – with its short bursts of activity amid COVID-19 recesses – sped by so fast he doesn’t remember if he or anyone else discussed the database’s time frame.
Weiser’s spokesman Lawrence Pacheco says the pre-2022 information never should have been visible to the public because the reforms that mandated the database did not specify what years should be included. Without that guidance, he says, the office relied upon state law that says new statutes are “presumed to be prospective” rather than retrospective.
“POST can only operate with the authority it has in statute,” Pacheco says on behalf of Weiser. Asked whether providing the public with information prior to 2022 would “violate” any law, he wouldn’t directly answer.
Herod makes a point of noting it was the AG’s office, not lawmakers, that decided not to include pre-2022 information.
With only 21 months of misconduct visible to the public, experts in police discipline say it could take at least a decade before POST’s database reflects the real scope of officer misconduct in Colorado. There were about 13,000 active officers in the state in 2022 and the database shows only 186 – or roughly 1.5% – with disciplinary actions against them. The percentage of currently active officers would be much higher if pre-2022 data were included.
In the meantime, victims of police abuses predating 2022 say the omission whitewashes their experiences at the hands of abusive officers.
“(The short timeframe) helps erase the accountability that I and many other people fought for,” says Sammie Lawrence, who calls Lolotai’s appearance of having a clean record in the public POST data a “farce.”
Herod says she “would be very much interested” in finding a way to require POST to include pre-2022 disciplinary actions. State Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora), another co-sponsor of the reform bill, agrees, calling it a “shame” that information is missing.
“These people are allowed to exist under the radar,” she says.
“The tip of the iceberg”
POST relies on police and sheriffs departments to report the disciplinary actions they take against their officers. But our reporting identified several that haven’t – and with impunity.
The Denver Police Department is one of them. Mary Dulacki, Denver’s deputy safety director, says the city forgot to inform POST that Denver Officer Shane Madrigal resigned while being investigated for his comments and actions around the 2021 shooting of carjacking suspect Cedrick Vick.
POST could withhold funding or impose fines on Denver and other departments for not reporting, but it has chosen not to.
Weiser says he prefers to educate rather than sanction local departments as they adjust to the new reforms. And he says POST has no statutory authority to conduct an audit to determine which departments aren’t reporting nor to investigate officer misconduct on its own. Asked whether any law prohibits POST from doing so, his office wouldn’t comment.
Rather, POST’s sole investigator — a job that has been vacant for five months — tracks criminal cases against officers so the office is aware of de-certifiable convictions, and reviews departments’ reports about officers’ untruthfulness to make sure decertification is warranted.
POST boards in other states have investigators actively combing for police abuses. Michael Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, says he used keywords in a digital news clipping service to sniff out bad cops when he was the POST director in Idaho:
“You just have to be proactive.”
POST is the only state agency that regulates law enforcement. But, Weiser says it doesn’t have the power to investigate or discipline officers whose departments have ignored their misconduct, leaving no other government agency to do so.
Weiser defends what he calls POST’s “federated approach” to police discipline as consistent with the state’s long tradition of local control. He says state government counts on local departments to handle misconduct internally and isn’t set up to police police more aggressively.
“I start from a position of trusting local and regional actors to act appropriately.” Asked why he would maintain that trust in the face of documented instances of non-reporting, Weiser wouldn’t comment.
“I try not to worry about things I can’t control,” he told us.
Colorado State Public Defender Megan Ring is frustrated with the status quo.
“Public defenders see the same officers in multiple cases. We learn pretty quickly who the bad actors are and do all we can to identify them. Yet these bad officers show up over and over again in our cases. Clearly, not enough is [being] done to root them out.”
National law enforcement researchers say it’s naive for state regulators to count on police departments to self-report. They point to years of academic research into the so-called “blue wall of silence” – a well-documented unwillingness among law enforcers to report or punish officers for abuses of power. Police of all ranks have so much to lose in their jobs, social circles and community standing by reporting or punishing wrongdoing in their departments that, research shows, they tend to keep quiet.
