After six months, Cheyenne Police Department civilian review board members have gained insight, seek improvements

CHEYENNE – Roughly six months ago, the Cheyenne Police Department took the relatively uncommon step of not only forming a board that would review instances where officers used force, but adding three civilian members to it.

Two of the civilian members are largely satisfied with the board so far; they suggested some improvements, while remaining impressed with the department’s attempt at transparency and confidence in its policies. A third member believes the scope of the board does not go far enough, suggesting its oversight be expanded to officer conduct in other contacts with the public.

Board Chairman Capt. Jared Keslar said “it’s been a learning curve” in gaining an understanding of how the civilian members view use-of-force incidents, but “we have a lot of good communication on why we do what we do, and I think that helps both of us being able to see both sides of the perspective,” he said.

The board met for the first time Nov. 5 to review incidents from October and has since met monthly. It has reviewed 25 instances of use of force, averaging about five cases per month, CPD spokesperson Alex Farkas said.

CPD introduced the three civilian members of its new use-of-force review board – Stephen Latham, Mike Solis and Melvin Turner Jr. – at a November press conference.

According to law enforcement officials, it was the first agency in Wyoming to include citizens on a use-of-force review board.

Latham, Solis and Turner serve on the board as volunteers and were chosen for a four-year period alongside department members Keslar, Officer Greg Hutchinson and use-of-force coordinator Sgt. James Peterson. Hutchinson was selected by fellow officers to serve on the board. Meetings may also include an expert, such as a firearm instructor or a video expert, to help answer technical questions.

Board members review all use-of-force incidents classified at level two, described as any instance in which people are injured or say they are injured, including any use of a Taser or K-9; or level three, any instance that could result in serious injury or death.

In November, former Police Chief Brian Kozak estimated the department sees “no more than 25” level two or three incidents per year, with level threes being “very rare.”

The board also reviews 10 percent of level one incidents, which are randomly chosen by civilian members. A level one use-of-force incident causes only temporary pain, disorientation or discomfort, such as the use of pepper spray or pointing – but not using – a weapon.

After reviewing each use-of-force instance and taking a vote, the board offers one of several recommendations: that the force used was within policy, and the board should take no further action; that the force was within policy, and the officer should be commended; that the use of force was “outside of policy,” and the officer should have remedial training; that the use of force was “outside of policy,” and the department should conduct an internal investigation; that there was a policy failure, and the department should re-evaluate policy; or that the use of force appeared to be a criminal violation, and the department should conduct a criminal investigation.

At each meeting, votes are cast by three members: the civilian representative for the month, the officer selected by their peers to serve on the board, and Peterson. Keslar fills in if one of the three are not present at a meeting.

All board members interviewed by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle said each reviewed use-of-force incident has fallen into the first two categories: within policy, or both within policy and commendable.

General statistics related to the review of use-of-force occurrences, without reference to specific incidents, can be released to the public, Keslar said.

CPD officers used force in 234 of 72,468 total calls, or 0.32 percent of the time, according to the department’s annual report from 2019. A use-of-force incident is defined in the report as anything “beyond standard handcuffing.”

In their first in-person meeting, board member Latham said he told new Police Chief Mark Francisco, who was sworn in March 29, that the board should review a broader spectrum of incidents.

“I said, ‘This is good, but it doesn’t encompass enough,’” Latham said.

Latham is a pastor, the president of Cheyenne’s NAACP chapter and the president of the Wyoming Independent Citizens Coalition, which aims to advocate for underrepresented and underserved people in the state.

Latham said the board is doing its job, but with Cheyenne’s very low rate of use-of-force incidents, he believes the job it’s doing isn’t the full picture; police officers should also be assessed on how they treat people of color in even minor interactions.

He referenced a video he said he showed former Chief Kozak, in which footage of officers’ interactions with white people were juxtaposed with their interactions with people of color. While the officers addressed white people with honorifics such as “sir” or “ma’am,” they tended to address people of color with terms like “bro.”

