As is usual in cases such as Derek Colling’s shooting of Robbie Ramirez, direct evidence regarding the actions of the police is being released slowly and grudgingly. What has been released is not suggestive of professional policing. The Laramie Boomerang reports:
Video footage showing the death of Robbie Ramirez reveals the 39-year-old Laramie man was unarmed yet confrontational in the moments before he was fatally shot by Derek Colling, a deputy in the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.
In response to a public outcry over the circumstances of the Nov. 4 shooting, local reporters were shown footage of Ramirez’s final minutes from Colling’s body-worn camera and his vehicle’s dash cam.
During a confrontation between the two, Colling unsuccessfully tried to deploy his Taser before drawing his gun and firing multiple shots at close range.
The reporters were not shown the full video. The excuse apparently given was that it was too graphic for them to see. One wonders if these people have been to the movies lately?
Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent said copies of the footage would not be distributed to the public, though Ramirez’s family also reviewed the footage Tuesday.
As reporters and county employees were shown the footage at the courthouse, Undersheriff Josh DeBree discussed the contents, explaining step-by-step the protocols officers follow when dealing with a circumstance like the one Colling encountered after initiating a traffic stop on Ramirez.
At Trent’s urging, however, DeBree would not say whether Colling’s actions during the incident were fully compliant with protocol.
DeBree also declined to comment on aspects of the investigation outside what is shown in the footage. He said he had not talked to Colling about the shooting.
That’s not unusual. An officer involved in a shooting would be wise not to say anything without the advice of counsel, which is his right.
Colling’s dash-cam footage begins as Ramirez drove west on Grand Avenue at just about 15 mph.
The low-rate of speed, DeBree said, is ‘a thing that would catch your attention’ as a police officer.
Ramirez then made a late left turn onto 21st Street, only partially making his way into the left-turn lane before leaving Grand Avenue.
DeBree said Ramirez’s driving would seem to indicate either intoxication or a medical emergency.
Or an eldery driver, a distracted driver, etc.
Colling then initiated a traffic stop as Ramirez turned east onto Garfield Street.
Ramirez pulled over quickly and appropriately, but as Colling approached the passenger side window, Ramirez refused to roll down the window.
During that period, Colling repeatedly told Ramirez to roll down the window. Instead, Ramirez yelled back through the glass, questioning why he was pulled over.
In what DeBree called an ‘uncertain, rapidly-evolving situation,’ Colling appears to reach back and put his hand on his gun a few times as he waits for Ramirez to roll down his window.
Colling putting his hand on his gun in that circumstance, DeBree said, was reasonable.
Possibly. It would depend upon what Colling saw and heard, but at this point, the officer should have the benefit of the doubt.
Ramirez then abruptly drove away and pulled into a parking lot northwest of Games Gauntlet.
It should be noted the brief video shows Ramirez driving quite slowly. This was not a high-speed pursuit.
Meanwhile, Colling called for emergency backup, ran back to his vehicle, followed Ramirez and blocked the man’s truck in. [skip]
Ramirez then exited his truck and began shouting at Colling.
Colling drew his Taser and yelled repeatedly at Ramirez for the man to put his hands above his head.
‘Get your hands up now,’ Colling yelled three times.
At this point, it’s a judgment call. Colling is said to have known Ramirez and his psychological condition. He does not appear to try to deescalate the situation, but only shouts commands at Ramirez. Ramirez does appear somewhat aggressive, and again, Colling should have the benefit of the doubt at this point.
Colling approached Ramirez and used his taser, but it didn’t work. This is not uncommon. Thick winter clothing often prevents the barbs from embedding in the skin. The attempt to use the taser appears to have angered Ramirez, who comes toward Colling.
When nonlethal force isn’t effective, DeBree said ‘it’s up to the individual officer’ on how to respond.
There’s no standard protocol, he said, for the situation Colling was confronted with.
