August 25, 2011 News » Cover Story

Underwhelming oversight 

The Joshua Carrier case brings up questions about whether the police and District 11 do all they can to keep kids safe

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit bearing "El Paso County Jail" in black letters, the 6-foot-6 inmate shuffles his plastic sandals across the crowded courtroom. Even at 30, he emits a boyish quality revealed in a tiny smile that plays briefly over his face when his eyes meet those of his mother, sitting in the front row.

Joshua Carrier then takes a seat, hands cuffed behind his back, soon to hear that prosecutors have added 111 child sex-assault charges to the 78 filed against him in May, two months before. Prosecutors allege Carrier victimized 22 children, some multiple times, either while working as a school resource officer at Colorado Springs District 11's Horace Mann Middle School, or as a volunteer there.

It's a stunning turn for a man whose seven years with the Colorado Springs Police Department were marked by accomplishment.

Even in his rookie year, Carrier helped take down a home-invasion suspect, seizing firearms, meth and a marijuana grow. While working patrol, he rescued a teenage girl from her violent boyfriend. And he's credited with helping dismantle the "High Powered Gangsters" at D-11's Sabin Middle School.

In fact, Carrier was promoted four times and received 19 recognitions, 10 of them commander's commendations, before resigning from the force June 30.

At this stage, there are many more accusations related to Carrier's case than there are answers. Police and D-11 officials refuse to talk, citing the ongoing criminal investigation and potential civil lawsuits. Attorney Rick Levinson, who's representing a number of alleged victims, says many of them are in therapy and could suffer their whole lives, at least in part because of mistakes made at Mann and at police headquarters.

Meanwhile, Carrier's attorney, veteran Denver-based defender Christopher Decker, says the "rush to misjudgment" has prompted police to throw "one of their own to the wolves," possibly to deflect potential liability. Civil attorneys have fueled the outrage, he says, to improve their chances for a big settlement.

What do we know for sure?

For one thing, while jailed on $500,000 bond, Carrier's "segregated" from other inmates. The sheriff's office hasn't said why, but you might assume it's because he was a police officer.

For another, he faces a Sept. 15 preliminary hearing to decide whether he should stand trial on the sexual assault charges, and a Nov. 7 trial on the pornography charges. The criminal proceedings promise splashy headlines, but civil lawsuits could actually have a bigger impact on taxpayers, if Carrier is found guilty and the CSPD and/or District 11 is found to have been grossly negligent in dealing with him.

Oh, and one more thing we know: Regardless of Carrier's guilt or innocence, his story raises a lot of questions the public deserves to have answered.

Did previous complaints from parents get ignored?

Carrier served as a school resource officer from August 2009 until May 2010, when the program folded under budget pressure. Even before he got a new assignment working patrol in the Sand Creek division, Carrier had found other roles for himself at Mann, including volunteer wrestling and football coach.

After his SRO duty ended, he stepped up his volunteerism, according to district records obtained by the Independent through an open-records request. From January 2010 through March 31, 2011, he logged 796 hours as a volunteer, 83 percent (659) of which came after the SRO program ended. He continued volunteering through April 19, 2011, and his volunteer hours during the 2010-11 school year averaged just over 20 hours per week.

Accounts of what went on at Mann are sketchy, because few parents have spoken publicly. But according to records and what parents have said in interviews, Carrier allegedly targeted children for sexual contact through so-called physical exams for ringworm and rashes, and through searches for weapons and contraband.

Days after Carrier was charged, one mother told the Gazette her son was removed from class four times and taken to a room in the office area where Carrier touched his genitals. She said she didn't find out until she asked her son about Carrier following his arrest. Her son's friend said he'd also been touched by Carrier, but neither reported it at the time.

In an Independent interview, another mother and father say Carrier examined their child, a wrestler, for a rash in October 2010. (Both agreed to talk with the Independent under several conditions, one of which was anonymity to protect their son's identity.)

"He was uncomfortable with it, but he saw Carrier as a police officer and someone he could look up to," the father says. "So he thought it was wrong, but Carrier explained it to him in a way that made it seem OK." Neither parent would give details about the exam, saying only that their son had been "violated." Decker, Carrier's attorney, refuses to discuss facts of the case.