“I’ve said it several times when we’ve been looking at these body cam videos: yeah, the use of force may have been OK, but the way the people were treated was not, and we don’t address it. I’ve said that, and they say, ‘Well, that’s not what we’re here for,’” Latham said. “Well, absolutely we’re not, so we’re not really getting to the root of the problem. ... It’s still good, but it can always get better.”

Latham said he plans to continue pushing for an expansion of the board’s responsibilities, and he said he hopes to sit down with Chief Francisco in the next few weeks to discuss potential changes.

Despite his criticism of the board, Latham said he still believes CPD officers are “trying to do what is right and not have their officers do things that are wrong.”

But without expanded oversight, he questions the purpose of the board and if he’ll continue to serve as a member.

“If we don’t do more than just the use of force, I don’t see what good the board is going to be,” Latham said.

The other two civilian members, Solis and Turner, remarked on how the board had been a learning experience so far, both for the civilian members and the police officers.

Solis, who comes from a corporate background, said being on the board has given him insight into how police officers do their jobs, and into the inner workings of CPD, specifically.

“It was a pleasant surprise to see the educational background of the leadership and the department, and the training that they themselves have been through and that they train their other officers (in) – it’s far more than I expected,” he said. “I mean, there’s really some very intellectual minds leading this department, and I would have never expected that.”

There have even been some incidents, Solis said, that he found commendable: for example, an instance where an officer took time to counsel someone involved in a domestic disturbance about services they could receive.

Like Latham, though, Solis and Turner both had suggestions for the board’s leaders.

Solis suggested having civilian members write quarterly assessment reports, and potentially rebalancing the board by allowing more than one civilian to vote per month.

The three civilian members receive the reports of the incidents they will review ahead of time, and later watch body camera footage during the in-person meeting. At the beginning, Solis said, the reports were often hard to decipher, and when compared to the footage, some seemed to leave things out – even details that may have made an officer look good.

After the civilian members brought this up to officers, it was quickly remedied, Solis said.

Turner, a VA Healthcare System administrator and 21-year U.S. Air Force veteran, said it stuck out to all three civilian members that police officers, who are typically not trained mental health professionals, so often have to respond to mental health crises.

“What we kind of noticed was that police officers are put into something that really doesn’t fall into their job jar, and that puts several different people at risk,” Turner said. “It’s saddening that we don’t have mental health officials that could work in tandem with the police that would be able to deal with that family’s or that resident’s issues.”

It’s not necessarily a critique of CPD in particular, he said, but an area where policing in general could improve.

Solis echoed Turner’s sentiment.

“It’s difficult watching officers handle situations in which I would say is above their pay grade – situations in which they are the only ones who can respond, incidents in which officers must resolve problems between parents and children where officers act as counselor to parents/guardians as they work through very difficult situations,” Solis said in an email after an initial interview.

Keslar said all officers are trained in “mental health first aid,” which he described as being able to recognize the type of crisis someone is in and be able to interact with them. Officers are also encouraged to attend critical intervention training, which provides more in-depth training for responding to mental health crises. About half of CPD officers have received CIT, while the national average is around 20-25 percent, Keslar said.

Last year, the department also began participating in Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, a program that allows police officers to refer those with behavioral health or substance abuse issues to a case manager, instead of arresting them for misdemeanor, nonviolent offenses.

In a more personal sense, Solis also brought up things that have been difficult to witness when viewing body camera footage, especially incidents involving children, or seeing the effects of methamphetamine on its users and the sorts of crime it can encourage.

Solis and Turner said that even when they asked tough questions of the officers, they felt the dialogue was open, and officers seemed to take the civilian members’ concerns and points of view seriously.

“I think accountability is good, and I think it’s important for people to understand that this was something that the department did to themselves: they brought civilians in,” Solis said. “What I’ve realized is that there’s a confidence in this department that their practices are above board enough that they can open the books and they can show people.”