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Derek Colling, formerly of the Las Vegas Metro Police

Wyofile.com has posted a lengthy and interesting article reviewing the lives of Robbie Ramirez and Derek Colling. It’s interesting to learn both were in the same grade, graduated from the same high school, and obviously, knew each other, though their lives took different paths after high school.  Take the link and read the entire article, which provides hints of theories the prosecution—if there is a prosecution—and the defense will likely use.

All articles in this series may be found at the SMM Derek Colling Case archive.

I will not be commenting on the entire article, but primarily focusing on what appear to be previously unreported bits of information that may have a bearing on the case.  This is a long one, gentle readers, so grab whatever stimulating or relaxing beverage you favor, and hold on.

Sheriff Dave O’Malley

 I regret what happened on Nov. 4 with every fiber of my being,’ said Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who has been under fire from the public for hiring Colling. ‘I knew Robbie, I know Derek, I know their families. As for hiring Derek I don’t regret that at all.

He may come to regret it.

Tom Jubin, a Cheyenne defense attorney representing Colling, said the deputy learned only afterward who he had shot. ‘[Colling] learned afterwards it was somebody he’d been in high school with and played baseball with,’ Jubin said. ‘Given the circumstances, whether he knew the person or not, he did what he had to do.

That is the issue: would a reasonable police officer, given the same set of circumstances, have shot and killed Ramirez?  Was there no less lethal alternative?

Robbie Ramirez
credit wyofile.com

The article makes clear Ramirez suffered from mental illness, possibly brought on my multiple concussions, however it mentions only a single incidence of violence brought on by his schizophrenia.  This was a single blow given to a relative who was apparently not seriously hurt.  There is, in the article, no indication that Ramirez was ever a serious danger to others, including the police.

The article confirms that working for Las Vegas Metro was Colling’s first police job. This will be a significant factor in this case for the prosecution and defense—if there is a prosecution.  Metro is arguably the most corrupt local law enforcement agency in America.  Its officers routinely brutalize, even murder, citizens and with a tiny number of exceptions, get away with it.  In decades, only a single Metro officer has been fired for an unjustified killing.  None have been prosecuted.

This is significant in that Colling was trained, and steeped in, corruption from his first day on the job.  Attitudes and actions that would appall professional, ethical police officers, are daily standard operating procedure in Metro.

In Las Vegas, Colling graduated at the top of his police academy class, O’Malley said. Court documents show he ultimately joined the Problem Solving Unit, which focused on more complex policing than that undertaken by normal patrolmen.

The “Problem Solving Unit” to which O’Malley refers is known in Metro as the “Critical Incident Team” (alternately “Critical Incident Training”). Its members are supposedly trained in advanced tactics that allow them to resolve dangerous situations without gunplay.  It is darkly ironic that two of the three officers that murdered Erik Scott were CIT officers.  One of them bravely shot him in the back as he lay dying, unarmed, face down on the pavement.  Such was, and is, the nature of Metro.

Colling was a member of the SWAT team in Las Vegas, as well as later in Laramie’s Albany County, where his high performance on policing metrics continued, O’Malley said. Colling got a top score on his SWAT entrance exam in Wyoming. He won awards in all the categories at the training academy in Wyoming — from shooting and fitness to academics. ‘This young man came in and blew away the tests,’ O’Malley said. ‘There was nobody even close to him.

Such accomplishments may be indicative of ability, but in police work, the ultimate proof is always on the street.  The smartest man in the academy is worthless if he can’t handle the stresses of potentially dangerous situations, or if he overreacts. Officers must daily renew their reputations.

Colling trained outside law enforcement classes as well. A city of Laramie parks and recreation guide lists him as an instructor in Kav Maga — a form of self-defense martial arts developed by the Israeli military. A promotional video on a website for the practice calls it ‘instinctive reality-based training for the streets. No rules. No rituals. No nonsense. No excuses.

Krav Maga is a very effective martial art.  Among its skills is empty-handed response to knife attacks, which are disturbingly common in Israel.  Colling’s apparent neglect of this less lethal method may be a significant issue in this case.  An actual Krav Maga adept could have easily subdued Ramirez–if he chose.

The friend who asked not to be named attended Colling’s wedding in Las Vegas and met some of his fellow officers. ‘They really appreciated Derek,’ the friend said. ‘He’s the kind of guy who has your back,’ his fellow officers told the friend.

Of the young officer from Wyoming, ‘there wasn’t a single person who said ‘he’s a cowboy,’ the friend said.