After their son told them about the exam, his mom says, she confronted Carrier at the school. "I asked, 'What did you find? Is he going to be able to wrestle?'" she says. "He just dismissed it and said nothing. He said he was an EMT, which he's not." State licensing records show no listing for Carrier as an emergency medical technician.

The parents didn't think much more about the incident until Carrier was arrested on the child porn charges. "We called the school counselor and we called the police immediately," the father says, adding that police quickly opened a criminal case based on their complaint.

When they tried to meet with Mann principal Scott Stanec in late June, "He told us he couldn't talk to us," the mother says.

Stanec didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

The boy's father says he's shocked by the possibility that Carrier could have carried on his alleged activities for months, or longer. "There's a lot of people at the school that should have seen something going on," he says. "That [total number of 22] is a lot of kids taken in and looked at. That's a lot of times to be not noticing. Somebody should have said, 'Hey, why is this happening?'"

District policies mandate that if an employee has "reasonable cause" to suspect a child is being abused sexually or physically, that employee reports it. Policies also advise that "children rarely lie about sexual assault."

Levinson, who represents 12 alleged victims and their parents, says parents did ask school personnel about Carrier. But, he says, Carrier apparently gained the trust of the adults around him well enough that any concerns went unheeded.

"There were complaints made, and nothing of substance was done," Levinson says. "The school had [complaints] through the principal. There was one in 2009, one or more in 2010. Some were in the form of questions: 'What's going on? Why is he doing this?' It wasn't secret. The sexual assault was a secret, but the fact he was doing physicals in private in his office was not a secret."

Responding to Levinson's statement, Decker says the civil attorney "is either recklessly misinformed or actively misleading those who he may have made such statements to."

The school district says it has no documents responsive to the Independent's request for complaints from parents about Carrier.

Levinson adds that some parents had no more luck with Colorado Springs police. He says one claim made to a sergeant was "just buried, or they didn't believe the complainant."

Police Lt. Scott Whittington, with the internal affairs unit, wouldn't discuss Carrier or share his internal affairs records. But he says all complaints, no matter how minor, are thoroughly investigated and documented through multiple layers of command. The complainant is given a complaint form and told of the outcome.

The goal, he says, is to give the department and the public "confidence that the Colorado Springs Police Department takes complaints seriously and conducts proper investigations." Whittington says there's virtually no way a complaint could be made and not get investigated.

Was Carrier left alone with kids?

So Levinson maintains that D-11 officials "knew [Carrier] was giving physicals, and they knew he was giving physicals alone in his office."

If that happened, it would be a violation of district policy, which dictates who is authorized to deal with student health issues; neither school resource officers nor volunteers are on the list. Under D-11's policy, volunteers are to work under "supervision from school personnel" and perform whatever duties "the principal deems appropriate."

Written policies in Falcon School District 49, Academy School District 20, Harrison School District 2 and Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, all adjacent to D-11, include similar statements about supervision. Officials in each of these districts tell the Indy that their interpretation of what's written is that volunteers are never to be alone with children.

With D-11 officials refusing interviews, it's impossible to know for sure whether they interpret their own policy as strictly. But an e-mail from a district records official suggests they may not.

When asked by the Indy for information on the district's background checks policy, D-11's Katherine Ritchie wrote that an "extensive" check is conducted when a principal requests one; for overnight field trips; and if "the volunteer will be working with students without District personnel supervision." A similar statement is made on D-11's volunteer website.

D-12 Superintendent Walt Cooper is aware of the allegations being made against Carrier, and says the possibility of a volunteer being left unsupervised with a child in a school classroom or office goes "beyond [his] comprehension."

"One on one behind closed doors, I have a hard time imagining why a volunteer would even do that," Cooper says. He adds: "In my view, it doesn't matter if a person is a volunteer or not. That shouldn't happen, period. It wouldn't matter if it was a 25-year licensed employee or volunteer. If a principal is having a disciplinary conference with a kid, that's different, that's why we have windows in doors."

Reached by e-mail, Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, takes a rigid stance on volunteers.

"It is common practice for schools to not allow volunteers access to children without a school employee present. Even in cases where background checks are conducted of volunteers, a school employee should be present," he says. "Parents drop off their kids to paid school employees who serve 'in loco parentis' [in place of the parent], not to volunteers who are not employed, screened and legally responsible for the supervision of children at the school."