Yes, but the lawful use of defensive force always depends on the force being used by the attacker. It must be proportional.
Colling backed away as he drew his gun, and his body cam appears to show a scuffle between the two before the video cuts out.
The dash-cam video, however, appears to show Ramirez advancing toward Colling, who walked backward while firing multiple shots at close range.
The dash cam video is unclear. It’s difficult to tell if Colling fired while backing up, but Ramirez does fall forward, below the level of the police vehicle’s hood—it’s impossible to tell if that is because he was shot or merely tripped–and Colling can be seen looking downward at him and pointing his handgun downward as well. Some media accounts have suggested Colling shot Ramirez when he was on the ground, but the information currently available can’t confirm this. We have no idea how many shots were fired, where they struck Ramirez, or their immediate effect.
DeBree said he thinks Colling’s body cam turned off during the scuffle when it became unplugged from its battery pack.
‘That’s what we’re assuming at this point,’ he said.
That’s a naïve assumption. Police body cameras are made to endure rough handling. Securing a battery pack, assuming the battery is rechargeable, would be a primary design goal, and easy indeed to ensure. An integral battery, as with a smart phone, would not have this problem. If the Albany County Sheriff’s Office had that trouble with the body cams, surely they would have discovered it long ago and rectified the problem or purchased another brand of camera?
Not recording, or making video disappear, is a common Las Vegas Metro tactic. It was used to good effect in the Erik Scott case, where 94% of the Costco video was recovered. The 6% missing covered the exact time Erik Scott was in the Costco and when he was outside, being killed by three panicky Metro officers. It may be a coincidence that the missing footage of Colling’s encounter with Ramirez is the exact time he was shooting Ramirez. It may be. It may also be he simply imported a tried and true Vegas tactic to Laramie.
Fortunately, it appears Laramie residents are not convinced. Laramie Live.com reports:
A recently formed group of concerned citizens in Albany County known as Albany County for Proper Policing, or ACoPP, is petitioning to have body camera footage from Albany County Sheriff’s Corporal Derek Colling released in regards to his shooting of Robbie Ramirez. Ramirez was fatally shot by the officer in a November 4th altercation.
The petition is in response to law enforcement showing the footage to a select group of journalists on Tuesday, but refusing to release the footage to the public.
In a press release on Wednesday, the group said that they question the motives of local law enforcement showing the footage to such a limited group. The petition is aimed at gaining more transparency and accountability from local law enforcement.
ACoPP member Karlee Provenza is quoted in the release saying, ‘There’s no reason why law enforcement officials should walk a handpicked group of journalists step-by-step through the videos, providing their interpretation, without going ahead and letting the public see it and make up their own minds.’
A Wyoming law passed in 2017 states that body camera footage from an officer can be made public in cases that are of broad public interest.
ACoPP also wants Colling’s disciplinary records, and the local ACLU is joining them in their requests.
ACoPP’s petition is available online at acopp.org.
Let us, gentle readers, review the criteria necessary for the lawful use of deadly force. As we do, let’s remember that we have little of the evidence, and my impressions—that’s all they are for the moment—are based entirely on media accounts, and the woefully incomplete video I’ve seen. I may be entirely accurate in my inferences, entirely wrong, or something in between. As always, I’ll update and revise as more information becomes available.
Innocence: the defender must not be the initial or unlawful aggressor. Police officers generally have the presumption of innocence. It’s their job to go in harm’s way, and they act under “color of law.” They can’t avoid conflict like most citizens can–with some exceptions, which I’ll discuss shortly.
Imminence: one can’t use deadly force against a possibleattack, or against an attack that mighthappen at some time in the future. The danger must be real, clearly about to occur–within mere seconds of occurring–or already occurring.
In this case, it appears Ramirez was behaving threateningly toward Colling. He was walking quickly toward him, appeared angry, and his arms, at various moments, were aggressively raised. The limited frame of the video makes it hard to be clearer about this.