While researching the Erik Scott case and writing License To Kill: The Murder of Erik Scott, honest Metro officers, current and retired, estimated as much as ¾ of the force is hopelessly corrupt.  A positive review from Metro officers should always be considered with suspicion.

But Colling’s career there would be dogged by violence.

In July, 2006, nine months after joining the force, he was one of five police officers who fired 29 rounds at a domestic-violence suspect. Police said the suspect pulled a gun on them outside a gas station, according to news reports. Officials ruled that shooting as justified.

Virtually every use of violence, including lethal force, by Metro officers is ruled justified, regardless of the circumstances.  Colling’s two kills prior to Ramirez:

On the evening of Sept. 29, 2009, Colling and his partner were on patrol. He carried pepper spray, an expandable police baton, a taser, a Glock 21C pistol with laser and flashlight attachments (a personal sidearm, not department-issued [this is allowed in Metro]) and two extra magazines, according to an interview he gave investigators later that night.

The officers were making vehicle stops when a radio call came in. ‘A 15 year old, uh, bipolar male subject was threatening his mother with a knife,’ Colling told the interviewing officers. Colling and his partner responded to the call at an apartment complex. They were the second and third officers to arrive. A Crisis Intervention Team, trained to confront those in mental health crises, was enroute.

The responding officers found a mother struggling with her son. The boy held a knife. At the sight of the approaching officers, Colling said, the boy spun his mother around, positioned her between them like a shield and put the knife to her throat. The mother later contested that characterization in court, saying the knife was not held against her throat but instead pointed down.

The other officers called for the boy to drop the knife and calm down.

Colling fired a single shot that hit the boy in the head and killed him.

Hmmmm.  Everyone but Colling apparently thought it was not necessary to kill him.

When he fired the boy was holding the knife to her throat, he told investigators. ‘I felt there was … no other answer to the situation,” a transcript of the interview reads.

The interviewing officers asked Colling how much time passed from when the boy, Tanner Chamberlain, first saw him to the time Colling shot him.

‘I would say it’s less than ten seconds,’ Colling said. Court documents later put the interval between officers arriving and Chamberlain’s death at less than a minute. During that time, the CIT-trained officer arrived and began trying to talk to Chamberlain. Colling took his shot when the boy looked toward that officer, according to court documents.

Asked if either Chamberlain or his mother said anything, Colling said the boy did not. The mother did.

Chamberlain that he believes he saved Chamberlain’s mother’s life.

‘What’d she say?’ the interviewer asked him.

‘She was saying, ‘Don’t shoot him. Don’t shoot him. Don’t shoot him.’

Officials ruled the shooting as justified.

I have not studied this shooting closely.  On its face, however, it appears it was not at all clear it was necessary for Colling to shoot when he did.  In addition, taking head shots in that kind of situation with a handgun is, at best, a dangerously chancy proposition.  One should also be aware that Metro does its own investigations of Officer involved shootings.  Detectives ask only the questions necessary to fulfill the virtually never-changing Metro narrative that officers are never at fault, and are usually heroic.  The interview of Erik Scott’s killer took only 15 minutes.  A professional interview would take hours.

Chamberlain’s mother, Evie Oquendo, sued both Colling and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for what she and her attorney called the wrongful death of her son. [skip]

Oquendo’s lawyer, Brent Bryson, said Colling impressed him as a ‘cocky son of a gun’ when Bryson deposed him for the lawsuit. ‘It was almost like a game to him, his deposition,’ Bryson told WyoFile.

‘His first mindset is to take the person out,’ Bryson said. ‘He had a clear shot and he took the shot instead of waiting for other officers to de-escalate the situation.

Remember that Colling was supposedly specially trained to resolve such situations without gunfire.  His eagerness to shoot Chamberlain–when the other officers present were not so eager–combined with his actions in other cases, should be carefully considered by the prosecutors in the Ramirez case.

Colling told investigators that other officers had Tasers out. ‘I didn’t go to any other weapons,’ he said when asked if he had considered less-lethal options.

‘I think just because of the time, the time frame and the situation happening so quickly, and the fact that he had a knife, uh, my initial response was to go to the gun,’ he said. ‘Some other officers may have gone to taser, but, ah, that was my initial response was to go to the gun,’ the transcript reads.

A federal district court in Nevada ruled that Oquendo’s wrongful death and excessive-force claims against Colling could go to trial. But the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco. The circuit court ruled Colling had ‘reasonable cause’ to believe the threat was true and to use deadly force. The ruling sought to protect the discretion of police officers from undue vulnerability to future lawsuits, Oquendo’s attorney said.