Levinson, who volunteered in Coronado High School's football program in D-11 for 10 years, remembers going through multiple approvals before being given permission to volunteer by the district's athletic director, who advised him, "You can't be alone with students, period."

Should D-11 have checked him out?

D-11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich told the Gazette in May that the district runs fingerprint and background checks on employees and volunteers. What he didn't say is that at least when it comes to volunteers, they're exceedingly rare.

According to records, the district did random checks of about 10 percent of its 13,000-plus volunteers in the 2009-10 school year, and was on pace for the same up through the third quarter of 2010-11. Those were done using Background Investigative Service, a for-profit company that doesn't do fingerprinting. The district conducted only 70 Colorado Bureau of Investigation background checks, which include fingerprinting, in each of the last two years. CBI checks cost $54.50 each, which the district requires the volunteer to pay.

Academy District 20, which receives roughly 1,800 volunteer applications per year, conducts CBI checks and fingerprinting on every volunteer applicant, according to D-20 spokeswoman Nanette Anderson. In D-12, Cooper says, "We do have volunteer coaches, but even though they're not on the payroll, they undergo the same background check and have the same stipulation as employees."

Police officers are not exempt from those checks, at least in districts 2, 12 and 20. "Everyone no matter their occupation" in District 2 is checked, spokeswoman Jennifer Sprague says in an e-mail. (District 49 didn't respond by deadline to questions about which of its volunteers get checked.)

Spot-checking volunteers' backgrounds is "bad volunteer management," says Susan Ellis, president of Philadelphia-based Energize, Inc., an international training, consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism.

"This is a wake-up call for the district. It's very serious," she says of the Carrier case. Cost isn't an excuse, she says, since the district requires the applicant to pay for the check, anyway.

But in regard to Carrier, Ellis also brings up another issue entirely.

"In this case, I think the question is, did this person have extra liberty because he came to them from the police department?" she asks. "It would be unfair to make it into a volunteer issue. This man should never have been on the police force."

What about police backgrounding?

Even police have difficulty uncovering an applicant's dark secrets, although every effort is made, Police Chief Richard Myers told KRDO-AM 1240 and FM 105.5 in a July 5 interview.

"We have a full-time department psychologist, for example, that is constantly watching for state-of-the-art testing instruments," he said. "But, you know, there are certain things there isn't a test to check for." That's why the department conducts "a thorough background" check by verifying job history and talking to friends, family and associates, Myers said.

"When we send our backgrounders out, we're telling them, 'Find a reason not to hire this person.' We already know the reasons to hire them: They've scored well on a test. They've interviewed positively. They've shown aptitudes in certain areas," Myers said. "But then we really need to dive into those character issues. And the only way you're going to get character issues is to do a thorough background. And even then, sometimes on rare occasion something slips through the cracks."

The department has clammed up on Carrier's criminal cases to avoid jeopardizing the prosecution and "to preserve their judicial integrity," Myers writes in an e-mail. So it's unclear how the department's backgrounders verified parts of Carrier's application, considering that he gave incomplete information about some of his experience.

Carrier graduated from the now-defunct Bethel Temple Christian School in El Paso, Texas, in 1999. After moving here, he held low-level jobs at a movie theater and sports store. He picked up some criminal justice classes at Pikes Peak Community College, where he earned an associate degree in 2007.

When he applied to the Colorado Springs Police Department Training Academy in 2003, upon his dad's suggestion, Carrier said he'd volunteered for an unidentified high school mentorship program from 2001 to 2003, and taught teen Sunday school at an unidentified church in 2001 and 2002. He also served as a seventh-grade soccer referee in an unidentified program or school, and as a "college campus security guard (Massachusetts)."

Lt. Whittington says backgrounders verify résumés and ask applicants for additional information if needed. "That's what our backgrounders do, is fill in those blanks," he says. "And they're very good at their job." He says the application process also includes a polygraph test and psychological testing.

Carrier graduated the Police Academy at the end of 2004. He patrolled the streets in the Stetson Hills and Sand Creek divisions for four-plus years, earning mostly "effective" job performance ratings, with a few "excellent" ratings. He received commendations and recognition for a variety of tasks: DUI detail, security for the Democratic National Convention in Denver, investigating a "chop shop," cleaning up Sabin's gang problem.