Proportionality: the threat can’t be of humiliation or minor injury. If the only thing in jeopardy is hurt feelings, even a slap to the face might not be proportional. A reasonable person–in this case, a reasonable police officer–must believe they’re facing a threat of serious bodily harm.
This is where Colling appears, again, given only what we know, to be in real trouble. As Colling is backing away from Ramirez, he appears to already have drawn his handgun. Ramirez is not larger or obviously more fit than Colling and he appears to be unarmed. Media sources have thus far been vague on this point, but none have directly suggested Ramirez was armed. Colling may argue—he will have no choice—that Ramirez was so large, imposing, out of control, and violent he represented a deadly threat. After all, he wasn’t affected by the taser!
Likely, the taser simply failed to penetrate Ramirez’s winter clothing, an issue comprehensively covered in taser training. The ultimate problem for Colling is to show it was necessary to shoot—and kill, which is a likely result of shooting–Ramirez when he did, and any reasonable police officer would have done the same.
Avoidance: this normally refers to a legal duty to retreat, which would not normally be applicable to a police officer. We pay them not to retreat. However, considering that Ramirez and his condition were apparently well known, even to Colling, it will be necessary to ask whether Colling could have simply backed away and allowed him to calm down, returning later to deal with whatever crime he might have committed. There seems little question Colling had cause to stop Ramirez, which cause was heightened when Ramirez drove off, but officers also have to consider other issues. Smart, experienced officers know when to back off and deal with things later, on their terms. Any competent prosecutor will argue that considering all the circumstances and what Colling knew about Ramirez, he didn’t have to confront him then and there, and they may be right.
Reasonableness: a reasonable police office, of the same knowledge, abilities and in the same circumstances, would be compelled to use deadly force.
Here’s where Colling really appears to be in trouble. Being unarmed is not necessarily a bar to the use of deadly force. An unarmed average man could easily pose a deadly threat to an unarmed average woman, an average man with a disabling injury, a child, or an elderly person. That wasn’t the case here. As the media keeps reporting, Colling was hot stuff at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, the very model of physical fitness, firearms skill, and knowledge. Were I a prosecutor, my opening argument would go something like this:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. The evidence will show that Deputy Colling was right to stop Mr. Ramirez. He was right to pursue him after he left without permission. He was right to confront him when he got out of his vehicle, but he was not right to kill him.
Deputy Colling knew Robbie Ramirez. He knew his mental condition. He knew he was unarmed and agitated, but rather than trying to calmly talk him down, he immediately resorted to loud commands, and then tried to tase him. When the taser failed and Ramirez became even more angry, Colling drew his handgun, which removed any possibility of overpowering the unarmed Ramirez. Drawing that gun when he did closed off any other way to resolve the situation. Derek Colling chose to shoot Robbie Ramirez, and when Ramirez came toward him, still angry, still unarmed, he shot him and killed him.
He didn’t try to physically subdue him, and Deputy Colling was the top of his class, the best physical specimen at the Law Enforcement Academy. The evidence will show Deputy Colling killed Ramirez not because he had no other choice, not because he had to, but because he wanted to kill him.
That’s the ultimate decision for the prosecutor: did Colling have to shoot when and where he did? Did he face the imminent threat of seriously injury or death? Would any reasonable police officer have done the same? I wouldn’t. In my police career, I—and my fellow officers—faced many situations like that facing Colling. We would not have thought of using deadly force. We accepted that we would sometimes have to go hand to hand with people. Particularly with anyone we knew to be mentally impaired, we would have moved heaven and earth to resolve things peacefully. To do otherwise would have been thought unprofessional, even cowardly.
This does not mean that such people could never pose a deadly threat, only that there does not appear to be one present in this case.
For the moment, knowing only what we now know, it appears the choice to give Derek Colling a second chance at police work was not beneficial to the public at large, and certainly not to Robbie Ramirez.
The first article in this series is available here.