Aspen police won’t release details of veteran cop’s abrupt firing
An Aspen Times investigation into why a longtime Aspen police officer was abruptly fired last month is raising more questions than it answered.
Officials with the Aspen Police Department and the City Attorney’s Office have steadfastly refused to answer questions that have arisen in the wake of Officer Walter Chi’s forced resignation March 19.
“I know this is frustrating for you, but as we have stated previously we will not be commenting on any personnel matter involving Walter,” Aspen Assistant Police Chief Linda Consuegra wrote April 8 in response to the third Colorado Open Records Act request filed by the Times for information on Chi. “We have checked with our HR department and the city attorney and they feel the same.”
Chi did not return a phone message Friday seeking comment.
Chi — who ran unsuccessfully for Pitkin County sheriff last year — spent 26 years as an Aspen police officer. But, in a March 23 letter to the editor, Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said his office received “recent information” indicating that Chi “had not fully carried out his duties.”
“After an internal affairs investigation, I found it in the best interest of the community to ask Walter to resign,” Pryor wrote in the letter, noting that Chi’s retirement was effective three days earlier.
The Times filed a public records request March 28 seeking the results of the internal affairs investigation that led to Chi’s firing. The Times noted that, under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, internal affairs investigations concern a police officer’s official duties and cannot be withheld under the “personnel file exemption” outlined in the state’s Open Records Act.
The Times argued that the public has a right to know how police officers do their jobs, and that if a longtime officer didn’t do his job, the public should know. The public also ought to be informed of the details regarding how a longtime officer allegedly didn’t do his job, the Times said in the request.
APD disagreed. In consultation with the Aspen City Attorney’s Office, the department said that releasing Chi’s internal affairs investigation was “contrary to the public interest” and refused to provide it.
“Specifically, the APD has carefully weighed the privacy interest to Mr. Chi as well as other individuals named in the report,” Consuegra wrote in a March 29 letter denying the request. “Disclosure of the report could lead to adverse consequences not only for Mr. Chi, but for any victims and suspects whose identities may be discovered as a result of the details in the report.
“Further, disclosure of the report may compromise a separate ongoing investigation.”
APD also declined to issue a redacted version of the report, saying that “virtually the entire report would have to be redacted to protect the identity of individuals as well as an open investigation.”
“The APD is mindful of the public interest you have articulated, but has determined that the privacy interests of any alleged victim or uncharged suspect, the danger of adverse consequences and the integrity of an ongoing investigation outweigh that interest given the facts and circumstances leading to Officer Chi’s departure.”
Under the terms of a new law signed April 12 by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, the Aspen Police Department would not have been able to withhold Chi’s internal affairs investigation report using the “contrary to the public interest” argument. The new law allows redactions for things such as privacy concerns and ongoing investigations, but it doesn’t allow police to cite the “contrary to the public interest” argument and withhold the entire report.
However, the law only applies to internal affairs investigations opened after Polis signed the law, and does not apply retroactively to past IA investigations, confirmed Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
According to what little information the police department has released, Chi’s internal affairs investigation has prompted an ongoing criminal investigation and illuminated “victims,” “suspects” and “the privacy interests of any alleged victim or uncharged suspect” that presumably were not previously known. Police and city officials repeatedly declined to explain how victims or suspects or the on-going investigation might figure into Chi’s firing.
Two law enforcement sources, however, said Chi’s firing relates specifically to his failure to perform his duties in relation to a 2009 sexual-assault case.
In another Open Records request, The Aspen Times asked Aspen police to turn over all reports of sexual-assault cases assigned to or taken by Chi in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The Police Department denied the request, though a records custodian said she found three cases that fit the request criteria.
“However, all three of these involved a juvenile victim and are considered child abuse cases,” which are not considered public information until an arrest is made, according to Cathleen Treacy, APD’s records custodian.
Misconduct relating to an alleged sexual assault involving a juvenile echoes allegations that cropped up in Chi’s unsuccessful race for Pitkin County sheriff last year. A Pitkin County juvenile crimes detective investigated Chi last summer for allegedly not reporting an assault on a young child he heard about five years ago from a friend.
District Attorney Jeff Cheney said at the time that based on the investigation, he would have charged Chi with misdemeanor failure to report child abuse, but the 18-month statute of limitations on the crime had run out.
At the time, Chi said he had never heard any information five years ago that would have triggered the mandatory reporting requirement. Further, he said was never notified by the Sheriff’s Office that he was under investigation.
Charges in that case have since been filed against an 18-year-old Woody Creek resident.
Consuegra declined to say earlier this month whether Chi was punished by the department in connection with that case.