Aspen officer’s employment ended on conflict issue
Ryan Summerlin March 10, 2010
ASPEN – Valerie McFarlane’s employment as an Aspen police officer ended last month after she failed to file charges against an Aspen newspaper editor for allegedly drinking and driving, officials said.
Instead, McFarlane, who was on work-related probation at the time, gave Aspen Daily News Editor Troy Hooper a ride to a residence on the outskirts of downtown during the early morning hours of Feb. 19.
Prior to the encounter with McFarlane, Hooper, who covers cops and courts for the Daily News, had written two articles related to McFarlane’s September suspension. A Jan. 7 story titled “Officer admits to bad festival behavior” focused on McFarlane using her badge to obtain free VIP access for herself and family members to the Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival. McFarlane was off duty but in uniform at the time she attended the festival.
Early in the morning on Feb. 19, McFarlane encountered Hooper in downtown Aspen. She stopped her patrol car behind Hooper’s vehicle and eventually gave him a lift to a Ute Avenue residence.
Outside that residence, Hooper and McFarlane began a 26-minute conversation in the squad car. Hooper discussed his coverage of the police department, including his reporting on McFarlane, and implied he was willing to give her more favorable treatment in the newspaper.
According to an audio recording from inside the squad car, Hooper told McFarlane that “you have also been fairly or unfairly put in a position. Not only am I willing to give you the opportunity to walk away from that, I’ll give you a few of those opportunities, I really will.”
McFarlane admitted she had erred in the past as an officer.
“I’ve made my mistakes, and I’ve apologized profusely,” she told Hooper. “I can’t apologize more than I have. Trust me, it’s something that affects me every single day. It doesn’t go away.”
Hooper exited the car at approximately 3:10 a.m., according to public records.
In an interview Wednesday, Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor declined to comment specifically about the departure of McFarlane, whose last day on the payroll was Feb. 26.
But Pryor did say he recognized there was an apparent conflict of interest at the time McFarlane encountered Hooper, because the editor had written stories about her personnel problems at the police department.
“I think, given the past experience of both individuals, I would have expected or would have thought that a more logical response would have been for [McFarlane] to call for assistance or back-up, someone else who would have been less involved in the situation to come and either help guide or take over the situation and remove a possible conflict,” Pryor said.
He added that “if you cannot treat or deal with a situation in a professional manner and you start basing a decision on personal motivation, that will ultimately create an untenable position for any person, any officer, in any situation.”
The conversation between the officer and editor was recorded with McFarlane’s police car video recorder. Officers are allowed to record conversations, Pryor said, noting that “we could in theory leave our recording devices on all the time.”
He added: “It’s about protection, it’s about transparency protecting the officer from false claims …”
In the recording, Hooper can be heard thanking McFarlane for “for not f—-ing with me as bad as you could have.”
He continues: “I want to give you a second chance just like you are giving me a second chance. Easily you could put me in jail and say ‘you know what, this guy’s been drinking, blah, blah, blah’ … You could find a case. It wouldn’t go very far. I have good attorneys, but …”
McFarlane laughed at that comment, and then the conversation meandered. McFarlane never replied to Hooper’s suggestions, but dropped him off and did not pursue charges.
Days later, McFarlane made a request for the recording through APD customer service official Michelle McClinton. She did not obtain the recording.
Pryor said he learned about the incident on Monday, Feb. 22 – three days after the encounter. McFarlane was put on administrative leave Feb. 25, Pryor said, and the next day the job was no longer hers. The chief declined to say whether McFarlane resigned or was fired, citing personnel reasons.
It is not unusual for officers to give motorists a ride home if they’ve had too much to drink, Pryor said. But, he said, when officers make that decision it has to be for the right reason, and cannot be driven by a personal agenda.
“Say you have an officer who has to respond to a [domestic violence call] and the guy has a gun and the officer says, ‘You know, actually I’m not going to go in there. I fear the consequences of getting shot. I don’t want to screw something up. I’m worried about the personal consequences of me doing my job.’ That’s not what police officers need to be motivated by; they need to be motivated by professional responsibility.
“… whether it’s a DUI or domestic or whatever, you need to put aside your personal fears or concerns and deal with the situation.”
Hooper declined to comment when contacted Wednesday. McFarlane’s telephone number is not listed.
McFarlane was hired by the Aspen Police Department in August 2008, according to her employment records on file with City Hall. In January 2009, she took a three-month leave of absence “due to personal reasons,” records show.
She was placed on a four-day, unpaid suspension from Sept. 9-13, following the Jazz Festival incident. In October, McFarlane completed a code of business conduct and ethics training, according to records.