From the Editor: Picking our battles
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Today and the city of Steamboat Springs have reached an impasse over the release of three portions of the police investigation conducted by independent investigator Katherine Nuanes.
The newspaper requested the city release the full investigative report under the Colorado Open Records Act on July 10. Soon after, the city released Reports 1, 2 and 6, before characterizing the final three sections of the report — Reports 3, 4 and 5 — as criminal justice records. This response from the city required Interim Police Chief Jerry DeLong to review the reports being withheld and make the decision whether to release them.
On Sept. 10, DeLong denied the newspaper’s request, claiming the reports were criminal justice records protected by the Colorado Criminal Justice Record Act and not subject to the Colorado Open Records Act. Under the CCJRA, DeLong’s response complies with the law but only if the reports are truly criminal justice records, and that is where the basis for disagreement lies.
From the start, the investigation into allegations of misconduct by the Steamboat Springs Police Department’s top two leaders was unusual.
The investigation was sparked by the dissemination of a 10-page letter written by a former police detective. The document, which was emailed to Steamboat Springs City Council members, Routt County officeholders and select members of the community, listed numerous instances of police misconduct, but many of the allegations were based on hearsay rather than first-person knowledge.
The letter prompted the city to hire an independent investigator to conduct an investigation into the allegations. Nuanes, the investigator eventually hired by the city, was not a law enforcement official at the time of the investigation. Her report was not prepared for the police department, and she did not report to any law enforcement agency. Instead, Nuanes reported first to former City Manager Deb Hinsvark and then to Anne Small, the city’s director of general services.
The basic facts surrounding how the investigation was conducted support the Steamboat Today’s contention that the reports are not criminal justice records.
Further reinforcing the newspaper’s position is an interview conducted with Hinsvark on her last day on the job. In an audio recording posted on the Steamboat Today website, Hinsvark characterizes Reports 3, 4 and 5 as something very different than criminal records.
In her interview with reporter Matt Stensland, Hinsvark also claims the three reports do not contain information that will satisfy the newspaper’s or the community’s call for resolution about the police investigation. She said Nuanes’ investigation did not uncover evidence of criminal activity but was more focused on how the police department was managed.
If Hinsvark’s characterization is true, then the entire police investigation should be released under CORA, but we believe that would be a hard case to win.
At this juncture, the newspaper has decided not to litigate for the release of Reports 3, 4 and 5. This was a difficult decision, and our deliberation involved consultation with our attorney, who has represented the newspaper successfully in the past and is an expert on CORA cases. He agrees the reports probably should not be classified as criminal justice records and should be released to the community under CORA, but he also acknowledges it would be difficult to convince a judge to make that ruling.
Because of the unusual nature of the investigation, we also don’t believe this case would be precedent-setting if we took it to court. Most police investigations are conducted by an internal affairs department or an outside law enforcement agency that reports to police department leaders.
This case would be costly for taxpayers and for the newspaper to litigate, and in this particular instance, we don’t think it would be worth that cost.
We think the reports could eventually come out through civil litigation, and we continue to push members of the council to request a full copy of the report and make their own determination after reviewing its contents. We think the council needs to find a way to let the citizens know what the reports contain so the city can move out from under the dark cloud of suspicion that has hovered over the police department and city government since this investigation began.
In our opinion, the entire police investigation process has been a monumental waste of city resources and human capital, and in the end, the public has no assurance that this situation has been fully investigated and addressed, because so few details about the actual investigation have been released. At least four careers have been derailed, one person involved in the original allegations is now being prosecuted herself and a general mistrust of police and city government has developed. None of this is good for the Steamboat Springs community.
Moving forward, there needs to be a more precise definition of the roles of city manager and city council and clear practices of self-assessment put into place to assure the city doesn’t end up in this situation again. Ultimately, the city needs to hire a skilled human resources director in addition to a new city manager and a new police chief.
The newspaper’s decision not to pursue the reports through litigation should not be construed as a victory on anyone’s part. When information is withheld from the public, everyone loses. Steamboat Today remains ever vigilant in its pursuit of First Amendment rights and the public’s right to know.
We have seen signs of positive change among members of the current city council, and we hope the election cycle will produce new leaders who value openness and transparency when it comes to conducting public business.
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