Boulder City Council members said Tuesday night they have confidence in the police department's ability to conduct a thorough investigation into the possibility of officer misconduct in the Jan. 1 shooting of an elk on Mapleton Hill.
But Councilman Macon Cowles said the possible cooperation of officers in violating department policy raises questions about the department culture.
"It suggests an agreement at least to be silent about something that upsets everyone else in this room," Cowles said. "Are there corners of the department that are acting on their own, outside of the authority of the department?"
Police Chief Mark Beckner told the council that lying and committing criminal acts will not be tolerated.
"We do not tolerate deception or untruthfulness," Beckner said. "You ask any employee in the Boulder Police Department, 'Will telling a lie get you fired from this department?' and the answer will be 'yes.'"
Beckner said the internal investigation could take one to two months.
According to officials, a Boulder police officer was on patrol near Mapleton Avenue and Ninth Street at around 11 p.m. Jan. 1 when he encountered an elk which, the officer said, was injured. The officer deemed it needed to be put down and killed the elk with a shotgun, then called an off-duty police officer to come pick up the carcass.
The on-duty officer did not tell dispatchers he was putting down the elk, nor did he report to his supervisors that he had fired his weapon.
Neighbors told the Camera the officer told them he might kill the animal because it was aggressive and not to be alarmed if they heard a gunshot.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has seized the elk's carcass for testing and is conducting an investigation into whether the officers, identified as Sam Carter and Brent Curnow, violated any criminal statutes, including laws against poaching and official misconduct.
City Council members said Tuesday night they shared the distress of the community at the shooting of the elk, with Councilman Tim Plass recounting seeing the elk walking alone up a snow-covered street at Christmastime.
"I think everyone is troubled by the incident and the loss of such a well-loved animal in our community," Councilwoman Suzanne Jones said.
Myriah Conroy, a member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said Boulder should create a police oversight committee that meets publicly and has members appointed by the City Council. The internal affairs review panel has civilian members, but they are selected by the police department and city manager, and the board meets privately.
"It's about building the trust, the transparency, the accountability with the community," Conroy said.
The Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, of which Conroy used to be a board member, has advocated for this change for years.
Beckner said he takes the possibility of officer misconduct very seriously, but the internal investigation needs to come after the criminal investigation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
"We don't want to do anything that is going to step on that criminal investigation and hinder it in any way," Beckner told the council. "That's the priority."
He said the Boulder Police Department has conducted criminal investigations into its own officers before, most notably when an officer on medical leave, Christian McCracken, was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. He faces trial later this year.
However, it's more appropriate for Parks and Wildlife officials to investigate this case because they have more experience with potential poaching cases, and their involvement suggests more independence in the investigation, Beckner said.
Beckner said the case is more complicated than if a private citizen had shot the elk within city limits and out of season because officers do have the authority to kill injured and aggressive animals. Investigators need to compare the officers' accounts with witness statements, the forensic evidence and the standard of "reasonable and necessary" police action.
The department also plans to do additional training on how to handle wildlife cases, though lack of training might not be an issue in this case, Beckner said.
The internal investigation differs from the criminal investigation in several important ways, Beckner said.
Suspects cannot be forced to talk to criminal investigators because of their Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate themselves. However, the police department can compel the officers to speak to internal affairs or face additional discipline.
The union contract also requires that officers facing discipline be able to see all the evidence against them, Beckner said. Criminal investigators, though, don't have to share evidence with suspects until much later in the court process.
Beckner said the Boulder Police Department is cooperating fully with Parks and Wildlife, but significant portions of the internal investigation will have to wait until a decision is made about criminal charges.
The police union may pay for legal representation for the officers out of union dues, Beckner said, but no public funds will be used to defend the officers if they are charged.