A Colorado police department plans to release the results of a disciplinary investigation of one of its police officers to a local television station tomorrow after the officer failed to convince an appeals court to prevent it from becoming public.
Earlier this month, a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals refused to grant a preliminary injunction to prevent the City of Fountain Police Department from releasing a redacted summary of the investigation into Officer Frank Romero in Romero v. City of Fountain.
The period during which Romero could have appealed the ruling before the records became public expired Friday, and the summary will be released to the station tomorrow. The records had been requested under the Colorado Open Records Act — though the court later found the records more properly fell under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act — by Colorado Springs television station KRDO.
In its opinion, the court emphasized that "the circumstances of this case present a risk of harm to the public interest" if the records aren't released. The court agreed that the opposing party to Romero — the city — would not necessarily be harmed by granting a stay. However, the court found that "a lengthy delay of the disclosure . . . may disserve the public interest."
“The bottom line is that the entire [police] internal affairs process is meant to instill public confidence in those agencies’ ability to police their own officers,” said Steve Zansberg, an attorney who represents the Colorado Press Association in Denver. “And for that process to be enshrouded in secrecy is counter-productive to its purpose.”
According to the television station, several women complained to the police department about Romero’s behavior, including one woman who said he repeatedly came to her house and asked her on dates after stopping her car once because her passenger was wanted by police.
The department’s investigation recommended that the department fire Romero, but he resigned instead. When KRDO requested access to the summary, the department planned to release it to the station. Under Colorado Law, the police chief had the right to do so if he considered Romero’s privacy interests and the public’s interests in knowing its content before deciding to release it, the court said.
“When we began investigating Mr. Romero, he was working [in a new job] for the town marshal in Green Mountain Falls,” said KRDO reporter Tak Landrock, who worked on the story. “We had questions about his background of dealing with female crime victims. He was married, and would ask these victims of crimes to go out on him with dates. That’s the reason we were very interested in finding out more about Mr. Romero.”
Romero sought a permanent injunction in court to keep the department from releasing the report, which, he said, contained personal information that would “irreparably injure him if released,” the court said.
He also sought a temporary injunction to prevent the release of the report during the court case. A district court denied the request, but stayed the denial from going into effect for 14 days in order to give Romero a chance to appeal. He did, but the appeals court also was not convinced.
The appellate court extended the stay to again allow Romero to appeal the denial of the preliminary injunction. That deadline expired May 20 without an appeal filed. The records are expected to be released to the station this week, Landrock said.
In recent years, various interests in Colorado, such as media organizations and the ACLU, have fought for access to internal affairs files about 10 or 12 times, and “in every case, the courts have ordered them to be disclosed," Zansberg said.
“As a result of those cases . . . agencies are increasingly avoiding such protracted litigation and are releasing redacted internal affairs files.”
Landrock said after the television station started asking for the records, Romero left his new job in Green Mountain Falls and does not currently have a job in law enforcement.
Sgt. Ralph Maher of the Fountain Police Department said the department will release a redacted summary of the investigation to the television station tomorrow. The redactions are to remove identifying information about the female complainant, he said.
Maher also said the department would have been willing to release the full report, but, due to its length and the cost of reviewing and redacting it, KRDO chose to only request the summary.