COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- A recent state law now allows police officers to be held financially responsible for their actions on the job. Families can sue individual law enforcement officers for thousands of dollars, but some local law enforcement agencies say it's having an effect on recruiting.
One of the first lawsuits was filed by family members of young Teller County veteran Jeremy Mitchell. Jeremy's family is taking legal action against two former Woodland Park Police officers who did not follow protocol the night before the veteran died by suicide. 13 Investigates first exposed the failed police response and an alleged cover-up by officers in Jeremy's case.
The Woodland Park Police Department fired Commander Andy Leibbrand and Sgt. Mike McDaniel nearly one year after Jeremy's death. Their firings came after a third-party investigation found the pair neglected their duty by not calling in mental health resources like they typically do.
Last year, 13 Investigates spoke with the mother of Jeremy's child. She said the firings were a step in the right direction but believed more accountability was necessary.
"I want the people in public to know that they need to be held responsible. Somebody needs to be accountable for these actions," Jessica Mitchell said.
Leibbrand and McDaniel are being sued for wrongful death in their personal capacity by the family. An attorney for the Mitchell family said the officers are liable for their failure to act, which is why they're being sued under state law.
This option for litigation did not exist until 2020. A few months after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Colorado lawmakers passed a qualified immunity ban for law enforcement officers. It allows officers to be sued individually with a cap of up to $25,000.
"This is individual actions this was two officers, Sgt. McDaniel and Commander Leibbrand, who decided to take the easy way out. Essentially, they saw a crisis situation and they backed away from it in violation of their policies," Chambers explained.
The state law has sparked heated debate from law enforcement agencies in Colorado. A study with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and County Sheriffs of Colorado was published after the law was passed. The study reveals that most law enforcement agencies face officer shortages and believe the new law is attributed to at least some of those officer departures.
"There are varying reasons, but numerous exit interviews suggest that public perception and risks of civil litigation are among the top concerns," El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said in the study.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office is concerned that the looming possibility of personal litigation for officers will make recruiting more difficult.
"It puts these peace officers on the hook for that first $25,000, and that's that's a very big chunk to some in this profession, that's for sure," El Paso County Chief of Staff Janet Huffor told 13 Investigates.
The number of deputies leaving the El Paso County Sheriff's Office has increased around 6% since 2019 and fewer people are applying to fill those now-vacant spots.
Huffor estimates that 10 to 15 deputies are leaving over 12 months in any given year. She says filling an open position requires months of training, which makes the impact of the void even greater.
"Once we lose those deputies or a police department loses their officers, that train up time to get new people hired and then trained can be up to a year. And so we are very far behind the curve and trying to rehire and train these new employees," Huffor said.
13 Investigates made several unsuccessful attempts to reach out to the Woodland Park officers who are being sued under the new law. Their attorney responded to our request for an interview, saying he could not comment on pending litigation.