Laramie council, public begin discussing police reform

LARAMIE — Members of the Laramie public showed an impassioned interest in a number of measures to reform policing, especially in a citizen oversight board, during a City Council work session Tuesday, but some of the hopes to see an overall reduced police presence in the community will be a hard sell for government officials.

The work session comes three weeks after protests against police violence and racism began in Laramie. Those demonstrations followed the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd by an officer of that city’s police department, an act which the department’s police chief recently called a murder. The officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes is facing second- and third-degree murder charges. Other officers involved are facing aiding and abetting charges.

The protesters continued that activism on Tuesday, marching from First Street Plaza to City Hall where demonstrators remained outside throughout the work session. Shouts of “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace” that have been common were heard again Tuesday, but also included in the chant were calls for the Laramie Police Department to immediately release annual reports for 2017 through 2019 and for mandatory use of force reports. When leaving City Hall late Tuesday, protesters could be heard chanting “hey hey, ho ho, Laramie’s cops have got to go.”

Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder spent more than an hour making a presentation and responding to questions and comments for council members. The presentation was intended to cover the LPD’s use of force considerations and respond to questions and concerns Stalder received leading up to Tuesday.

Stalder stood by the department’s hiring practices, training, use of force policy, de-escalation and non-traditional weapons techniques, oversight reviews, data collection on use of force, welfare checks, chokeholds and strangleholds, body cameras and policies for using deadly force.

Mayor Joe Shumway welcomed an opportunity to implement changes to improve the city’s police department, but also said the LPD is an exemplary public safety agency.

“From the discussion we’ve heard tonight, you can see the police are not happy with where they are,” Shumway said. “They’re always looking for new ideas to improve their ability to serve and protect. My opportunity to serve on different committees with the chief of police and others gives me the personal feeling that we have not only the finest group of public servants in the state of Wyoming, but among the very best in the nation.”

But those assurances largely were dismissed by commenters who wanted swift change and felt up to this point felt they weren’t being heard. Of the more than 20 public commenters at Tuesday’s meeting, the majority expressed frustration with city officials and a desire for how Laramie approaches public safety.

Sam Miller, an 18-year old who recently graduated from high school, said he was angry because, after three weeks of protests, activists had become impatient with the pace of government and that city officials still were not answering direct questions.

“I wanted to address what the chief said about there not being many civilian complaints in Laramie,” Miller began. “I’m pretty sure you had 1,000 complaints on Grand (Avenue) two weeks ago. And yet the City Council ... this is the first meeting and we’ve been out for three weeks, and you don’t even directly address what protesters are asking. You’re telling me you’re listening, all of you are, but there’s been no meaningful action or discussion, other than allowing the police to speak and saying their training and protocols are sufficient. A thousand people don’t show up in the street if the training and the protocols and the way the police are operating are sufficient.”

Miller was referring to the protests that started confined to sidewalks, eventually spilling into Grand Avenue disrupting traffic between First and 15th streets on multiple occasions. Those demonstrations occasionally ran afoul of counter-protesters, some of whom were armed with rifles and handguns. One occasion on June 11 saw a counter-protester brandish a holstered handgun in front of several protesters. A truck on June 10 had tried to drive through protesters blocking Third Street and Grand Avenue’s intersection, coming into physical contact with protesters and property.

In that context, Miller rejected Shumway’s caution to the few in attendance at the meeting that applauding speakers might intimidate those with opposing views. Miller also dismissed any notion that activists were intimidating others, and said protesters have “cops showing up at (their) houses” and that they’ve been surveilled by LPD drones.

Protests have been monitored by an LPD drone, Lt. Gwen Smith confirmed Wednesday. When it comes to police deliberately contacting people associated with the protests, Smith said officers were “investigating the vandalism that occurred and issuing citations for (the) same.”

There were three comments during the meeting’s public comment portions supportive of the LPD. In speaking to her experience of working with the department on cases of domestic and sexual violence, SAFE Project Executive Director Faryn Babbitt said the LPD has been “stellar.”

“Chief Stalder doesn’t like to toot his own horn, but he really is a good leader and holds his officers to a high standard,” she said.

Shumway on Wednesday emphasized that the phone calls, emails and in-person comments from residents leading up to Tuesday were not as weighted toward the side of the crowd at the work session. He said he wanted to urge patience among protesters and that they conduct their demonstrations legally.

“It has not been as dominant for defunding and changing police, which is what was voiced last night,” Shumway said. “They have looked at situations all over the U.S. and the world where it’s very different from what we have in Laramie. … I asked the two organizers if they would take leadership and try to stop things from being done illegally, from lying in the street and doing things that would escalate the situation — and I don’t know they’re going to do that. I think they’re going to try to be as visible as they can to get their message out in a forceful way.”

