The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s report on a fatal November 2018 shooting focused more on the deceased’s mental health history than on the conduct or history of the officer who killed him.
The report, only recently released to the public, was provided to Albany County District Attorney Peggy Trent who presented evidence to a grand jury in a confidential proceeding. The panel chose not to indict Albany County Sheriff’s Department Corporal Derek Colling for death of Robert Ramirez.
Critics say the report seeks to paint the slain Ramirez as dangerous while failing to adequately examine Colling’s history — a record that involves two previous shootings and the beating of a videographer — or to determine whether he acted appropriately when he shot and killed Ramirez after a traffic stop.
Investigators devoted less than a paragraph to a controversial shooting by Colling in Las Vegas that led to an initially successful wrongful death lawsuit that was later overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco. Investigators omitted entirely an allegation of assault against a videographer that led to Colling’s dismissal from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
In contrast, the 73-page report devotes significant space to Ramirez’s struggles with mental illness and his past interactions with law enforcement. Each bystander witness to the Nov. 4 event was asked about the deceased’s mental state. If asked about Colling’s mental state or behavior during the incident, witnesses’ observations were not included in the report. Investigators also focused on Ramirez’s failed attempts to buy a gun at least five months before the fatal run-in with Colling.
Ramirez held only a car key that investigators said could be used as an edged weapon when Colling shot him three times. Colling told investigators he did not see the key in Ramirez’s hand.
Family members and critics of the investigation say DCI sought to portray Ramirez as a threat to society to justify Colling’s use of deadly force.
The report has sparked further distrust in Laramie, a community already struggling to make sense of the shooting. “The bias presented in the DCI report highlights the need for more transparency and accountability of law enforcement,” the activist group Albany County for Proper Policing, which formed in the wake of Ramirez’s death, wrote in a blog post.
The report led Ramirez’s mother, Debbie Hinkel, to ask why investigators had focused so heavily on her son’s past while brushing over that of the officer who killed him. Investigators sought to make her son look “as dangerous as possible,” she said.
The question of the relevancy of Ramirez’s past is made more pressing, Hinkel said, because Colling told investigators he didn’t recognize her son when he pulled him over for not using his turn signal after observing Ramirez driving below the speed limit. As such, Ramirez’s history could not have had bearing on Colling’s decision making or subsequent actions, and should not have been included in an evaluation of Colling’s use of deadly force.
The two men, both in their late 30s last November, were once classmates in high school and shared time on the school choir and a baseball team.
The traffic stop escalated after Ramirez refused to comply with Colling’s commands and then fled in his vehicle across the road to his apartment. Family members have said Ramirez spoke about being afraid of Colling and cited the officer’s well publicized history in Las Vegas. Family members also previously told WyoFile Ramirez saw his apartment as a safe place.
Colling followed Ramirez into his driveway where a confrontation ensued and ended with Colling shooting Ramirez.
Transparency and impartiality
A grand jury convened by Albany County District Attorney Peggy Trent ruled there was no evidence Colling had committed involuntary manslaughter. The grand jury did not evaluate whether Colling followed proper police procedure, Trent said in a January press conference.
The Ramirez family has not filed a civil lawsuit related to the case, though Wyoming Public Media recently reported lawyers for the family are researching the case.
Albany County elected officials have declined to comment on the matter, claiming doing so would violate an agreement with their liability insurance provider and leave the county exposed in any such civil suit.
The use of a grand jury to determine whether to indict Colling was unusual in Wyoming. The involvement of DCI was not — the agency investigates most officer involved shootings in the state, said a District Attorney from another county.
“I don’t know if it’s statutorily required but it’s very, very commonly done,” said Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun. In his 10 years as a Wyoming prosecutor, he did not recall an officer-involved shooting DCI didn’t investigate. In most cases, he said, county prosecutors will take the DCI report and decide whether to press charges themselves.
DCI investigations provide independence, LeBrun said. Local law enforcement has inherent conflict in investigating the actions of their own members, he said, and federal agencies lack the appropriate jurisdictional authority in most cases. That leaves DCI, Lebrun said.
