Patrol chief: ‘There’s work to be done’
Col. James Wolfinbarger, head of the Colorado State Patrol, saw his youngest son’s birth at St. Mary’s Hospital.
In a recent letter to The Daily Sentinel, Wolfinbarger recounted fond memories of service as a State Patrol sergeant in Grand Junction from 1999 to 2001.
He beams with pride discussing the agency’s history of service to the Grand Valley, which has hosted a State Patrol troop since the agency’s inception in 1935.
In recent years, however, that illustrious past has been overshadowed by darker stories emerging from the Fruita-based 4A Troop: High-speed pursuits ending in injury, death and a six-figure lawsuit settlement; the fatal shooting of an unarmed man who wouldn’t answer his own front door and a veteran trooper investigated for possibly falsifying arrest reports.
On the taxpayer dime: Investigations, prosecutions, firings and civil lawsuits.
A failure of leadership?
“No, I’m not going so far as to say that,” Wolfinbarger said in an interview with the Sentinel. “Leadership is ultimately accountable to the people they serve. I hold myself in that position.”
“We have to do whatever we can within our power to make sure we correct and remedy those things,” he added. “I still think our organization is staffed with some of the most professional men and women you’ll find in police work. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve.”
Wolfinbarger cited pending litigation and internal reviews in declining to talk about issues specific to Troopers Ivan “Gene” Lawyer and Cpl. Kirk Firko, both cleared of state criminal charges in connection with the 2010 shooting death of Jason Kemp, as well as Trooper Donald Moseman, whose career with the agency ended in December in the wake of credibility concerns covering years of DUI arrests. Lawyer and Firko remain on paid leave.
“There is work to be done to be sure toward assuaging people’s concerns,” Wolfinbarger said. “I believe there are substantive actions that we can take toward improving, but I also don’t want to go overboard.”
The chief said he couldn’t yet speak in specifics.
Wolfinbarger said he’s concerned about how events in recent years in Mesa County have shaped perceptions of his agency.
“It’s not my intent to suggest our organization is lacking support in Mesa County, but I believe there are certain important parts of the community that need to be reassured this chief is committed to the community,” he said. “We’re going to improve, but on the backs of the quality people who are already there.”
State Patrol training came under scrutiny during Lawyer’s criminal trial in April, including testimony from several troopers that they received little if any instruction on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and protections against unlawful search and seizure.
Lawyer was found not guilty on most charges in Kemp’s case, while jurors hung on a pair of lesser counts that were eventually dropped.
Lawyer, in testifying in his own defense, also testified he was “scolded” by a supervisor for not “emptying my pepper spray canister” in the face of a suspect who damaged rear windows on his patrol cruiser.
Wolfinbarger declined to discuss the instance cited in Lawyer’s testimony, but addressed broader issues.
“The Colorado State Patrol training academy has been continuously recognized as one of the highest caliber training academies in the state,” he said. “Am I satisfied as chief with training on the Fourth Amendment? Yes. Where we can look to improve is beyond the academy. How are we building that into our in-services?”
In-service training sessions are periodically offered to troopers, including updates on ever-changing criminal statutes, driving and arrest control, among other points.