Rogue cops still licensed to carry a badge despite government reforms
UNDISCIPLINED: Colorado promised transparency around police misconductt, 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 how much he enjoyed his second on-duty killing, and how eager he was 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. 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 has 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.”
An investigation by the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), The Sentinel in Aurora 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, with clean disciplinary records. We identified several who continued breaking laws and policies 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 certification from POST, an arm of the Attorney General’s office, to make arrests in Colorado. For decades, officers could lose their certification only if they were convicted of a felony or certain types of serious misdemeanors.
That changed in 2019 when lawmakers made “untruthfulness” the first non-criminal reason for decertification. Some 53 officers statewide since have had their POST certification revoked for falsifying criminal justice records, misrepresenting facts during internal affairs-, administrative- and disciplinary investigations, or lying under oath.
Another law, passed amid state and national outcry in 2020 against police abuses such as George Floyd’s killing, went a step further by making police misconduct more transparent. It created a public database – one of 14 nationwide – to flag officers who’ve not only lost their certifications, but also have been slapped with disciplinary actions.
A law passed the following year requires 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
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.”
Our review found the database beset by glitches, including two malfunctions that make it look as though officers who have been decertified still have their certification. POST has known about those crucial defects for a year, but says it does not have the budget to fix them.
We found ways POST’s records raise more questions than answers. Many officers are listed as having been “terminated for cause,” for example, but POST does not specify what that cause was. And, although it notes when officers become “subject of a criminal investigation,” it usually fails to say when they are convicted – and of what crimes – once those cases are closed.
“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.
We found POST’s records are often outdated. An officer’s right to due process means an inevitable delay between a sustained finding of misconduct and eventual decertification. But delays can be stretched out for months or longer by confusion about POST’s reporting process, miscommunication between local law enforcement agencies and POST, and paperwork errors
The effort to decertify Sgt. Aaron Laing, for example, sat in 10 months of bureaucratic limbo after Colorado State Patrol fired him 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.
Alamosa Police Chief Ken Anderson says he has reported two now-former officers to POST for untruthfulness – misconduct he assumed would have gotten both decertified. Both officers remain certified, he says, because his reports were snarled in bureaucracy and ignored by POST:
“I feel like we’re following the rules and it’s frustrating if we’re not being listened to seriously.”
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, was 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.
The biggest gap in POST’s transparency effort is that it generally doesn’t list information about misconduct that happened prior to January 1, 2022, the date the office launched its database.
Nothing, for example, shows up about the involvement of three Aurora Police officers in one of the most high-profile excessive force cases in state history: Elijah McClain’s killing. Officers Randy Roedema, Jason Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard each have been indicted in connection with McClain’s homicide. None, however, is marked on the database as subjects of criminal investigations because McClain’s killing took place in 2019, before the database went public.
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.
Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office ordered pre-2022 misconduct cases erased from the database earlier this year on grounds that the laws calling for its creation didn’t specify whether the information on it should be retrospective. That means 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.
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.
State Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) and State Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora), who both co-sponsored those laws, are considering legislation to force POST to make public misconduct data predating 2022 so that fewer bad cops are allowed, as Fields put it, “to exist under the radar.”
Another blind spot in POST’s data is that the office relies on police and sheriffs departments to report the disciplinary actions they take against their officers. Our investigation identified several departments that haven’t – and with impunity. The Denver Safety Department, for example, says it 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.
The Marine infantryman whom records show made frequent derogatory remarks about people who are Black, of Mexican descent or gay had disdain for the public he served.
“He reportedly expressed multiple times that he does not care for human beings…,” reads an internal affairs report 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 Vick, a 22-year-old father of two who 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 District Attorney Beth McCann determined both killings to be legally justified.
At issue wasn’t that Madrigal fired so many times at Vick, but rather that he allegedly bragged in the months afterward 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.”
When he was contacted by a reporter for comment, twice, Madrigal declined.
He 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. He also 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.’”
Vick’s family doesn’t understand how Denver police simply forgot to report Madrigal’s decision to resign while under investigation to POST any more than they understand how he remains a certified officer. As state law stands, there is likely nothing about his behavior that could cause him to be decertified. While it was 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.
“If he has the opportunity to do it again, he absolutely will,” Vick’s sister Devyn Vick says. “It’s a game to him, and his bodies are trophies is the way I see it.”
POST has the power to withhold funding or impose fines on Denver and other departments for not reporting their officers’ misconduct, but has chosen not to. Weiser says he prefers to educate than to sanction local departments as they adjust to the new reforms. As his office interprets the law, he says POST doesn’t have authority to audit non-reporting police and sheriff’s departments nor to investigate bad cops whose misconduct they’ve ignored. That leaves no other state agency to do so.
“I start from a position of trusting local and regional actors to act appropriately,” Weiser said. Asked why he would maintain that trust in the face of documented instances of non-reporting, he wouldn’t comment.
“I try not to worry about things I can’t control,” he told us.
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.
“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.”
In the meantime, civil libertarians and police watchdogs are calling for more aggressive steps to meaningfully strengthen Colorado’s system of police discipline.
“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,” says Taylor Pendergrass, advocacy director for the ACLU of Colorado. “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.”
“Bad officers show up over and over again in our cases,” adds Colorado State Public Defender Megan Ring. “Clearly, not enough is [being] done to root them out.”
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.