Costs add up while Front Range officers are on paid leave during misconduct investigations

Problem Solvers
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DENVER (KDVR) -- More than 100 law enforcement officers across the Front Range have been investigated or disciplined for possible misconduct over an 18-month period while on paid leave, an investigation by the FOX31 Problem Solvers found.

Body cameras show the officers involved have beaten members of the public and demonstrated racial bias.

Video footage from 2019 shows former Denver police Officer Mike Oestmann assaulting a suspect in handcuffs. Oestmann is heard on video saying, “You will not spit on me again. Do you understand?” 

Oestmann resigned last summer. In the video, he asked the unconscious suspect, “Who's unconscious now?”

Oestmann was charged with third-degree assault, but because the charge was a misdemeanor instead of a felony, the department placed him on investigative leave with pay. Oestmann collected more than $62,000 before resigning in July 2019.

In another Denver case, former sheriff’s Deputy Sylvia Montoya collected $17,000 while on paid leave. The Problem Solvers exposed Montoya last year after she was caught in a federal drug investigation involving boyfriend and former inmate Timothy Spikes. Montoya was fired after a federal indictment on drug trafficking crimes.

The Problem Solvers asked several law enforcement agencies for public records for employees accused of misconduct and put on paid leave from January 2018 through September 2019. The totals include:

Denver Police Department: 10 employees, $250,394

Denver Sheriff Department: 22 deputies, $326,000

Aurora Police Department: 39 employees, $278,631

Adams County Sheriff's Office: 17 deputies, $196,832

Weld County Sheriff's Office: 21 employees, $68,260

Larimer County Sheriff's Office: 13 employees, $37,628

The Boulder Police Department had four officers on paid leave for a total of $123,000, almost all of which went to Officer John Smyly. 

“I’m picking up trash,” a Naropa College student told Smyly in March 2019. An internal affairs investigation found Smyly violated department procedure when he confronted the black student picking up trash at the student’s apartment complex.

Body camera footage supported claims of racial bias and Boulder suspended him in March 2019. Smyly resigned in May, yet a separation agreement kept him on the payroll through February 2020, allowing him to collect $105,253 while on leave.

Chris Lujan, Denver’s former deputy director of safety, said paid vacation is not the fault of those being investigated, it’s the fault of slow investigators.

“It is a paid vacation. It feels like it," Lujan said.

FOX31 investigative reporter Rob Low asked, “Your suggestion would be these agencies have to find a way to do these investigations quicker?”

Lujan said, “I believe so, yes. Quit dragging your feet.”

The case of Denver Officer Joseph Rodarte is a prime example of a slow process. Rodarte has been on paid leave since September.

Body camera footage from the case shows Rodarte breaking a suspect's bones with a baton in August 2018. 

Rodarte was charged with a felony and put on unpaid leave, but a year later, a jury found Rodarte not guilty and the city paid him $113,000 in back pay.  

Even though a jury found Rodarte innocent, police internal affairs is now investigating for possible policy violations. 

Low asked Karla Pierce, assistant Denver city attorney, that since Rodarte was acquitted months ago, “Why do these investigations take so long?”

Pierce said, “We want to make sure they’re done in a fair manner. You know, we’ve actually really sped up the investigations process.”

Pierce confirmed city personnel rules mean law enforcement and firefighters can be placed on unpaid leave only if they are charged with a felony. 

“We can't take pay away from an employee without good cause," Pierce said.

Low asked, “It might seem unfair to the public, but in effect these people are being paid to stay home?”

Pierce said, “Well, they are but understand too that we are conducting an investigation during that time period.”

The only law enforcement agency that refused the Problem Solvers' public records request was Fort Collins police. 

In a letter, Fort Collins Police Services said officers' privacy rights outweigh the public interest.

Civil Rights Attorney David Lane said, "As far as I'm concerned, the only privacy interest that an officer has is their Social Security number, if they have medical issues. Period.”

Lane has filed against Fort Collins police over four separate claims of excessive force.

"If there's an allegation of misconduct against a gun-toting, badge-wearing law enforcement officer, that is public knowledge," he said.

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