FORT COLLINS, Colorado – An elderly woman with dementia walks off with about $14 merchandise from a big-box store. Confused, she’s confronted by police officers, who can’t get her to halt and wrestle her to the ground, snapping her arm.
A teenager wielding a knife is shot four times by an officer in his grandmother’s backyard after she called police to help him through a mental health crisis. He ends up dying.
As in the case of Cedric “C.J.” Lofton, who died in Sedgwick County’s juvenile detention center in 2021, an independent law enforcement agency investigated the above situations. A local prosecutor similarly made the decision on whether to file charges, producing a lengthy report in the process.
But because the above incidents took place in Larimer County, Colorado, a detailed, formalized process exists to help determine whether police acted lawfully in using force, an approach that doesn’t exist in Sedgwick County. In the case of the elderly woman, it led to charges against the officers. Such a review kicks in anytime an officer inflicts bodily harm or a fatal injury.
These efforts involve investigators and forensic specialists from law enforcement agencies across two northern Colorado counties. As many as 30 people from a variety of local agencies can be involved in a case. To help maintain the integrity of the investigation, the involved law enforcement unit cannot lead the probe.
Nearly two decades since the 8th Judicial District’s Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) was launched, proponents such as District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin say the systematic approach has bolstered community confidence and made law enforcement agencies more transparent and accountable, leading to less aggressive policing and greater community trust. While his rationale may be valid, there is no supporting data to prove it.
Critics, however, see an effort that doesn’t go far enough to ensure that community concerns about rogue policing are being addressed. Even if other jurisdictions are involved, they say, police are still investigating their own.
Nevertheless, the CIRT, which grew out of an effort to look at best practices around the country, represents an approach that appears to be relatively rare. Law enforcement agencies, and the officers who work for them, do not usually subject themselves to additional levels of scrutiny in hopes of reassuring the public. And it’s scrutiny that law enforcement there enthusiastically supports. There’s now a state law that requires all Colorado jurisdictions to have some form of this review.
But questions remain about whether the public in more places, such as Wichita, will ever ask for increased scrutiny of uses of force by law enforcement or be content with a status quo that treats most incidents as internal police matters.
Concerns about accountability linger
The Wichita Journalism Collaborative examined the 8th District’s approach in light of the community’s ongoing reckoning with Lofton’s in-custody death.
Lofton died after his foster father called 911 seeking help for the teen’s mental health crisis. Wichita police responded to the call on their own, because there wasn’t staffing for mental health professionals to join them, The Wichita Eagle’s Matthew Kelly reported last year. Police took Lofton to juvenile lockup after the situation escalated. The unarmed teen was fatally restrained by five county corrections workers in September 2021.
The incident led to a task force to address public dissatisfaction with a lack of accountability for officers. The group recommended 61 changes as a result. About half of them have been implemented by local and state agencies.
But some task force members remain concerned about a lack of accountability.
“It’s all fine and dandy to have policies and procedures in place, but when they hold nobody accountable I don’t know what we got them for,” Tracey Mason says. “To me, accountability looks like the officers being really, truly held to a higher standard. If they’re held to a higher standard, then they have no business taking lives.”
Jazmine Rogers, another member of the Sedgwick County task force adds: “We’re in a place where we’re just fighting for the tiny bits of transparency and accountability we can get.”
Yet how accountability is defined varies depending on whom you ask. For victims and their families, it means criminal penalties, civil settlements or officers losing their jobs. For those inside law enforcement agencies, reviews of incidents by peers and internal discipline may be enough.
The use of force by police is common, but formal efforts to examine it and provide information to the public are often not, save when prosecutors charge officers or voluntarily share their reasoning for not doing it.
Approximately a quarter of a million civilians are injured by law enforcement officers each year in the U.S., some 85,000 of them require hospitalization. In the last 12 months alone, there have been more than 1,000 people shot and killed by the police, according to a Washington Post analysis, and, on average, a quarter of victims are experiencing a mental health crisis. The numbers are only increasing – 2022 brought more fatal police shootings than any year to date.