“I can confidently say that there’s much more misconduct than what gets [reported] to the POST board in Colorado or any state,” says Rachel Moran, a professor at Minneapolis’s University of St. Thomas School of Law who studies police discipline. “What does, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The power of prosecutors
Legislatures in five states have given their POST boards authority to decertify officers for any type of misconduct.
Colorado isn’t among them.
Powerful police unions long have argued that a fireable offense shouldn’t necessarily be a decertifying one. In most states, unions successfully have pushed to hinge decertification on criminal convictions rather than on police standards or other potentially subjective assessments of officers’ conduct.
With a few exceptions – the 2019 untruthfulness law, most notably – that’s how police discipline works in Colorado. Of the 48 reasons an officer can be decertified here, 42 are criminal.
Many officers charged with de-certifiable offenses are able to make plea deals that allow them to stay POST certified.
Greeley Police Officer Kenneth Amick, for example, had a history of policy violations before he kneed and choked a suspect in a 2021 take-down that his department deemed to be excessive force. It fired him and prosecutors filed two charges against him, including assault by strangulation, which is de-certifiable. Amick worked out a plea deal with the prosecutor in which he pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor that lets him keep working as an officer, now in Weld County’s Garden City Police Department. And because the incident happened before January 2022, his disciplinary history does not show up in the POST database, making it appear as though he has a record of clean conduct.
Amick could not be reached for comment.
In 2022, the town of New Castle fired its then-Police Chief Anthony Pagni after, records show, he got drunk and pressed an AK-style weapon into his neighbor’s chest, threatening to “muzzle thump” him. After Pagni said he was in a mental health crisis at the time and his neighbor asked for leniency, the prosecutor granted him a plea deal that allowed him to remain POST certified. His criminal case was closed, so he, too, now has a clean disciplinary record on the state database.
Pagni, when approached at his home in New Castle, declined to comment.
By linking decertification so closely to criminality, state lawmakers have effectively given district attorneys’ offices – which tend to have close relationships with police they rely on as key witnesses – much of the responsibility for determining whether to keep an officer armed and certified in the name of public safety. And in doing so, the legislature effectively has stripped POST of its ability to assess the whole cop and discern what, besides a criminal conviction, might reasonably make someone unfit to serve as an officer.
Weiser says he understands that POST is giving up some control to local prosecutors, but that the criminal justice system is designed to start at the local level “and (I’m) comfortable honoring that system and working with it.”
“Zero regard for human life”
Shane Madrigal was an infantry Marine veteran with combat experience when, in his early 20s, he went to work as a Denver police officer in 2017.
His internal affairs investigation found he made frequent derogatory remarks about people who are Black, of Mexican descent, or gay. Records also show the officer who carried two rifles with him on duty has disdain for the public he served.
“Officer Madrigal made it known that he had zero regard for human life. He reportedly expressed multiple times that he does not care for human beings, that he is not a police officer so he can help people, and his only priority is making sure his fellow officers make it home after their shift,” reads an internal affairs report from February based on interviews with several of his colleagues.
In September 2020, Madrigal took part in fatally shooting Christopher Escobedo as the car chase suspect held a gun to his wife’s head near Denver’s Sloan’s Lake. Eight months later, Madrigal was among nine officers to respond to a carjacking of a mother and her child in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood by Cedrick Vick. The 22-year-old father of two with three types of drugs in his system used a handgun to fire randomly into a playground and then toward officers. They shot back with a total of 109 rounds, including 19 from Madrigal’s rifle.
Denver DA Beth McCann determined both killings to be legally justified.
At issue wasn’t that Madrigal fired so many times at Vick, but rather his frequent bragging, coworkers say, that he did so mostly for kicks.
“He told [redaction] that he knew his first shot hit the suspect in the face, but he wanted to keep shooting to watch the suspect’s face rip apart,” reads a synopsis of one of several internal affairs interviews with his colleagues.
