Town board to seek outside counsel to review Larimer Sheriff’s Office
In a lengthy meeting Tuesday night of the Berthoud Board of Trustees, once again held virtually via Zoom conference, the board was able to reach something of a compromise on continuing issues pertaining to the actions of the Larimer County Sheriffs Office (LCSO) at last summer’s Back the Blue and Black Lives Matter Rallies held in Fickel Park and areas adjacent on July 26 and Aug. 1, respectively.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith and Captain Joe Shellhammer were available for questions from the board as the pair presented the findings from an internal report as ordered by the board in the Sept. 22, 2020 meeting regarding the LCSO’s actions the two rallies.
At the board meeting on Sept. 22, the trustees voted 6-1, after much debate and lengthy input from the public, to request the LCSO to conduct an internal review of the policies and procedures employed at the rallies where several residents, including town trustees, reported uncivil and uncouth behavior.
The report provided by the LCSO was lengthy and detailed and can be found on the Surveyor’s website at https://berthoudsurveyor.com/lcso-presents-town-with-review-of-actions-during-rallies-last-summer/.
The executive summary concluded, “At both events, citizens were observed open carrying firearms, but no threatening behavior was observed. Over the course of the two events, deputies did witness behavior that was course (sic) and disrespectful, however, constitutional protections of that speech during such events generally restrains deputies from acting in those cases. Other than creating physical barriers between opposing groups, sheriff’s deputies did not employ any use of force as a crowd control measure during either event.”
Smith stated that while he believed the behavior exhibited by some at the rallies, “were below the community standard … we saw bad behavior by both sides,” and pointed to an example of a counter-protester at the Back the Blue rally using an umbrella in an attempt to spook a police horse, “No arrests were made, no summons issued … and (we were) doing our best to let people voice their opinions in a lawful manner.”
Mayor Pro Tem Maureen Dower, one of the leading proponents on the board of requiring the LCSO to conduct the investigation, questioned Smith and Shellhammer on reports of rally attendees open carrying firearms on or in the vicinity of Turner Middle School. Smith stated that no direct action was taken as the intent of law (which prohibits firearms on public school property) is to protect children in school, which was not the case on a Sunday in July.
Smith further stated that representatives of the Thompson School District also understand the law’s intent and were supportive of the LCSO’s actions in question, endorsing the LCSO’s claims that their actions were to keep competing groups separated during heated moments of the rally.
Trustee Jeff Hindman was even more pointed than Dower in his questioning of Smith and Shellhammer. Hindman asked why he was not contacted by the LCSO during their investigation, stating he had been publicly vocal in reporting claims of verbal harassment during his attendance at the Black Lives Matter rally. Hindman further stated that, “All of the BLM people were very careful to not do anything to cause an escalation.” Hindman claimed a member of the LCSO posse who assisted in patrolling a rally had an “extreme right-wing Facebook post,” to which Smith said he did not want to get into discussions of left/right politics.
Trustee May Soricelli provided a passionate defense of the LCSO, saying, “I know I am not going to be popular with some board members, but I represent a large portion of the community in commending you. This is not a trial, we are privileged to have the sheriff’s office in Berthoud, we have allowed an isolated issue to create contention on the board and in the community. Everybody went home safe, you did you job.”
Following public comment, which featured calls from those both supportive and critical of the LCSO’s actions during the rallies, Hindman continued to express his displeasure with the report provided, calling it “incomplete and lacking,” and saying, “I find it shocking that three board members and one ex-trustee who had concerns and we weren’t contacted and we’re credible sources,” to which Mayor Wil Karspeck stated that he spoke with the LCSO regarding what he witnessed during his attendance at the Black Lives Matter rally.
The subject of contracting with Edwards and Amato, an Arizona-based law firm which the board earlier considered, and ultimately rejected, to conduct an external investigation of the LCSO was raised. Soricelli said that, should such a course of action be taken, the board should remove itself entirely from taking part in the process, which supporters chose to call a “review” rather than an “investigation.”
Soricelli argued that the board should turn the matter over, in full, to the Amato law firm, Town Administrator Chris Kirk and his staff, Berthoud patrol Sergeant Jim Anderson and other representatives of the LCSO, including Smith. This route was agreed upon and endorsed by Trustees Mike Grace and Lonnie Stevens, both of whom have consistently taken measured approaches to the entire issue surrounding the LCSO. Grace said the move would be, “in the best interest of the community and unity.” Smith also endorsed the idea and it was decided details will be ironed out soon.
The board also gave a unanimous endorsement to Kirk for his work as Town Administrator. Board members were very complimentary of Kirk’s job performance in all aspects of his role and approved a small salary increase to $178,500 annually.
The next meeting of the town board will take place on Feb. 23.
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