Officers are rarely charged by prosecutors for wrongdoing in these incidents. (There have been notable exceptions, such as the Minneapolis officers charged and convicted in the killing of George Floyd. And more recently, the response of Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy who criminally charged five Memphis, Tennessee, police officers whose beating of Thyre Nichols led to his death.)
In Sedgwick County, District Attorney Marc Bennett hasn’t charged an officer for wrongful and deadly use of force since taking office a decade ago. He often cites the Kansas “Stand Your Ground” law, which he says courts have used to affirm the right of officers to defend themselves against suspects.
Could scrutinizing use-of-force incidents using the Larimer County template offer a path for building accountability and public trust in policing here?
Like his counterparts in Colorado, Bennett first reviews investigations by local law enforcement and then decides whether a crime might have been committed in officer-involved shooting incidents. There is no formal protocol or agreement between agencies as to how these investigations happen, however.
Bennett does say that it’s normal practice for investigators from an outside agency to aid in these reviews, including officers from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. But since the Wichita Police Department dwarfs other agencies in the area, both in terms of staffing and resources, requiring that a separate agency investigate could overburden smaller, nearby departments, Bennett says, and may not always be possible.
“But that’s not to suggest that we can’t at least incorporate some of these approaches so that it is more of a formalized process,” Bennett says.
‘A GIANT STEP’
Launched in 2005, the 8th District’s Critical Incident Response Team began when multiple law enforcement agencies came together to draft an agreement on how to handle investigations into police shootings. The shift followed national conversations around external oversight and best practices. Previously, each department’s internal investigations team would review those incidents. Since that year, the response team has expanded to cover all situations where fatal injury or serious bodily injury occurs, not just police shootings.
This approach results in detailed opinion letters from the district attorney that put investigative findings in public view, leading in one extraordinary case to officers being charged. Even criminal justice reform advocates who are skeptical of law enforcement’s ability to investigate their own applaud the process for the transparency it provides.
In Sedgwick County, officer-involved fatal incidents are commonly investigated by an outside agency – typically the KBI – but that is not required. The Sedgwick County district attorney reviews these investigations and shares results with the public. But the process is not systematic, nor is it required by state statute. The district attorney posts media releases about officer-involved shootings, but not other use-of-force incidents.
Law enforcement agencies in the 8th District like the more formal approach. That support is demonstrated by willing cooperation by officers in nearly every review, despite a constitutional right to decline to be interviewed, says McLaughlin, the 8th Judicial District prosecutor.
“No protocol can prevent an individual officer from trying to hide their own conduct,” McLaughlin says. But the level of buy-in with the review process in his jurisdiction incentivizes officers not to hide their conduct.
A 2021 case marked the first time in 16 years, since Larimer County in Colorado began the CIRT program, that criminal charges were brought against officers. After reviewing more than 700 pages of documents compiled by the team, McLaughlin charged two police officers in 2021 for their violent arrest of 73-year-old Karen Garner.
In June 2020, Garner was picking flowers alongside the road near a Walmart in Loveland. She had just left the store without paying for $13.88 worth of merchandise, prompting employees to call the cops.
Garner, who had dementia and a condition that hampered her ability to understand language, was visibly confused when Loveland police officers pulled up next to her with lights flashing and told her to stop, according to body-camera footage. Then-officer Austin Hopp wrestled Garner to the ground, pushed her against his car, with her arm bent back behind her, and said, “Are you finished? Are you finished? We don’t play this game.” His partner at the time, Daria Jalali, did not intervene.
Garner suffered a dislocated shoulder, broken arm, and severe bruising in the incident, but an investigative team wasn’t called initially. It wasn’t until Garner’s family filed a civil suit against the city of Loveland that McLaughlin’s office began to investigate. Both McLaughlin and Loveland Police Chief Tim Doran said the officers had tried to hide their conduct.
Hopp pleaded guilty to an assault charge, which led to a five-year prison sentence. Jalai was sentenced to a brief stint in jail and community service after pleading guilty to a charge of failure to intervene. In addition to the convictions obtained by McLaughlin, Loveland settled the family’s suit for $3 million in 2021. Garner now lives in a memory care facility after the incident escalated her dementia.
The charging of officers in the Garner case was a notable milestone.
