DENVER (AP) – A small town in southeastern Colorado removed its police chief after he was accused of unprofessional behavior and paid $50,000 to settle claims that one of its officers acted inappropriately toward a 15-year-old girl, The Colorado Sun learned through open records requests.
Then this summer, about a month after the settlement was reached, the Springfield Police Department hired an officer who had been fired from a previous law enforcement job for a host of alleged transgressions, including making inappropriate statements toward a woman and violating the department’s policies on chasing vehicles.
Springfield officials, including Police Chief Katrina Martin and Town Manager Rebecca Clark, would not answer any questions about the department, even refusing to say how many officers are on the roster. They also declined several interview requests from The Sun made over several months.
But in a statement earlier this summer, Clark said the police chief and the officer accused of acting inappropriately toward the girl no longer work for Springfield and therefore “have no bearing on the town’s operations.”
Members of Springfield’s board of trustees contacted by The Sun also declined to comment when asked about the police department, which appears to have fewer than five officers.
Small law enforcement departments on Colorado’s Eastern Plains have long struggled to attract and retain experienced officers.
Police in small towns often leave for jobs on the Front Range with better pay. And Springfield is not alone in facing problems within the ranks of their rural department. In recent years, allegations – including some criminal – have been leveled at officers in tiny police departments and sheriff’s offices in Rocky Ford, La Junta, Washington County and Sedgwick County.
Despite the silence from leaders in Springfield, The Sun was able to use multiple open-records requests to piece together when and why the accusations were made against the town’s former chief and the ex-officer and how the claims were resolved. Springfield is a town of about 1,500 people located on U.S. 287 near the Oklahoma and New Mexico borders.
Text message allegationsIn June 2018, an attorney for the family of a teenage girl notified the town that they intended to sue over “stalking, harassing, threatening and intimidation” by then-Officer Cody Phillips.
The notice also alleged that the police department failed to properly address the incidents and that there was widespread wrongdoing within the agency.
In the family’s notice, they claimed that starting in July 2017, when the girl was 15, Phillips began sending her inappropriate messages, seeking personal information about her – including her relationship status – “calling her inappropriate names and sending her photographs and music.”
The girl told her mother the messages were making her uncomfortable. The family eventually complained to the city, even going before the town’s council to voice their concerns, according to the notice and records of town meetings.
“Phillips’ conduct is entirely inappropriate for any adult, much less a police officer in whom the community should be able to place their trust, especially with its children,” the notice said. “That trust has been violated.”
Phillips resigned on May 31, 2018. He had been on the force for two years. In a resignation letter that he posted on Facebook, he said he was leaving Springfield because of health issues stemming from the job and “for many other reasons.”
The Sun verified the authenticity of the resignation letter through an open-records request.
The town denied wrongdoing in the $50,000 settlement, which was to remain confidential but was released to The Sun after an open-records inquiry.
The Colorado Sun is not naming the girl because she is a juvenile victim. Phillips did not respond to a message seeking comment
Chief Martin declined to release a report on an internal affairs investigation of Phillips or the disciplinary record the town has on him, citing the fact that juveniles were involved and that the investigation included witness interviews that were sexually explicit.
“The public has a strong interest in preserving a governmental entity’s ability to evaluate and discipline its employees,” Martin wrote to The Sun. “Release of information of a personal nature can harm that interest, especially if it causes future witnesses to be less forthcoming when discussing an employee’s conduct on a sensitive subject. Moreover, given that Cody Phillips is no longer an employee of the town, I think the public interest is lessened.”
In March 2018, about three months before the teenager’s notice of intent to sue was filed, Clark, the town manager, sent a scathing memo to then-police Chief Dennis Bradburn. The town trustees had placed Bradburn on administrative leave in January 2018.
The memo said complaints by three citizens about Bradburn’s conduct had been evaluated by an independent investigator who determined that “you did not exercise appropriate courtesy, tact and restraint at all times.”
