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Does Justifying Use Of Lethal Force Mean It's The Best Option?

Screenshot of footage gathered by KGWN Cheyenne
A screenshot of dash camera footage that captured Albany County Sheriff's officer Derek Colling approaching the vehicle of Robbie Ramirez.

Last week a grand jury decided not to indict Albany County Sheriff's officer Derek Colling. In November, he shot and killed 39-year-old Laramie resident Robbie Ramirez. The jury found the officer's use of lethal force was justified. The decision hasn't convinced everyone in Laramie that the officer couldn't have made a different choice.

The deadly exchange between Corporal Derek Colling and Robbie Ramirez started as a traffic stop. Ramirez was driving below the speed limit, so Colling pulled him over. Ramirez refused to roll down his window when Colling approached the vehicle.

The exchange was captured by body camera footage released to reporters back in November. Colling repeatedly said, "roll your window down," in a demanding tone.

What's harder to hear is what Ramirez said from inside his pick-up truck. At a press conference, Albany County Undersheriff Josh DeBree said Ramirez asked Colling why he'd been pulled over.

"As you can hear in the background, there is a lot of yelling from Mr. Ramirez from inside the vehicle," said DeBree.

But Ramirez's mom, Debra Hinkel, hears a son who struggled with severe mental health challenges. She hears a son who was likely scared and confused, and maybe that's why Ramirez fled the traffic stop.

Officer Colling decided to follow him home. Ramirez got out of his truck in front of his apartment. He was upset but unarmed. Colling confronted him with a taser in one hand and a firearm in the other.

That final moment could have been avoided, Hinkel said, had Colling answered her son's question.

"I don't understand why he couldn't have slowed it down and answered why he pulled him over," said Hinkel.

She thinks it would have made all the difference had Colling attempted to de-escalate the situation.

That's not a new concept, but in 2017 the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended that de-escalation be a part of use of force policies. It's not currently a part of the Albany County Sheriff's Office Operations Policy Manual.

"It would make a huge difference in a lot of confrontational situations and I believe that's what needs to happen," she said.

That point was driven home for Hinkel when a grand jury decided not to indict Colling.

"Because there were so many other options besides escalating to the point of killing him," she said. "Why wasn't that looked at more?"

At a press conference this week, Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent explained that Wyoming's criminal justice system is set up to evaluate whether the use of force was justified; not whether Colling could have done something else. Now that the criminal proceedings have concluded, Trent said it's time to wrestle with the latter issue.

Trent asked, "How could this happen? What could we do differently?"

The choices officers make in the field are, in part, shaped by policies and procedures, and the training they receive. Trent said those are the responsibilities of Sheriff Dave O'Malley.

"It's on his shoulders of how he takes this and proceeds with his deputies," she said. "And I think he is at this point listening to what other actions could be implemented in the future."

Immediately following Trent's press conference, I walked across the hall to Sheriff O'Malley's office. I was told both he and Undersheriff DeBree were off-site at a meeting. Over email, O'Malley told me the matter was under review. He declined to comment further until the process was complete.

In the wake of Robbie Ramirez's death, the community has been organizing to demand solutions. Many in Laramie point to how the city's police handle mental health issues, and to how officers use de-escalation. The question is: what's in the Laramie Police Department's policies that isn't in the County Sheriff's?

I asked Laramie's Police Chief Dale Stalder to show me his department's manual. He started with the use of force policy.

"This is a 27-page policy that covers how officers can use each one of their force options," said Stalder.

That's 27-pages just on use of force out of the overall policy manual that Stalder guessed was close to 400-pages. And as recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the policy was recently revised to include de-escalation as an option.

"You'll notice in the beginning where we talked about de-escalation and command presence," said Stalder, "verbal skills are just as important as any of the other force options that exist."

He also showed me the section detailing how officers are expected to respond to individuals with mental health concerns.

"We give our officers different ideas about how we would deal with maybe mental illness or crisis somehow," Stalder said.

The policy instructs officers to assess threat level to themselves or others and then proceed according to what is effective and humanitarian. Officers are empowered to reach out to counselors or family members, or to do an emergency detention if that's what's needed. In contrast, the phrase mental health is only used once in the Sheriff's policy manual. And there's no mention of de-escalation.

Stalder said the police department is diligent about reviewing policies and procedures, and officers are constantly being evaluated and trained.

"Our officers need guidance in how they do their job. They want guidance," he said. "Because if you don't have good policy then guys are adrift out there."

Stalder said each month the Laramie Police Department reviews a different section of the manual, and goes through the whole thing every year. As for the Albany County Sheriff's Office Policy Manual, most of it hasn't been changed since 2016. That's according to the dates recorded on the document.

Meanwhile, Debra Hinkel said there's nothing she can do to get her son, Robbie Ramirez, back.

"And I just have to look at this event and say, ok we obviously need changes," she said. "So let's make changes."

Sheriff Dave O'Malley said he expects to announce his office's next steps in the next week or two.

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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