The 9thCircuit’s precedence in this ruling also derailed the Scott family’s case.  Ironically, about a year later, the 9thCircuit changed its mind, and is now more open to allowing suits against officers.

Though Colling was cleared from the Chamberlain shooting, he would lose his job in Las Vegas two years later. Video and audio footage of Colling beating and arresting a videographer who was attempting to film police from his driveway went viral. Colling was fired after an investigation.

Mitchell Crooks, after meeting Derek Colling
credit: lasvegasreviewjournal

In Vegas Transplanted To Laramie: Colling Kills Again, I wrote about Colling’s brutal and unprovoked beating of Mitchell Crooks.  I was surprised that Colling was fired, but I suspect it was a matter of politics.  Colling may have beaten Crooks at the wrong time, when Metro brass were feeling too much political heat.  Metro commonly destroys or hides video evidence, as they did in the Erik Scott case, but this one slipped past them.  Colling’s behavior was egregious and couldn’t be plausibly covered up. Perhaps even Metro realized Colling was going to get them in trouble in the future.

Las Vegas officials said Colling was terminated after an investigation showed him violating various department policies during the beating and arrest of the videographer. But supporters of Colling there ‘felt his termination was media- and politically generated,’ O’Malley said. ‘Everyone we talked to said they would work with Derek any day of the week and it was good he would be in law enforcement.

Colling should have been fired from any professional agency because he not only brutally beat an unarmed, innocent man who was doing nothing illegal or threatening, he falsely arrested him, lodged multiple false charges against him, and lied about everything in his official reports.  Ultimately, officers are only as good as their reputation for integrity.  An officer caught lying is no good to anyone. Still, it’s amazing Colling was fired from an agency as corrupt as Metro for something—to Metro—as trivial as that.

O’Malley has agreed to a review of his department’s hiring practices since Ramirez’s death. The two shooting deaths Colling had been involved with in Nevada didn’t disqualify him from further law enforcement work, O’Malley said. Las Vegas is a tough city to work in and two shootings is not as rare as critics have portrayed it, he said, particularly if the officer is ‘very proactive’ in crime-stopping as Colling was.

It is uncommon for any police officer anywhere to shoot and kill anyone.  It is not uncommon for Metro.  They kill so many, they have many serial shooters.  O’Malley’s contention is a bit misleading.  Colling’s two kills were not a result of proactive police work.  He was one of several officers, in both cases, merely responding to calls, and taking advantage of the situation to shoot.

Hinkel remembers when her son learned his old high school classmate had returned to Laramie. He found out from news articles that documented Colling’s past. Hinkel and Rameriz were at the Ranger, she said, when he broached the subject.

‘He’ll probably shoot me some day,’ her son told her, Hinkel said.

Other members of the family also mentioned Ramirez’s fear of Colling, as well as his general fear of the police. None besides Hinkel recalled Ramirez’s prediction — the account came to them secondhand.

But family and friends don’t doubt that Ramirez was aware of his classmate’s past once Colling came back to Laramie. The hiring was high-profile and something Ramirez would have tracked, family members said.

This too has the potential to be significant, at least in the minds of the public. Sheriff O’Malley, an elected official, would be wise to pay attention to that.

Colling (left, blue and white shirt) and Ramirez (far right) during high school.
credit wyofile.com

Ramirez and Colling’s lives reconverged Nov. 4, 2018 in the afternoon of a cold clear day. [skip]

The following description of Ramirez’s last hour alive is drawn from that video record as well as police dispatch audio recordings. Colling’s body camera came unplugged during a struggle between the two, law enforcement officials have said. It cuts out before the fatal shots.

Colling begins following Ramirez, who is driving a yellow Ford truck slowly down Grand Avenue at 16-17 miles per hour, half the posted speed limit. The body camera video begins with Colling pulling on a black North Face watch cap. Dispatch radio channels are busy as Colling calls in Ramirez’s registration.

‘According to radio logs,’ Debree said, ‘he never got a return on the registration he requested.’

Colling does not hear his old classmate’s name, or get the CIT message Officer Cirillo received in 2017. Ramirez turns off Grand, heading toward his apartment, without using his turn signal. Colling hits the lights. Ramirez pulls to the curb. On the body camera, Colling appears to open the door of the car well before he stops. After briefly looking down the driver’s side of Ramirez’s car, Colling approaches the vehicle from the passenger side.