Vice Mayor Pat Gabriel on Wednesday said his perception is that council members support LPD and its leadership. But he and others on council also said the conversation on Tuesday was a starting point.

“Further work sessions are necessary to explore mental health issues, a citizen oversight board and other issues the council deems important,” Gabriel said. “I think everyone is open to being as transparent as possible and I think this is the beginning.”

Protester organizers on Wednesday expressed dissatisfaction with the work session as they gathered for another demonstration that would shutdown the Third Street and Grand Avenue intersection for almost 10 minutes. One thing it was clear those who wanted police reform agreed on with city officials on Wednesday was that it's just the beginning for them, as well. 

Many public comments emphasized the need for an elevated public role in ensuring transparency in the police department.

Tracey Rosenlund of Albany County for Proper Policing, or ACoPP, a group of local residents that began calling for policing reforms in the wake of the November 2018 death of Robbie Ramirez, a 39-year-old Laramie man who was unarmed when fatally shot by an Albany County sheriff’s deputy, said it was the group’s recommendation that the city form such a board.

Rosenland said the recommended board would be composed of community members who are not law enforcement but provide oversight and recommendations, addressing specific components of policing and citizen complaints, among other tasks.

“The city of Laramie has an opportunity to take a proactive approach regarding policing in our community and we can avoid the problems we’ve seen at the county level,” Rosenland said. “Because officers and deputies hold the explicit ability to take the citizens’ liberty and life, and because of the burdens and consequences of these actions, the agencies should be subject to input from its citizenry, which civilian oversight enables.”

Grace Gosar, a physician and medical director at the Downtown Clinic, was one of the individuals who said she supported establishing a citizen oversight board. In her experience in the medical field, patients were sometimes reluctant to submit complaints, but when feedback was proactively sought out, Gosar said caregivers were able to see a more complete portrait of people’s experiences.

“I think the (LPD’s) current policy that only allows for a sense of what’s happening in the community being complaint-based, it probably isn’t very accurate to what’s going on,” she said.

Stalder said he’s open to sharing any information on his department with anyone who wants it — they just have to ask. When it comes to establishing a review board consisting of community members, Stalder said he’s willing to have the discussion, but did have some reservations.

“We have people that are subject matter experts in the tactics that we use in a use of force incident, and I don’t think that the public is necessarily trained to evaluate those,” Stalder said. “I also don’t believe the public as a whole understands what goes into the making of a policy. I’m not opposed to continuing that conversation, but I’m not sure exactly what it would look like.”

Calls to police for “attempt to locate welfare checks” have increased dramatically in recent years — a matter Stalder said could take up its own work session. Proposals have come to the department, he said, to have agencies other than police handle certain kinds of calls. Some departments across the nation have brought on mental health counselors and other types of specialized professionals to respond to some calls with police, something Stalder said the LPD would “love to do” — if only it had the resources.

“We just don’t have the capacity in our community,” he said.

The Cheyenne Police Department has a crisis response team, but Stalder said even that doesn’t cover a 24/7 schedule. And the bottom line with any of the options, Stalder said, is that it will cost a lot of money the city doesn’t have to spend.

“These options are incredibly expensive to put into place,” he said.

SAFE Project met with the police department about having an employee advocate respond to sexual assault and domestic violence calls with officers, but determined it wouldn’t be safe.

“I think a lot of people think social workers can respond to domestic violence calls, and that’s not the case,” Babbitt said. “Domestic violence calls are incredibly dangerous.”

Much of the burden of dealing with mental health crises fell on police because of cuts in funding for counselors and mental health professionals, Stalder said. It also reflected a shift in the country having to do with case law at the circuit and supreme court levels for interacting with those with mental illness, he said.

Since 2008, Stalder said LPD officers have been trained as Critical Incident Team, or CIT, responders that teaches officers to deal with mental health crises and de-escalation. About 20% of the LPD is CIT trained.

But among a litany of criticisms about hiring practices and training, one protest organizer said he and his fellow demanded that all LPD officers receive CIT training. And if the department cannot provide officers who are exclusively specialists in mental health, de-escalation and crisis prevention, the organizer said the LPD should “give up positions and give up funding to organizations and individuals who can be civil servants committed to minimizing harm.”

One of the key demands of protesters of late has been the release of annual reports from the LPD for 2017, 2018 and 2019. Stalder said Tuesday those reports would be posted the following day. The city of Laramie website at deadline Wednesday had posted an annual report for 2018-2019.