Since 2016, there have been 31 CIRT reviews in Larimer County, 10 of them last year. Several involved suspects were injured after pointing weapons at officers, and many were engaging in substance use. Other victims indicated right before engaging with officers that they were expecting or even wanting to die. Not all were killed, nor did every incident involve officers discharging their weapons. A few other reviews involved deaths at the jail, as required by the protocol. One investigation in 2022 involved an assault against an officer.
The transparency and readily available information makes the approach stand out, says Sheila Albers, from Johnson County. She doesn’t believe that her home county’s investigations meet that standard. Five years ago, Albers’ teenage son John was shot six times by a police officer while the boy was backing the family minivan out of the garage in the middle of a mental health crisis. He died at the scene, and the officer involved did not face criminal charges.
“The transparency piece is incredibly important because if you don’t have transparency, the police department or the DA can put out a false narrative,” Albers says. “Larimer County is at least willing to have the discussion, that means there’s also room for improvement.”
The level of access to information that the Larimer County process creates is rare.
“This is a giant step in the right direction,” says Hans Menos from the national Center for Policing Equity, where he leads a national team looking to redesign public safety. “You can get more in this county than you can get in a lot of other places.”
But because it focuses on legality, he thinks it falls short of truly ensuring accountability.
“It is gaslighting the community to suggest that if it’s within the law, it meets their needs,” he says.
Critics also see an inherent conflict of interest with police investigating their own.
The Denver law firm Killmer, Lane and Newman has represented several clients in civil cases against agencies involving excessive force. Colorado civil rights attorney and partner David Lane believes investigations need to move beyond the “good old boys club.” After all, the district attorneys who oversee team investigations are part of the law enforcement establishment too, and may work with the same law enforcement officers on other cases.
“It’s not neutral when the police investigate the police,” Lane says. “It always works out very well for the police.”
HOW POLICE TEAMS WORK
The CIRT protocol has been updated several times since its inception, most notably in 2015 when Colorado passed a law requiring multiagency teams statewide. In 2022, it standardized the depth of investigation that occurs across a wider breadth of instances involving law enforcement’s interaction with communities.
Jeremy Yonce, the CIRT commander for the Fort Collins Police Department, was a detective in the Crimes Against Persons Unit at the time the team was started, and was responsible for investigating members of his own agency when a lethal shooting occurred. The difference now, according to Yonce, is who is doing the investigation, collecting the evidence, and conducting interviews. Under the direction of the DA, the team requires a different agency than the one whose officer is involved to take the investigative lead.
The process also increases the capacity for law enforcement to effectively investigate these types of incidents by combining resources and personnel.
“It’s a huge force multiplier,” Lairmer County Sheriff John Feyen says.
McLaughlin says his role is narrowly focused on whether or not someone has committed a crime in the state of Colorado. In one of his opinion letters, McLaughlin includes this sentence: “A CIRT investigation is not a review of police training methods, hiring practices, supervision protocols, or other internal procedures.”
The same is true for Sedgwick County, where Bennett says, his decisions whether or not to charge an officer are not and cannot be based on his own sense of morality. Nor can he legally consider public outcry.
“I don’t charge cases based on who yells the loudest one way or the other, or based on the emotion of the situation,” he says. “It boils down simply to what can we prove?”
Still, Colorado’s McLaughlin says, opinion letters can help inform residents about how policing is happening in their communities, since substantially all the information about what happened is published online for public view. This can help create community expectations for law enforcement through other accountability mechanisms, such as civilian review and oversight boards or the civil court system.
Feyen, Yonce and Doran from the Larimer County law enforcement community all say the investigations spark internal conversations, even if policy changes don’t result. All agencies there require crisis intervention and de-escalation training, often sharing resources and trainers.
“If you’re not having law enforcement investigate law enforcement, then who does it?” says Feyen, adding that even the Colorado Bureau of Investigation or the state’s attorney general, even if they were brought in, are still law enforcement. Other team commanders in the area agree.
IF NOT LAW ENFORCEMENT, WHO?
Still, in Larimer County, the team’s review process doesn’t necessarily leave families feeling like their concerns were accounted for.