Colling taps on the front passenger window. ‘Roll your window down sir,’ he asks Ramirez repeatedly. Ramirez does not comply and yells from inside, asking why he is being pulled over. Colling asks for backup on his radio.

Ramirez pulls away from the standing deputy and drives across the street. He stops in front of his apartment. Colling runs back to his Sheriff’s Department SUV, making calls on his radio. Ramirez drives less than a block in what officials later called a pursuit.

Again, gentle readers, keep in mind my analysis is based only on media accounts, and this account, which is the most complete and insightful yet published, in particular.  At this point in the incident, Colling appears to be acting within professional parameters.

 ‘I can guarantee when he saw who pulled him over Robbie was terrified,’ Bunn, the uncle, said. ‘He wanted to get there [to the apartment]. He wanted to go hide in his fucking cave.’ [skip]

Colling blocks Ramirez’s yellow truck in with his patrol car. Ramirez’s beloved white Ford is parked and visible in the video from Colling’s dash camera. Ramirez gets out of his truck with both hands in front of him, a winter hat pulled down nearly over his eyes, one good and one glass. He appears unarmed. He is yelling at Colling.

‘You can hear some threatening statements being made,’ Debree said. The yelling was largely unintelligible to this reporter after several replays of that section of video. The word arrest is audible in Ramirez’s yelling. What is clear is that Colling repeatedly yells for Ramirez to put his hands up as they advance toward one another.

Ramirez does not put his hands up. Colling comes out of his car with a Taser visible in his right hand. He is left-handed.

At this point, an officer believing himself in real danger would not have advanced toward that danger.  He would have remained, as much as possible, behind cover. During winter, officers are always aware that tasers are often completely ineffective due to thick winter clothing.  Tasers only work if both barbs are solidly embedded in the skin, and even then, some people are more or less immune to the effect.  Was Colling, a highly trained and accomplished officer, unaware of this, something taught in every basic Taser certification course?  Was Colling using the Taser, which he knew would fail, to justify the use of his handgun?

Officials have not said when his gun came out of his holster. In the body-camera footage it appears his left hand, which later in the footage can be seen holding his gun, is up from the start of the confrontation.

‘He did nothing to deescalate the situation,’ Hinkel said. ‘Zero.’

From what I can tell from the video I’ve see, Hinkel is correct.

Ramirez comes around the side of his truck. Colling fires his taser. Ramirez waves his arms, apparently trying to remove the taser wires.

The taser connection appeared to fail, Debree said.

Ramirez comes toward Colling, flailing his arms. The fight moves out of sight of the dashboard camera.

This is the point where Colling’s body camera comes unplugged, Debree said.

The video does show an agitated Ramirez coming at Colling, who clearly has his handgun in his left hand.  Assuming he did not intend to shoot Ramirez from the beginning, this alone many have contributed to the use of deadly force.  Handgun in hand, he could not effectively use Krav Maga, but he appeared to make no attempt to use it in any case.

What isn’t mentioned is that as Ramirez falls, Colling breaks the wrist of his left hand–bends it so it is no longer effective in attenuating recoil- keeping his arm at more or less shoulder level, but pointing his handgun more or less straight down at Ramirez, indicating his position on the ground.  Colling was apparently very anxious indeed to shoot Ramirez.

According to Jubin, Ramirez knocked the taser from Colling’s hand while off camera and clenched a key in his hand as a weapon. Colling kicked at Ramirez, Jubin said, but it didn’t slow him down. The kick is not visible in the video.

It is possible Colling kicked Ramirez, but I saw no posture or movement that would indicate that.  I also saw no posture or movement that would indicate Ramirez struck Colling, and certainly not that he struck him with sufficient force to knock a Taser from his hand.  What’s most likely is Colling dropped it.  The suggestion that Ramirez was holding a key “as a weapon” is, to put it kindly, nonsense. What is most likely is that Ramirez did not pocket his keys when he left his truck, and was mere continuing to hold them.

Why would Colling assert Ramirez was using a key–a single key–as a weapon?  In police training, keys are mentioned in that context.  One can grasp several keys, extending them between the fingers in a fist, and cause some damage, but only if a forceful punch can be delivered to the face.  Blocking or deflecting such an attack would be child’s play for a Krav Maga instructor. Such an attack would not be considered deadly force.  Using keys in this manner is often suggested by so-called “women’s defense” instructors, along with such fearsome means as whistles, air horns, pepper spray, combs, and other innocuous devices instead of carrying firearms.  All are ineffective.