Hinkel, and earlier Trent, have questioned DCI’s impartiality in the Ramirez shooting, however.
“This is the organization that is supposed to be policing the police and they completely blew my faith in the system,” Hinkel said.
Hinkel trusted law enforcement to bring more scrutiny to her son’s death, which she believes would have been avoided had Colling made efforts to deescalate the situation. The process failed her, she said.
“I really believed that [DCI] would do a good job and that they would be fair. It really just puts it in black and white that police officers investigating police officers is not the way it should be done,” she said.
It’s unclear to what extent the DCI report played a role in grand jury proceedings, which are confidential. Asked this week, Trent said she couldn’t comment.
In a grand jury proceeding, the prosecutor decides what evidence and witnesses are used to present the facts of the case. During a Jan. 14 press conference, Trent said she knew both sides of the case and argued she had no legal conflict in the Colling case.
During the press conference, Trent said she did not present either Colling’s checkered law enforcement record or Ramirez’s history with Laramie law enforcement as evidence to the jury. The state of Ramirez’s mental health was discussed in the grand jury, Trent said.
In the same press conference, Trent questioned DCI’s investigation. “I believe that DCI and how this was investigated and how this matter was handled needs to be reviewed,” she said.
Colling continues to enforce the law in Albany County. He is now an investigator with the sheriff’s department, according to news reports.
DCI released its report to several media outlets on May 21, after weeks of legal wrangling.
WyoFile issued a public records request for the report on April 22. On April 26, DCI Deputy Director Forrest Williams told WyoFile on the phone that agency director Steve Woodson would ultimately review the request, but that he, Williams, saw no reason the report wouldn’t be released as the case was closed.
But on April 29, Woodson denied WyoFile’s request via mail. He included with the message a broad section of Wyoming public records but no explanation of what specific justification for confidentiality was being invoked to block the report’s release. WyoFile asked for an explanation in response but received none.
On May 15, WyoFile filed a letter of petition with the Laramie County District Court. The clerk’s office replied after consulting with the Laramie County District Attorney, saying the letter of petition was inadequate and that WyoFile would have to file suit to receive judicial consideration.
On May 19 the Laramie Boomerang published an editorial calling on DCI to release the report. Two days later Woodson provided WyoFile, the Laramie Boomerang and Wyoming Public Media with the report.
Reached by phone, Woodson said he was in a meeting and did not have time to answer questions. He subsequently did not reply to emailed questions from WyoFile about why he decided to release the report, it’s contents or DCI’s general approach to investigating officer-involved shootings.
In December, Ramirez’s family and friends described to WyoFile a man battling schizophrenia who struggled to maintain normalcy and safety. Ramirez was for long periods of time successful, but there were other periods of greater struggle.
He taught children to play the guitar and was obsessive about repairs to his pickup truck. In the last years of his life, members of a community group dedicated to rebuilding a local skatepark remembered him as a valuable volunteer willing to dedicate significant time to skatepark construction. He was a frequent presence at the park and taught local youth to skate.
Investigators focused considerable time on Ramirez’s mental illness.
Neighbors and passersby who witnessed the shooting were asked by investigators to offer their opinion on Ramirez’s mental health, though some of the interviewees knew him only in passing. The owner of a store near Ramirez’s apartment complex, where he was killed, described Ramirez as not “all there” but knew little else of his mental state and had never seen him be violent. A neighbor told investigators he knew Ramirez as someone “on medication” and “a little off” who “kept odd hours” — but also had never seen him violent.
Hinkel questioned the relevance of these inclusions to the ultimate question she believed investigators should have been trying to answer: Did Colling break laws or violate police procedures in shooting Ramirez?
“You’re really doing a hell of a job making Robbie look as bad and dangerous as possible,” she said of DCI investigators.
The report refers to 98 previous interactions between Ramirez and law enforcement but fails to reveal the nature of the vast majority of them. Ten were violent or related to his documented schizophrenia, investigators found. The most recent violent incident was from 2010, nearly nine years before his run in with Colling. The report documents an assault on a family member in 2004, which family members remember as the low point of Ramirez’s struggle with illness.
