Basalt cop resigns after investigation
May 6, 2011
BASALT – A Basalt police officer resigned Wednesday after he was investigated for an alleged inappropriate use of force that was witnessed and reported by a Pitkin County deputy sheriff, Basalt Police Chief Roderick O’Connor said Thursday.
Basalt Police Officer Ryan Millbern’s actions during the arrest of a suspect in a domestic violence case on March 19 were investigated by the Colorado Department of Investigation (CBI). The 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office decided no criminal charges against Millbern would be filed, but O’Connor said he concluded after an internal review that Millbern acted inappropriately.
“We don’t want that kind of behavior from our police officers,” O’Connor said.
The police chief said Millbern “would not be working” for the department even if he hadn’t resigned. Millbern, a former Vail police officer, was hired Feb. 4 and was still in a probationary period.
Issues with Millbern’s conduct arose prior to the March 19 incident although they didn’t involve use of force, O’Connor said. Millbern’s conduct, in total, convinced O’Connor the officer didn’t fit with the department.
“This wasn’t the deal-breaker with him. There were some other things, too,” O’Connor said.
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The police chief said officers are expected to treat people with dignity and respect, regardless of the other person’s actions. Officers “must take the high road” even when it’s difficult.
Millbern violated that code “just in the way he handled the situation,” O’Connor said. Millbern couldn’t be reached for comment.
Millbern was placed on administrative leave during the CBI investigation, and he never returned to active duty.
O’Connor declined to elaborate on Millbern’s specific actions but said a complaint filed by Pitkin County Deputy Sheriff Levi Borst clearly defines the issue.
Borst was one of three Pitkin County deputies dispatched to an apartment in Holland Hills shortly after 10 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, for a report of a domestic assault in progress. A woman told an emergency dispatcher that she locked her boyfriend out of the residence after he became violent, but he was trying to regain entry in the house with a crowbar. She locked herself in a bathroom and called authorities on her cell phone.
The residence was in Pitkin County, but two Basalt police officers responded under mutual-aid agreements common between departments in the Roaring Fork Valley, particularly when acts of violence are involved.
The five law enforcement officials secured the safety of the victim and subdued the suspect, Nicholas Aldrich, who was allegedly intoxicated and belligerent during and after his arrest. He was handcuffed and placed in the front seat of a deputy’s patrol car.
“Aldrich was continually unbuckling his seat belt and opening the door to get out of the patrol car to argue and swear at officers,” Borst wrote in an incident report. “Aldrich was repeatedly escorted back to the car.”
The deputy’s report noted that Aldrich was barefoot and shirtless and that the road where the patrol car was parked was gravel. After one of Aldrich’s attempted departures from the patrol car, he was met by Millbern, according to Borst.
“I did not see the events leading up to this, but I heard a commotion at the back of the car,” Borst wrote. “I rounded the back passenger-side of [the other deputy’s] patrol car, I saw Millbern lunge out at Aldrich, take him by the throat, and hold Aldrich against [the] patrol car by the throat. I could not see if pressure was applied to the throat.
“Aldrich reacted unfavorably to this, and began to shout and thrash. This led to Millbern grounding Aldrich. [Two other deputies] were standing amidst the commotion, and it looked as though they held on so that Aldrich did not slam into the ground; placing him gently on the ground,” Borst’s statement continued.
“Aldrich then began to scream and yell even more,” the statement said. “While Aldrich was still on his back, I saw Millbern place his gloved hand over Aldrich’s mouth, and lightly slap/pat Aldrich on the face with the other hand. Millbern was telling Aldrich something about calming down, but from where I was I could not hear the words used.”
Borst said in his statement that he couldn’t be certain if the force used by Millbern was excessive. “From where I stood, a handcuffed, shirtless, barefoot, and heavily drunken suspect, standing on a rock gravel-laid roadway, did not pose a risk of flight to warrant the force used – to effect an arrest or prevent an escape,” Borst’s report said.
Borst’s initial incident report didn’t note the level of force used by Millbern. Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Borst met with him within 24 hours of filing the initial report and said he felt he needed to report Millbern’s behavior.
“I’m proud that Levi stood up,” DiSalvo said, noting that it isn’t easy to make an allegation against another law enforcement officer. “He had a hard time with it, he really did.”
Police officers who witness possible excessive uses of force by another officer must report the incident within 10 days or they could potentially be subject to criminal charges themselves and de-certified as a law enforcement officer, DiSalvo said.
After hearing Borst’s recollection of the events, DiSalvo said he agreed it had to be reported. “I said this really doesn’t sound like the behavior I want from police officers. Let’s investigate this,” he said.
The CBI was asked to investigate the incident to avoid having one law enforcement agency investigate another in the valley. CBI turned its report over to Pitkin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Arnold Mordkin, who declined to pursue a criminal charge.
If the action wasn’t criminal, it was inappropriate, DiSalvo said. “There was a better way to deal with this then grabbing the guy’s throat,” he said.
No complaint was ever made by Aldrich over excessive force. He was arrested for assault, criminal mischief and menacing for the domestic violence incident.
O’Connor said he felt Borst took appropriate action by reporting the incident. He and DiSalvo said independently there is no tension whatsoever between the departments over the incident.
The Millbern incident was the second time in 19 months that Basalt officers were accused of using excessive force. The agency investigated and cleared three officers in an internal review of a complaint by Basalt resident Ian Gray. He claimed officers used excessive force on him in August 2009 after he cursed them from a barstool while the officers conducted a “walk through” of a bar and restaurant.
Gray filed a civil lawsuit against the town and officers. It was settled in February but the results were kept confidential. No wrongdoing was acknowledged by the police department.
O’Connor said the cases are different in his view. He felt the officers’ actions in the Gray case were appropriate but Millbern’s actions were inappropriate.