Carrier and another officer were sued in 2007 by a man alleging excessive use of force; the incident involved use of a Taser. But the case was ultimately dismissed, with the city paying nothing.

In summer 2009, Carrier applied to become a school resource officer, noting in his application that he'd worked as a lead referee for adult and non-adult soccer leagues and volunteered as a soccer coach for the now-defunct Police Athletic League. He also was a facilitator at a Pathways Lifestyle Management Program Adult and High School Teen Camp, but he didn't say where.

"I have also worked at Mitchell High School along with several other schools around the United States, facilitating an anti-bulling [sic] program," he wrote, not naming the other schools. "I have also shadowed a Middle School officer at that middle school," but he failed to name the school.

His chain of command signed off. "Josh would be a good fit for the middle schools," Lt. Patricia Feese remarked, while Cmdr. Brian Grady noted, "Officer Carrier's background and experience would be an asset in a SRO position. Highly recommend."

Just after the budget ax killed the SRO program, on June 11, 2010, Carrier and 13 other middle school SROs were given a "commander's commendation" for handling 1,276 calls for service during the 2009-10 school year, for conducting 1,571 home visits to registered sex offenders, and for filing 307 case reports that led to 51 felony and 342 misdemeanor arrests.

Are some officer policies lacking?

In a Nov. 9, 2009, case report about a boy accused of possessing razor blades, marijuana and possibly a gun at Mann, Carrier describes his search techniques.

Carrier asked assistant principal Joel Rivera for permission to use his office to talk to the boy and asked school security guard Joe Pelka to be present, Carrier's report says. He also asked Rivera to "cover up his window so that if a search was necessary, that nobody would be able to look into the room while he was being searched."

After finding only pens and pencils in the boy's hoodie, Carrier "searched all of his pockets of his pants and then asked him to undo his belt so that I would be able to search the waistband of his underwear. When [the student] undid his belt his pants fell approximately 3-5 inches down to the floor and then I placed my index finger in-between the waistband of his underwear and his skin and moved it from the front of his body to the back of his body. After that I grabbed the waistband of his underwear and shook it several times. I did not find any weapons on him and then asked him to place his pants back on [his] hips and tightened his belt."

Neither Pelka nor Rivera could be reached for comment.

After being read part of the report, Don Lindley, a retired 35-year Denver Police Department officer who now teaches law enforcement at Regis University in Denver, says it sounds "inappropriate."

"My feeling is that it's not proper," he says. "When the school resource officer got into the lower pants of the individual, I wouldn't have done that. I certainly wouldn't have run my fingers around his shorts like that. It's just not proper. You know what I would have done? I would have called the parents."

Carrier did so only after the search was conducted, after he determined the child needed "to be evaluated" at Memorial Hospital and called for an ambulance to transport him.

In Pueblo, city police department policies require officers to contact a supervisor prior to conducting such a search, says Police Training Academy Sgt. Steve Etienne.

"If that was one of our officers, I would have expected them to be in touch with a supervisor to explain the circumstances of what they want to do, and then have the supervisor give the verbal OK over the phone or have the supervisor there," he says. "The way he went about it, having him loosen his pants, it would certainly be something a supervisor would want to look at real closely to see if it's justified and if that officer is within department policy."

Apparently, Carrier's search didn't violate CSPD policy, because, Whittington says, "We don't have a specific policy or general order about searching people not in custody."

Have the cops handled this case correctly?

It appears Carrier was in good stead until a federal investigation linked him to the purchase of child pornography.

On March 28, the police department says in the search warrant affidavit, it was notified by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations that Carrier had been identified as a "dependent of an Air Force officer" amid a child porn probe. AFOSI says it passed on the information, which it had received from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, to police on March 18, 10 days earlier.

Neither AFOSI or DCIS will discuss the case, but DCIS has been taking part in "Project Flicker," an international child porn investigation spearheaded by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Cyber Crimes Center. According to DCIS records, ICE forwarded "several" leads to the DCIS for people using military e-mail addresses, post office boxes or ZIP codes. The Pentagon investigates such cases, because defense workers and contractors with high-level clearances involved in child porn could be at risk of being blackmailed for government secrets.