It documents a struggle with police officers during the same incident. The report says Ramirez was subdued by police in order to get him to the hospital. Hinkel contests that characterization — Ramirez went to the hospital with family members not police, but struggled with officers at the hospital when they held him down to give him a shot, she said.
Without an itemized list of 98 interactions the number could be misleading, Hinkel argued, as many incidents were minor or even unrelated to Ramirez directly.
WyoFile sought to chronical Ramirez’s interactions with law enforcement during previous reporting. The attempt was hampered by Wyoming privacy laws which make an individual’s complete police record unavailable to the public. However, searches of newspaper crime logs turned up a number of cases where Ramirez interacted with law enforcement regarding his runaway dog.
Ramirez worked for years at The Ranger, a combination motel, bar and liquor store once owned by Hinkel. The nature of the business meant law enforcement was sometimes called there. Ramirez’s interaction with law enforcement as an employee of the establishment, but not a source of the calls, was included in reports and thus the list DCI investigators compiled, Hinkel said.
Investigators don’t explain in the report why they included Ramirez’s attempts to purchase a gun from Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply months before his fatal run-in with Colling. The report says investigators “received information” Ramirez had tried to buy a gun. They then visited Murdoch’s twice to interview three employees who largely said the same thing — Ramirez had repeatedly tried to buy a gun, saying he needed it for protection. Employees refused to sell him the gun after he answered yes to the question of “Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” on a federal government form.
Ramirez returned to the store several times over a period of 45 days and employees continued to refuse to sell him the gun. Ramirez was never aggressive, the employees told investigators.
The episode is included in the report’s conclusions as “pertinent facts regarding this investigation.”
“Why is that relevant?” Hinkel asked. Investigators wanted to paint her son as a potential threat, she said. “They were just so busy trying to make a case for Derek having justification to kill him,” she said.
Ultimately, Hinkel wants to know why, in an investigation into an officer’s use of deadly force, equal scrutiny wasn’t applied to the officer.
“Where are they investigating the shooter or questioning his mental stability?” she asked.
No independent assessment of use of force
In an interview four days after Ramirez’s death, Colling told investigators he engaged Ramirez because he was afraid of what could happen if Ramirez was allowed to get away.
“Colling believed the driver was fleeing to prepare for something and thought it might be to engage him,” the report reads. “Colling did not want the driver to be able to get away or to destroy evidence or become armed either in the house or in the vehicle.
Video from Colling’s dash cam shows the two men yelling at each other in front of Ramirez’s apartment but there is no audio. Colling told investigators he used his taser out of concern Ramirez might draw a weapon from his pickup truck, but it did not work. From there, video shows Colling backing up as Ramirez swings his arms wildly.
Colling told investigators he doesn’t recall Ramirez ever landing a blow.
The report describes Colling’s thought process, as conveyed to investigators, in the moments before shooting Ramirez. The entire confrontation from the moment both men exit their vehicles to Ramirez striking the ground lasts less than half a minute, according to the dash cam video.
“Colling realized after all the other attempt [sic] to gain compliance had no effect that he was in serious danger,” the report reads. “Colling also realized how much larger the driver was than him and Colling became tired and weak. Colling, seeing no other option, fired his gun while in very close contact with the driver.”
The report does not include an assessment of whether Colling violated proper police procedure at any point in the encounter — from the traffic stop, through the pursuit and exiting his vehicle with both taser and handgun and ultimately using both.
The report concludes that “the statement provided by Colling is supported by both the body camera and dash camera video review.” Colling’s body camera goes dark during the scuffle between the two men and the dash camera does not capture the entire scuffle. Officials have previously said the body camera came unplugged. The DCI report doesn’t offer an assessment of whether that is so.
CORRECTION: The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation released its report to journalists on May 21, not May 20 as originally reported in error. The report’s release came two days after an editorial was printed in the Laramie Boomerang on the subject. —Ed.