Imagine Derek Colling, having fired multiple rounds, he’s not sure how many, but plenty, into the back of someone face down on the ground.  Time returns to its normal flow, normal, surrounding sounds flood back in.  He’s having the mother of all “oh shit” moments. How can he justify shooting Ramirez? Then he spots some keys on the ground near Ramirez’s hand…

The two men return to the dash-cam’s field of view. Colling is backing away from Ramirez, gun leveled at him. As they cross in front of the Sheriff car’s, Ramirez falls to the ground. With the body camera unplugged, there is no audio from the final seconds — no sound of the gunshots. Colling’s aim tracks Ramirez as he falls forward to the ground. Colling is backing away as Ramirez falls.

This is ridiculous.  What law enforcement agency, knowing their cameras can be jarred off by the normal motions expected of officers, would not take steps to immediately correct the problem? Didn’t the Sheriff’s Office know about this, and if they did, why didn’t they do something about it?  All manufacturers of such devices design them for rough handling.  The idea that a battery can come “unplugged,” as has been suggested in other media sources, is idiotic.  Turning off, or simply not using body cameras, is a venerable Metro tactic. During the recent mass shooting, Metro supervisors were caught on camera telling officers to turn off their cameras. What may have happened?  Colling wanted to shoot, and turned off his camera.

One shot struck the log wall of the apartment building. Today, there is a square chunk of wood cut out where the bullet hole was removed.

Two shots hit Ramirez, Hinkel said. She claims they entered through his back below his right shoulder.

Jubin declined to confirm whether Ramirez was shot in the back. In the heat of the moment, “sometimes officers empty their entire gun and don’t even know they’ve done it,” he said. ‘As far as ‘what hits where,’ sometimes it’s really a function of that … unless somebody is running down the street and gets shot in the back. That’s quite different than what happened here.’

The autopsy report has not yet been released.

This too is disturbing.  Let us take Hinkel’s assertion at face value.  Here we have a top gun officer, but he has apparently fired at least three shots, two of which hit Ramirez in the back, and at least one struck a nearby building.  We do not know the angle, nor the elevation on the building of that shot.

The video plainly shows Ramirez falling on his face at Colling’s feet.  It shows Colling leaning forward, his attention on Ramirez, who is not visible, and Colling pointing his handgun–at a very odd angle–downward at where Ramirez must be.  And we have Colling’s attorney trying to say this top shot, the man better than everyone else by a wide margin, according to Sheriff O’Malley, could have panicked and emptied his gun.  One wonders what else he hit, and how many other rounds he fired.  It’s little wonder Jubin is reluctant to say where Ramirez was shot, and how many times.  He does appear to be lowering expectations regarding Colling’s skill and restraint.

At the moment, absent other evidence, it appears Ramirez was face down on the ground, key in his hand or not, no threat to anyone.  At that point, Any officer, Krav Maga instructor or not, could have simply applied any one of a number of common restraining techniques to control Ramirez, including just jumping on him and holding him down, but it appears Colling shot him, multiple times, in the back.

It does not matter that someone was a threat before they went face down.  It does not matter that they might become a threat again if they manage to get up. When someone is not an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death–right now–police officers cannot use deadly force against them.

A classic “shoot/don’t shoot” video used in police training shows a suspect presenting a clear threat of serious bodily injury or death. They might be holding a knife as if to throw it, or brandishing some weapon other than a gun.  If officers shoot too quickly, as the video advances, they find the suspect dropping the weapon and surrendering.  Ooops.

At the video’s end, Ramirez lies on the ground out of the camera’s view. The sheriff’s deputy kneels over him. Colling raises his head into view numerous times, looking perhaps for his backup, or an ambulance.

Or perhaps looking to see if there were any witnesses.

I emphasize again, I do not have the complete video to review over and over again.  I do not have the police reports or the autopsy.  I have not examined the scene, determined the number of shots, their angle and sequence.  I just don’t have access to enough information to be sure of anything.

My analysis is based on the available media accounts and my training and experience.  Normally, one accords the officer on the scene the benefit of the doubt.  But there is significant evidence to suggest Derek Colling does not deserve it, or at the very least, this shooting deserves the most rigorous scrutiny.

Again, knowing only what I know about this situation, I–no reasonable police officer–should have done anything but physically restrain Robbie Ramirez.  I see no justification for deadly force.

I’ll continue to follow this case, and will alter my analysis as necessary as more and more specific information become available.