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Albany County Officials Remain Silent As Litigation Is Pending

Elected officials haven't had much to say in response to an officer-involved shooting in Albany County. County Attorney Peggy Trent and Undersheriff Josh DeBree held a press conference shortly after the November 4, 2018, incident where Cpl. Derek Colling shot and killed unarmed Laramie-resident Robbie Ramirez. Trent also hosted a press conference in January after a grand jury decided not to indict Colling. She suggested then the county should examine why this happened and how to avoid it in the future.

The details of that internal process, or if one is even happening, have not been available to the public. That's because a state government-formed group has instructed county officials not to comment.

The Local Government Liability Pool (LGLP) was established by the state legislature to provide lower cost liability insurance to local governments across Wyoming. The pool provides legal counsel and pays claims in the case of a lawsuit resulting from bodily harm or property damage to a third party.

"What you're talking about there is . . . automobile accidents, or your trips, slips and falls, and to and including things like discrimination," said Mark Pring, the pool's executive director.

Pring confirmed that Albany County is facing pending litigation, but he didn't say who is bringing the suit.

Local governments agree to rules and regulations specifying that the pool may terminate a participant from the program, for "failure to cooperate in defense of a claim or lawsuit."

Pring said the pool serves over 500 local governments in Wyoming, including 19 of the state's 23 counties, and to date, no clients have been dropped. But it's a risky enough proposition that elected officials in Albany County are keeping their mouths shut.

Pring said local governments have good reason to cooperate.

"They know they have a very good deal in being a participant in our program. We typically run about half of what the private sector is, and so they understand that if they do get removed from participation with our program they're probably going to be paying double what they are paying with us," he said.

It's standard practice for defense attorneys to instruct their clients not to talk. Pring said when the pending litigation concludes elected officials in Albany County will be free to comment. Advocates say conversations about how to improve law enforcement practices need to happen now.

University of Chicago law professor John Rappaport said liability insurance can put elected officials' duties at odds.

"On the one hand the residents might feel like 'we have a right to know, you should be talking to us about what's going on,'" said Rappaport. "On the other hand, 'we've elected you to be faithful stewards of our public money.'"

Rappaport said this is a dynamic that larger cities and counties can dodge because they're not as reliant on liability insurance. They have a tax base that gives them the ability to absorb the cost of claims if they lose a lawsuit. He said therefore elected officials in New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Chicago might be more likely to talk openly about pending litigation.

Pring said self-insured cities can act independently, "whereas like in our program if we have a member that doesn't comply with our request and they do make statements that do end up comprising a lawsuit then those costs end up trickling down to all of the members."

Rappaport said the upside of restrictive contracts is that liability insurers also have the power to bring about police reform. If they identify certain policies, procedures or training that mitigate risk, they could require the adoption of best-practices as a contract stipulation.

In response to that idea, Pring said the pool "definitely encourages training, but we do not have control over the peace officers."

But the pool does have control over elected officials, as made evident by months three of no comments. Why not throw their weight around to encourage a good hard look at how to mitigate the risk of future officer-involved shootings?

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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