Police will only say that referrals from AFOSI are "rare," and won't explain the time lapse before police sought a search warrant May 9 on Carrier's two-story house in eastern Colorado Springs. According to the search warrant affidavit, when police searched the home May 11, they found DVDs next to his bed containing videos of 8- to 12-year-old males and females masturbating and exposing their genitalia. Police also discovered nude images of prepubescent teens on a laptop found on Carrier's bed.

Possession of pornographic images isn't de facto proof of child molestation, according to Dr. Marty Klein, a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified sex therapist and author of several books, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif.

"There's no reason to think that somebody who consumes a certain kind of entertainment is more likely to act out what they see in that entertainment," Klein says in an interview. "People who act out sexually with children, they come from so many different psychological profiles. There are people in this country who look at child porn and are fully capable of understanding that it is not appropriate to act out with children. They're just not interested, even if it was legal. The truth is, there's no data to suggest that people who look at child porn are any more likely to have sexual contact with children than anybody else."

Steve Tanner, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation special agent in charge, says in an e-mail that cases generally are prioritized based on risk to victims. "If there is a potential of a child or children being in danger," he says, "the case is worked right away." But he adds that just because an arrest wasn't made sooner, it doesn't mean investigators weren't working on the case.

As for D-11, there's no indication it was notified of Carrier's alleged pornography purchases until the day he was arrested; he continued to volunteer at the school for weeks after the feds told police he was implicated in the child porn ring. Further, inexplicably, the police department offered the following assurance to the public in its first press release about Carrier: "We have reason to believe that Carrier's activities are limited to the purchase of commercial child pornography photos."

It's unclear whether police notified the district before Carrier was arrested. But the district sent its first and only notice to parents on May 12, saying that Carrier had been taken into custody and why.

Principal Stanec wrote, "We are aware that many of our students have had a positive relationship with Officer Carrier and may be very distressed by this news. We encourage you to speak with your children tonight and, if the school can be supportive in any way, please do not hesitate to contact us."

Could taxpayers be at risk?

Regardless of the outcome of the criminal case, the city and D-11 could face additional legal action. The district has ordered its counsel, Holme, Roberts and Owen, to conduct its own investigation of Carrier's activities and school personnel's involvement, if any.

Even after inviting the Independent to submit questions in writing, the district issued a statement June 28 saying it would be "inappropriate" to answer questions.

In its entirety, the statement said: "Upon advice of the District's legal counsel, we believe that it would be inappropriate to be interviewed by you or attempt to answer your questions at this time. The District has currently received 11 notices of claim, and the claimants' attorney has threatened one or more lawsuits against the District. The District and CSPD are investigating this complex matter thoroughly. While the District believes in honest and forthcoming communications to our community, we believe that any communications at this time would be premature and prone to inaccuracies. In light of the criminal acts allegedly committed against our students, as spelled out in the criminal charges against Joshua Carrier, we take this matter very seriously. The District places the highest priority on the safety and security of its students. We hope to be able to answer these questions at a more appropriate time in the future, subject to the status of any threatened or pending litigation."

To win a judgment against the city or the district, Levinson must convince a judge to set aside governmental immunity laws, which protect taxpayer-supported entities from certain kinds of legal actions. Gross negligence or willful and wanton behavior, though, can provide a loophole, and plaintiffs have collected sizeable sums from school districts, cities and counties for actions involving attacks on students, medical malpractice and excessive force used by law enforcement officers.

"There are precedents when school districts have been held responsible for actions similar to this in Colorado," Levinson says. "They have a moral and ethical responsibility to these kids and their families. You send your kids to school, and you hope they're protected and safe, and this school allowed an unsafe environment to continue."

D-11's insurance coverage for professional liability has a policy limit of $4 million, with a $150,000 deductible. That means any damage award above $4 million would have to come from district funds, as would the deductible.

Levinson also might sue the city, which is self-insured, meaning it would turn to tax coffers to fund any damage award.

Of course, no amount of money could undo what Levinson alleges has been done to his clients.

The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that children who are victims of sexual abuse can suffer from chronic depression, low self-esteem and even multiple personalities. Twenty percent of victims develop serious long-term psychological problems evidenced by nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety, according to the American Medical Association.

The father who spoke with the Independent says the impact to his son hasn't yet become overt. But he worries about whether the boy will overcome being "violated" by Carrier.

"I don't know how to put it into words," he says. "We're still going through a lot of different emotions with our son."


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