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13 Investigates: Is Colorado’s ‘qualified immunity’ law affecting police recruiting?

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.

Chelsea Brentzel

Chelsea is an investigative reporter for KRDO NewsChannel 13. Learn more about Chelsea here.

Comments

19 Comments

  1. I know of roughly 20 “acquaintances” in my life who wanted nothing more than to join law enforcement after their military careers. 1 in 5 scare the heck out of me if ever given LEO positions for no other reason than their own simple Narcissist personality tendencies. I firmly believe that service in the capacity of a public servant, they should be held liable for the actions and further potential consequence of any reasonably questionable duty decisions – to include our dirtbag politicians.

  2. Waa, waa, waa.
    Every other profession is held accountable for their mistakes.
    Every other service profession is in dire need of recruits – health care, education, day care, you name it.
    No more blanket immunity. Never should have been a thing in the first place.

    1. They estimate that over 200,000 deaths occur each year from mistakes by doctors. They are not held accountable.

      1. um medical malpractice is a thing had to sue a doctor back in 2000 over the mistreatment of my mother. they are most definitely held accountable the doc in question lost his practice over it.

  3. There is an easy fix for this. If they are acting in good faith and within the scope of their duties the agency provides representation
    If they are not then they need to be held liable and made to pay.

    1. Alexi, the problem is that the agency and grand jurys are filled with prior and current LEO’s to determine if they are acting in “Good Faith”. Which only means the cat is guarding the hen house. I do agree, but who polices the police, because currently it is themselves.

  4. What our nation needs is a complete overhaul. When we value people who play sports and entertainers more than the personnel that we expect to protect and serve us, there is a major problem. We need qualified peacekeepers, better law revisions, and accountability with full transparency within these government operations. We don’t need more laws restricting our American rights, we need to hold people accountable for negative actions and provide better rehabilitation and reintegration, and less people warehousing. Law Enforcement is not meant to be a revenue generator for the city, county, state or federal government, it was meant to help the person that was in apparent need and was not conforming to the social norm of the local society. Time based sentencing does nothing in this current system but teach inmates how to be better criminals. Idle hands, idle minds, as they say. We need to give them counseling and also give them a better option of financial success after reintegration rather than returning back to what they know or have learned within the system. If Norway can have a recidivism rate of 20%, why must America keep heading in the direction we are when we have a recidivism rate of 76.6%. Our nations leaders can do better but we must change this conscious decision of believing that money is the solution.
    In our medical industry it is ruled by money, not medicine or best medical practices.
    In our LE industry it is ruled by money, not public safety and peacekeeping.
    In our Government it is ruled by money, not working for the will of the people.
    The list goes on and on. We need to understand that money is causing these problems, not helping them.

    1. When a finance department has more power to make decisions over the companies direction than the entirety of the industry they are operating within, then there is a problem. Imagine if education was the driving force to our public education system instead of money.
      Or if our infrastructure focused on the advancement of our nation and provided better accessibility to roads and bridges, or even better energy, and telecommunications.
      Our nation has lost its way and we have focused solely on capital gain at the cost of sacrificing everything else, and we are worse off because of this decision.

  5. Nice ideas, but we have people graduating from highschool who can barely read, people posting on KRDO don’t even want to be responsible for shoveling their sidewalks. Should we sue the teachers?regarding cops, remember this, most of us don’t have a job where a split second decision or indecision can end up with you or some one d**d. One wrong move and youre in jail or financially ruined. I bet we’d see better teachers, politicians and office clerks if it applied to all .

    1. Skippy, you are asking for better accountability in all of these areas, I believe we can all agree with that as this is a part of the main problem that needs to be addressed.

  6. Yes they have to do the job with honor and integrity, thats being said if this law is preventing people from becoming cops do we really want those people? I mean how crooked would they be on the street? We need GOOD people that want to protect and serve with integrity and honor, not some random thug off the street.

  7. For what we pay officers and what we expect of them this is what you get. People vote against police raises to attract the best officers and complain about the quality of officers we have. Now we allow them to be personally sued. So now they will need a personal professional insurance to cover that. We all know they are highly scrutinized now days and get unfair trials by society. Many are crucified before all the evidence comes out.
    So medial pay and now they have to have a special insurance policy for this. Why would anyone want to be an officer now days? We expect so much of them and pay them crumbs. We get what we pay for. I know many who would make amazing officers but don’t due to this law and the low pay.

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