The Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board revoked the certification of six peace officers Dec. 11, 2020, for knowingly making untruthful statements while conducting their official duties. The revocations are the first to be mandated by Senate Bill 19-166, which passed during the 2019 legislative session. As a result, those six officers are no longer able to work as certified peace officers in Colorado.
One of these officers was El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Russell Smith, who had worked at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center since September 2016. According to an internal affairs investigation summary obtained by the Indy via the Colorado Open Records Act, Smith logged inmate checks that he hadn’t actually performed. Smith’s actions were discovered Nov. 29, 2019, when another deputy reported injuries to an inmate from a fight that occurred on Smith’s shift.
Crowding at the jail, which has a population of more than 1,600 inmates, has been a major concern, not only because of a recent COVID-19 outbreak — at its peak, 859 inmates and 66 deputies tested positive — but also because of the impact crowding has on inmate and deputy safety.
In February 2019, Sheriff Bill Elder told Fox21 News that he doesn’t want any more than 1,500 inmates in the jail at one time. “When we have problems of fights and attempted suicides and things like that, it typically manifests itself more often when we have more inmates in the jail,” he said.
On July 9, 2019, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Detentions Bureau Chief Clif Northam issued a directive regarding inmate checks. During the internal affairs investigation into Smith’s actions, Sergeant Aric Powell, the investigator assigned to Smith’s case, reported, “Deputy Smith believed Bureau Chief Northam’s [redacted] Checks directive was sent in response to an inmate who was assaulted multiple times in the [redacted] Wards and left under a bunk. Deputies failed to conduct count, conduct [redacted] checks, housing inspections, etc. As Deputy Smith stated it ‘it was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as accountability.’”
On July 15, 2019, the Indy reported on Dante Cedillo, an inmate who was hospitalized after being assaulted by multiple inmates and stuffed under a bunk. Jacqueline Kirby, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office public information officer, would not confirm whether Cedillo’s assault was the incident referenced by Smith in the internal affairs investigation. The jail has also had four suicides since June 10, 2019. Smith’s actions on Nov. 28, 2019, came after a suicide at the jail Nov. 12.
Sergeant Cynthia Ayyad, a supervisor at the jail, authored a Jan. 9, 2020, memorandum in which she “detailed her investigation into the allegations of unsatisfactory work performance revolving around multiple deputies’ alleged failure to conduct [redacted] checks.” According to Ayyad’s memorandum, Smith failed to adequately perform the required checks, which led him to not report injuries that an inmate suffered during a fight at approximately 11:20 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2019. The injuries weren’t discovered until approximately 12:55 p.m. the following day, when another deputy noticed the inmate had “facial swelling on his nose and some bruises around both of his eyes.” Ayyad’s report noted that “checks were logged by multiple deputies between the time of the initial altercation and when the inmate’s injuries were discovered.” Ayyad’s report does note that the injured inmate “made attempts to subvert deputies from discovering his injuries,” including having his cellmate “run interference either by dropping his pants and sitting on the toilet while telling deputies he was going to the bathroom and at mealtimes, his roommate would stand between him and the deputies to retrieve the meal tray.”
Investigators also compared Smith’s logs to camera footage. Out of 15 log entries where Smith claimed to do checks, 11 instances showed Smith “conducted no check at all,” and four showed Smith only did a partial check.
Commander Cy Gillespie noted in the report that “Deputy Smith has a history of compromised integrity within the Sheriff’s Office.”
According to Powell, “On September 12, 2018, Deputy Smith received disciplinary action for his involvement in an incident where deputies received patrol oral board questions prior to their appearance before their oral boards. The questions were obtained by a deputy that took part in the current oral board process who then shared them with deputies that had not had their oral board yet.”
During his interview with Powell, Smith cited overcrowding as a partial reason for skipping checks. “As of late,” he told Powell, “like I was explaining to Inmate Class this morning, um, our groups are continually over 16, it was only — it was originally built to have 16 groups. Um, if we can do what we can to get our groups to 16 then the ward runs a little better.”
Smith was also functioning as a Detentions Training Officer (DTO) at the time of the Nov. 28 incident, and had a trainee assigned to him. Smith had trained two trainees previously, but had not attended the DTO training class. Smith told Powell, regarding the DTO manual, “I’ll just be honest with you, I’ve never read it.”
Commander Gillespie did recommend that Smith face a disciplinary action board. Powell noted that, “during the [chain of command investigation] conducted by Sergeant Ayyad several of the deputies already received their findings and were given a disposition in their case.” Smith was the only deputy to have his POST certification revoked.
Kirby notes, “In the event involving our former deputy, facts were learned during a chain of command investigation and associated internal affairs investigation which led to a sustained finding of the portion of our conduct policy involving untruthfulness. As such, and in accordance with the law, we notified Colorado POST of the finding, who in turn began their own internal process to determine if revocation was necessary.”
“Integrity is the cornerstone for positive relationships between law enforcement officers and their communities,” says POST Director Erik Bourgerie. “When individual peace officers violate this trust, it damages that relationship for everyone in the profession. It is essential that we hold these persons accountable and ensure they will no longer serve in Colorado as certified peace officers.”
Powell also noted, “Toward the end of the interview Deputy Smith began to cry and become emotional. During this time, he would make statements relating his regret for his poor decisions, failing Bureau Chief Northam, Sergeant Ayyad.”