“Officer [redaction] stated that Officer Madrigal is typically smiling when he talks about his officer-involved shooting,” the report continues. “Officer [redaction] stated that [redaction] has never heard another officer talk about being involved in a shooting the way that Officer Madrigal does because most people are not happy about killing people.”
Madrigal told investigators that he stopped firing when he felt Vick was no longer a threat. He denied saying anything to coworkers about Vick’s face or taking any pleasure in shooting it.
Madrigal reportedly made other comments about officer-involved shootings that the department deemed inappropriate. At least two former colleagues told investigators that, after Vick’s killing, he told them he had a so-called “throw-down gun” – also known as a drop gun – that he would plant on a suspect, if needed, to justify his use of lethal force. The department recommended his termination upon finding credible those officers’ statements that he had mentioned having such a weapon.
Madrigal denied accounts by coworkers that he sought certification to use a shotgun on patrol because he had already taken part in on-duty killings using a handgun and a rifle, and wanted to use a third type of weapon so, as one put it, “he can kill another person and be three for three.”
“Officer [redaction] stated that Officer Madrigal is not joking when he makes these comments, he is ‘dead serious.’”
As state law stands, there is likely nothing about his behavior that could cause him to be decertified. Although alarming to fellow officers and his supervisors, it didn’t cross into criminality, untruthfulness or the other, very narrow criteria POST needs an officer’s misconduct to meet in order to revoke their certification.
Madrigal resigned while under investigation in 2022, his fifth year in the department. When he was contacted by a reporter for comment, twice, he declined.
“A long way to go”
As much as Devyn Vick misses her brother “Ced,” and as deeply as their mother, Trish Vigil, grieves, they know that his own shooting spree led police to shoot and kill him that day in May 2021.
What stings, Devyn Vick says, is that “he was so gruesomely and unnecessarily annihilated that we were not able to view him” before burial.
What haunts Vigil, she says, is hearing Madrigal’s colleagues report he found pleasure in firing bullet after bullet into her son. “That’s sickening. It’s just sickening. It makes me want to throw up.”
Neither mother nor daughter understands how Denver police simply forgot to report Madrigal’s decision to resign while under investigation to POST any more than they understand why he remains a certified officer – or why the state’s decertification standards don’t factor in behavior they consider monstrous.
“If he has the opportunity to do it again, he absolutely will,” Devyn Vick says. “It’s a game to him, and his bodies are trophies is the way I see it.”
Public records suggest Madrigal has moved to Alabama whose POST board is not nearly as transparent as Colorado’s. Without his permission, it won’t say whether he is working in law enforcement there.
There is no national database for the public to see if officers who have left police jobs under a cloud have gone on to work in law enforcement in other communities and states.
Attorney General Weiser calls creating such a national database “the next step” to improve police discipline, but civil rights advocates say he needs to focus on fixing what’s wrong with the system in Colorado before doing so nationally.
“We need to make sure state agencies like POST and the AG’s office are fully enforcing existing laws and creating a culture where Colorado’s law enforcement agencies go above and beyond to ensure maximum integrity,” Taylor Pendergrass, advocacy director for the ACLU of Colorado, says. “We also need to take a hard look at additional legislative solutions right now, especially small changes tightening up the law that might make a big impact on ensuring rogue officers are not sneaking into our police departments and out on the streets.”
“Clearly, as this reporting shows, there is a long way to go,” adds Public Defender Ring.
But several lawmakers say no one really wants to push for more police discipline laws this upcoming session – let alone refine ones already on the books from 2020 and 2021. Leaders in both parties say political interest in police reform has waned without any high-profile police killings in the headlines, at least for now.
The Sentinel in Aurora provided fellowship assistance to help make Andrew Fraieli available to the reporting team. Former Rocky Mountain Public Media Producer Brittany Freeman and Rocky Mountain Public Media Reporter Alison Berg contributed to this story. The Colorado Media Project’s Watchdog Fund provided grants to COLab and Rocky Mountain Public Media to help offset costs for public documents used in this reporting.