By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — The public comment period of the Albany County Commission’s Tuesday meeting was eventful as several expressed dismay over an officer-involved shooting from November.
The commission meetings are typically a harmonious affair, but not this week after ACoPP, which stands for Albany County for Proper Policing, organized an effort to protest the county’s handling of the death of Robbie Ramirez, a 39-year-old man who was fatally shot by an Albany County Sheriff’s Office deputy in November.
The public comment at the beginning of the commission meeting lasted two hours. Because of the number of attendees, the commissioners moved the start of their meeting to the District Courtroom on the courthouse’s third floor.
Sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling fatally shot Ramirez during a Nov. 4 traffic stop on Garfield Street.
After a grand jury opted not to indict Derek Colling for manslaughter in January, Sheriff Dave O’Malley moved Derek Colling into a detective position.
The public comment period was dominated by critics of the sheriff’s office, and tensions rose when two men, Jim Wilkinson and Rick Colling, gave comment in defense of Derek Colling’s actions.
“If you disobey the law, you expect to face the consequences,” Wilkinson said. “If you attack a police officer, that is a violent use of force.”
When Wilkinson began describing Derek Colling’s initial interaction with Ramirez as “respectful and courteous,” a few residents stormed out of the room, slamming the courtroom doors behind them. Though most attendees listened to the dissenting opinions in silence, others tried shouting over-top of him or clapping loudly to drown him out.
During the two-hour forum, Derek Colling was described by detractors as a “bully,” “serial killer” and “murderer.”
When Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper Rick Colling, father of Derek Colling, spoke in defense of his son, a few attendees tried to drown him out as well.
Before the commissioners had to vacate the district courtroom at 11 a.m., Rick Colling was the last member of the public to speak.
Rick Colling said critics of his son’s actions misrepresented the two fatal shootings Derek Colling had been involved in while serving as a police officer in Las Vegas. He said ACoPP supporters had also ignored Ramirez’s history of violence. Rick Colling said Ramirez was “a very capable individual” when it came to combat.
“If you think cops are impervious to not being able to handle every situation, there’s always somebody who’s just a little bit tougher than you,” he said. “On that particular day, Robbie Ramirez was just a little bit better than Derek Colling.”
In the moments leading up to Ramirez’s death, Ramirez and Derek Colling scuffled outside Ramirez’s apartment. Before the fatal shots were fired, Colling unsuccessfully tried to taze Ramirez, who was unarmed. Ramirez was clutching a key in his right fist.
Tempers flared as a few ACoPP supporters grew angry as commissioners allowed Rick Colling to give more than 17 minutes of public comment.
Albany County commissioners typically do not enforce a time limit on public comment. ACoPP supporters were also allowed by Commission Chair Terri Jones to speak as long as they liked.
Noting some of the comments made about his son, Rick Colling said some ACoPP supporters are too often guilty of “destructive” rhetoric.
“I truly do not believe that this particular group represents the interests of all the citizens in Albany County,” he said. “I could have stacked this room myself.”
Despite his criticism of ACoPP, Rick Colling said he’d like to meet with ACoPP members to discuss possible police reforms.
“That would be great,” he said. “Those lines of communication should always remain open. … I’m always willing to listen. I think as cops, that’s part of our job.”
The tensions that began rising during Rick Colling’s comments spilled over into a heated exchange between Commissioner Heber Richardson and a few attendees, who confronted Richardson for his body language during the meeting. One attendee lambasted him for rolling his eyes during comments made by Tim Hale, a frequent critic of Laramie’s public officials.
After the heated argument between Richardson and some attendees in the courthouse halls, the commissioner skipped the rest of the regular public meeting hosted Tuesday morning.
During the public comment period, several ACoPP supporters urged commissioners to use their influence to terminate Derek Colling’s employment.
However, Wyoming statute gives complete hiring and firing power to each county’s sheriff, an elected position.
By statute, commissioners do not have the authority to fire Derek Colling. State law also prevents the sheriff from firing Derek Colling except “for cause and after notice and opportunity for a hearing.”
County commissioners do determine the funding amounts for the sheriff’s budget, and commissioners in Wyoming have sometimes used the budgeting process to pressure other elected officials to take certain actions.
Amanda Pittman said the commissioners should have funding for Derek Colling’s position reallocated to double O’Malley’s training budget, with a particular focus on de-escalation and continuing education.
“Do some of the things I know Sheriff O’Malley does want to do,” she said. “Give raise to deputies who actually can de-escalate situations.”
Derek Colling’s continued employment, she said, is “unfair to the other officers, because this loss of faith spreads.”
“It’s not fair to crime victims, when the loss of faith and fear in the community, because he’s still on the force, keeps people from reporting,” she said.
While commissioners do have power over the sheriff’s budget, it would be difficult for them to truly de-fund Derek Colling’s position.
A cut to the salaries line-item to encourage Derek Colling’s termination would still allow O’Malley to reallocate funds internally to keep Derek Colling on board. There’s precedent in Wyoming of countywide elected officials reallocating funds to avoid similar directives commissioners have tried to make through their budget process.
Yana Ludwig, who also asked commissioners to de-fund Derek Colling’s position, said Ramirez’s death “has added to the narrative that Laramie is a violent place to live, and frankly, I think that reputation at this point is deserved.”
“I feel unsafe on the streets and in my own home,” she said.
As of 2017, Laramie’s violent crime rate was six times smaller than the national average and 2.5 times smaller than the statewide average.
Attendees also criticized commissioners for not speaking publicly about the feelings regarding Ramirez’s death.
In the months after Ramirez’s killing, many ACoPP supporters criticized Albany County attorney Peggy Trent’s handling of the case and said a special prosecutor should’ve been hired.
Debra Hinkel, Ramirez’s mother, defended Trent’s handling of the case on Tuesday and said the investigation report produced by the Division of Criminal Investigation was “so biased” that it deterred prosecution.
“If this was just handed over to another prosecutor, with the way that DCI report was written, it would have been rubber-stamped,” Hinkel said. “Maybe (the grand jury) was the best that (Trent) could do. She’s not perfect. None of us are, but she tried.”