On August 16, 2021, in the middle of a mental health crisis, 19-year-old Alex Domina was shot four times by a Loveland police officer in his grandmother’s backyard. He eventually succumbed to his injuries.
Three weeks later, McLaughlin released his opinion following the investigation. He said the Loveland officer who shot Alex was justified, since the teen was wielding a large knife and advancing toward him. There weren’t going to be any criminal charges.
Judy Domina, Alex’s grandmother, was disappointed. Domina says her grandson had a brain injury, the result of being abused by a stepfather at a young age. He also had the development of an 8- or 9-year-old, significant mental health challenges and had just returned home after years in foster care and institutions. But she says he was thriving in Loveland, taking care of his service dog Lonah, volunteering at their church, and making friends.
“This was not a person that was antisocial and didn’t make contact with people,” Domina remembers. “People valued him. He had such a giving soul and was so loving.”
She doesn’t see any accountability for the officer who shot her grandson. She says a lack of mental health training for local police officers led to her grandson’s death.
“When that officer came at him with a gun, (Alex) probably had flashbacks to when he was abused, and his stepfather held a gun to his head,” she says. “I don’t know what was going through his mind, but that certainly had to trigger some of those memories.”
In his opinion letter, McLaughlin called Alex Domina’s death a tragedy and in his own way found agreement with the boy’s grandmother.
“It is my sincere hope that this tragedy will spark deep thought and reflection from the Loveland Police Department and Loveland city leaders regarding how best to reform their current practices to better address calls for behavioral health crises, provide alternative means of emergency response, and strive to meet modern community expectations to reduce future harm and build trust with our fellow citizen,” he wrote.
SO, DOES IT WORK?
While the process in Larimer County provides transparency for the public, and has resulted in charges against two officers, there’s little hard data about the practice. Neither McLaughlin’s office, nor any of the law enforcement agencies interviewed for this article, could point out empirical reductions in critical incidents or improved policing and public trust. And there isn’t any national research that investigative teams reduce police shootings or injuries.
“It is a progressive way of investigating officer-involved shootings or officer-involved use of force,” Menos says of an investigative team. “But it should not be conflated with efforts to respond to community concerns.”
There are limits on the impact of investigative teams, since they can’t make training or other recommendations to address systemic cultural issues. But also the process treats use-of-force incidents as rare and unfortunate but not often criminal. They could instead be viewed as catastrophic failures, similar to when something goes wrong in the medical and aviation contexts.
Seeing each incident unfold independent of each other fails to seek the level of justice, community safety and equity DA’s are obligated to ensure, Menos says.
Rogers from Sedgwick County agrees. She says we tend to look at these like use of force incidents siloed and separate from broader cultural issues within law enforcement. And we’re asking our institutions to hold themselves accountable when they have no track record of that transparently.
“I think policies are amazing. I think better accountability is amazing, but if the internal culture does not match what those policies demand, progress is not possible,” she says.
Putting all of the resources and thought into how to investigate use of force incidents by law enforcement misses an opportunity to review and fund services that make communities healthier and prevent such things from happening in the first place, Rogers adds.
At this point, Judy Domina has stopped trying to push for change in Loveland. In the months after Alex’s death, she says she asked local leaders to incorporate community-informed behavioral health training for police officers or look to nearby programs that successfully respond to mental health calls with trained professionals, and not cops.
“It’s falling on deaf ears,” she says. “I don’t think anything’s going to be done, but I hold my breath that this doesn’t happen to another family.”
And she won’t be calling the police again, she says, even if she’s in a similar situation with Alex’s older brother Zachary, who also has mental health challenges. She’ll call her pastor, her neighbors, anyone else first.
Angela K. Evans is a Denver-based freelance based journalist exploring the intersection of systems, people and culture through the art of long-form storytelling.
This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 11 newsrooms and community partners. A shorter version of this article is available on the collaborative’s website.
Correction, April 28, 2023. An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Larimer County Sheriff John Feyen.
Correction, May 1, 2023. An earlier version of this article misstated the timeframe in which 8th District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin’s opinion was released about the shooting of Alex Domina by a Loveland police officer. The report was released three weeks after the incident.