Rocky Ford, catalyst for overhaul to Colorado law on police hiring, fails to follow new rules
The town of Rocky Ford, which became a catalyst two years ago for overhauling Colorado’s laws on police hiring after one of its officers fatally shot an unarmed man in the back, reversed the hiring of a new officer this week amid concerns it violated the new law.
Police Chief Mickey Bethel said his department failed to adhere to the new law’s requirements. Bethel said that before making the recent hire he did not review the officer’s personnel records at a police agency that had fired the officer. The 2016 overhaul to state law on police hiring made such reviews of previous employment records a strict requirement for all police agencies.
“We didn’t have the information about him like we should have,” Bethel said. “I brought him on. Ultimately, it is on my shoulders.”
Bethel pledged two years ago to improve his department after controversy over Rocky Ford’s hiring of former police Officer James Ashby, convicted of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Jack Jacquez.
Bethel said he will conduct a review to determine if other hiring mistakes have been made.
A more careful pre-employment screening would have revealed Troy Morgan, hired in June to conduct police patrols, was fired in March from the Fowler Police Department after eight months on the job for safety violations, allegedly sexually harassing women, incorrect paperwork and unsafe control of a prisoner.
Morgan told one woman in Fowler “she owes him one” after he let her go without citing her for failing to stop at a stop sign, according to his termination letter. A waitress also said he inappropriately talked about how slender she was while almost placing his hands on her hips. Morgan also ignored the Fowler department’s protocols and pursued a man driving a stolen vehicle on the wrong side of a highway, endangering other drivers, the termination letter states.
“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,” Fowler Police Chief Jacob Freidenberger wrote in the letter to Morgan informing him of his firing.
Bethel forced Morgan to resign Monday, within weeks of his hiring. Bethel said he knew Morgan had been fired in Fowler, but Morgan said during his interview that he had been unfairly retaliated against. Bethel said he decided to get a copy of Morgan’s termination letter from Fowler police after The Denver Post began probing. He said he found issues Morgan couldn’t clear up.
Bethel said he hired Morgan in part because he had worked before on the Rocky Ford police force. Morgan worked there from 2015 to 2017 before resigning.
Employment records show that during his previous tenure in Rocky Ford, Morgan accrued about a dozen policy violations for failing to use his body camera, pointing his service revolver at a citizen without justification, failing to show up for a trial where he was a witness and for a pattern of failing to complete his police reports on time. One of his fellow officers in Rocky Ford, complained to supervisors in 2017, “How long is it going to be before he gets one of us killed?” employment records show.
In 2016, while working at Rocky Ford, Morgan ignored a dispatcher’s urgent calls trying to deploy him to assist a man who had taken pills in a suicide attempt. He wasn’t available because he had left his post to get a haircut, he explained to the dispatcher, his personnel file shows.
He also endangered himself and his wife in January 2017 when he confronted a man he thought was tailgating him in his personal car while he was off-duty, his supervisors in Rocky Ford back then found. He told supervisors he decided to follow the man and pull up behind him when he stopped. The supervisors warned him the situation could have turned hostile fast, and that he had been “counseled about this behavior before.” They told him he should have let on-duty officers handle the situation.
Morgan also was fired from a job he held with a security agency, he noted on an application to work at Rocky Ford. He contends that firing and the firing in Fowler were inappropriate, according to personnel records obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
Bethel, the chief in Rocky Ford, had promised back in 2016 that he and other Rocky Ford officials were cleaning up the Rocky Ford police force when The Denver Post highlighted it as a persistent destination for what critics derisively call “second-chance officers.”
That report, which also focused on the hiring of Ashby, convinced legislators and Gov. John Hickenlooper to change state law in 2016 to make it harder for officers to shuttle back and forth across police agencies with past transgressions that would bar them from working as police officers in other states. The push for the law came in part due to revelations that the former Rocky Ford police chief, Frank Gallegos, hired Ashby without ever checking Ashby’s employment records at the Walsenburg Police Department, where the officer faced complaints of excessive force and belligerence.
Ashby was sentenced to 16 years in prison for killing Jacquez.
Investigators say Ashby followed Jacquez, 27, into the home of Jacquez’s mother in the early-morning hours and shot him in the back. Ashby told investigators he thought Jacquez was a burglar, court records show, but officials say he had no reason to believe Jacquez was committing a crime.
Jacquez’s mother, Viola, told The Denver Post that Ashby opened fire on her son inches from her face. Rocky Ford agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the Jacquez family.
The 2016 change in state law requires applicants for police jobs to sign a waiver allowing hiring agencies to access their personnel records from other agencies. The new law also requires hiring agencies to use the waiver to obtain any previous police department’s personnel records at least 21 days before a hiring decision.
Morgan signed such a waiver when applying at Rocky Ford, but background investigators failed to forward the waiver over to the Fowler Police Department to access Morgan’s personnel files, Bethel said. Bethel that he will have two employees that conduct pre-employment background investigations undergo new training after they told him they weren’t familiar with the change in state law.
“We certainly want to do it right in the future,” Bethel said.