“Unfortunately, these recent complaints are not the first time during your tenure as chief of police that there have been complaints from citizens regarding your conduct nor is this investigation the first time that it was found that you did not handle a given matter in a particularly professional manner,” the memo said. “. Moreover, the Town Board has firsthand witnessed you engage in conduct which is not professional.”
Bradburn was chief in August 2017, when the teenager’s family first complained to Springfield’s mayor about Phillips’ behavior, according to the notice filed by the girl’s lawyer.
The memo said that the trustees had agreed to give Bradburn one more chance under the condition that “your aggressive and confrontational demeanor must cease” and “you are to fully investigate any complaint you receive regarding police department staff.”
Finally, the memo warned Bradburn that “you need to actively work to improve relationships with the citizens and other town staff.”
A month later, on April 25, 2018, the town sent Bradburn a letter saying that he had not been reappointed as chief and that his employment with the Springfield Police Department was over.
Court records show that the family of the girl who accused Phillips of wrongdoing asked for a temporary restraining order against Bradburn, which a spokesman for Colorado’s court system says was granted by a Baca County judge on April 23, 2018.
On April 30, 2018, however, the family requested that the order be lifted, saying that it might hinder Bradburn’s ability to get a job elsewhere.
“Mr. Bradburn has regained good judgment as there have been no other problems or incidents since he was served with the temporary restraining order,” the girl’s mother wrote to the court.
The hiring of a new officerIn March, Springfield announced it had settled on a pair of finalists for the vacant chief of police position. Katrina Martin, who was then a Springfield police officer, got the job.
In May, Troy Morgan applied for an open officer position. In his application, he noted that Martin told him about the opening. Morgan was one of just four people who applied to the Springfield Police Department between October 2018 and mid-July, according to records obtained by The Sun.
On his application, Morgan listed his previous employment as a police officer in Fowler, a small Colorado town between Pueblo and LaJunta. On the “reason for leaving” section, he wrote “fired-retaliation.”
Morgan had been fired from the Fowler Police Department in October 2018, eight months after he was hired, according to a termination letter obtained through an open records request. The letter included five pages of complaints against Morgan.
Then-Fowler Police Chief Jacob Friedenberger wrote that “since you were hired I have counseled you many times.”
The complaints included claims he behaved inappropriately toward at least one woman, one time telling a restaurant worker: “I could put my hands around your waist and almost touch my fingers together.” In another incident, Morgan allegedly told the woman he saw her run a stop sign and then said that she “owes him one,” according to the letter.
Friedenberger also said Morgan exhibited aggressive behavior that violated department policy during multiple vehicle pursuits, including chasing a vehicle that was driving the wrong way down a highway. Finally, Morgan allegedly had problems with issuing citations, keeping a prisoner secured and completing a field training officer packet.
“In your short tenure with the Fowler Police Department, you have continued to demonstrate that you are either unwilling to learn or abide by the policies of the department,” Friedenberger wrote. “You have refused to follow my instructions on numerous occasions and fail to perform tasks at an acceptable level.”
Morgan was then hired as an officer in nearby Rocky Ford, but was forced to resign soon after when it came to light that authorities there had not reviewed his records from Fowler under a 2016 state law requiring them to look into a prospective officer’s employment history, The Denver Post reported.
(Morgan did not list this short stint in Rocky Ford on his application for the job in Springfield.)
Martin did ask Fowler for, and receive, Morgan’s employment records, according to an email obtained by The Sun.
On Wednesday, someone who answered the phone at the Springfield Police Department said that Morgan no longer worked there. The Sun sought interviews with Martin and Clark, but neither returned a message.
The Sun has filed an open records request seeking any documents ending Morgan’s employment with the town.
Morgan did not respond to messages seeking comment left for him with the Springfield Police Department over several days earlier this month.
Information from: The Colorado Sun, http://coloradosun.com