By J. David McSwane
While the sudden suspension of CSU Police Chief Dexter Yarbrough last month came as another shocking challenge facing a transitioning administration, several campus officers say his absence comes as a breath of fresh air to the department — putting what several independent sources called his “reign of terror” on hiatus.
Listing numerous accusations of improprieties ranging from falsifying police documents, to mandating the special treatment of student athletes, to teaching students illegal police tactics, several timid police officers say the President’s Office had plenty of alarming evidence to take action long ago but turned a blind eye to a handful of alleged abuses of power.
Barred by state personnel law, the university hasn’t released any information about Yarbrough’s paid administrative leave and an ongoing investigation headed by Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
But evidence delivered to top administration and later obtained by the Collegian shows CSU kept many of the chief’s questionable dealings quiet for years.
Despite a consistent flow of complaints of harassment, fraud and threatening behavior to the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity (OEOD) and to former CSU President Larry Penley, Yarbrough was promoted last year to vice president of public safety in addition to being chief of police.
He was handsomely rewarded with a $156,000-a-year salary, easily making him the highest paid law enforcement officer in the state.
Both the university and sources close to the investigation confirmed that the inquiry stemmed from “fresh” complaints from within CSUPD.
However, Yarbrough’s history of alleged misbehavior and questionable treatment of officers and students called him to answer to OEOD and the district attorney throughout his tenure.
Crack, sex and violence
Audio recordings of his class lecture turned into OEOD and Penley last year demonstrate what many allege and describe as the chief’s rogue and potentially illegal police tactics.
In one classroom lecture in spring 2008, Yarbrough advised his students — including many aspiring police officers — to provide illicit drugs to informants as payment for information.
“We may decide to give the informant 10 of those (crack cocaine) rocks. OK,” Yarbrough said to his criminal investigations class, for which he is additionally compensated as an adjunct instructor.
In the recording, one student sought clarification on the chief’s advice, saying:
“So if a police officer gives an informant 10 rocks of crack, and they end up in the hospital, are they responsible for it at that point? â€¦ Because I could just say the police gave it to me?”
To the student’s question, Yarbrough responded:
“Let me tell you what I would do: You give it to them, but you let them know that, hey, if you get caught with this, you know, don’t say my name. Or if they get sick or something, I never gave them those (drugs).
“Didn’t I tell you guys that sometimes the police lie? Didn’t I tell you guys that? If I didn’t, there you go.”
In another recording, Yarbrough alluded that sometimes police should cut corners because “if you want the police to play fair, the police can play fair. OK. But watch out when you go out at night, and watch your crime rates go up. The police can play fair. Do you really want the police to do that?”
In a later lecture, the chief, who was a Chicago policeman prior to entering academia, said sometimes excessive and violent force against a suspect is a “reality of law enforcement.”
“If there’s a news conference going on, I can’t get in front of a crowd and say. ‘He got exactly what the f*** he deserved.’ You know the police should have beat him, you know. I used to beat ass when I was in Chicago, too. I can’t say that.
“I’d have to say, ‘Well, you know we’re going to have to look into this matter seriously â€¦ all of our officers, we like to think that they operate with the utmost integrity and ethics â€¦ All of that sh** sounds good. That sh** sounds real good, but in the back of my mind, damn. He got popped. If he would have done it the way we used to do it in Chi town (Chicago), man, none of this sh** would have happened.”
Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson says providing drugs to informants is never acceptable, regardless of the outcome for a police investigation.
“I would certainly look at it in this jurisdiction very suspiciously,” Abrahamson said. “There is no legal defense for that transaction, and I know that our local law enforcement does not condone that sort of activity.”
The tapes were recorded by Aaron Gropp, a 38-year-old graduate student and former Larimer County Sheriff’s deputy. Gropp said he began recording lectures after what he called “asinine” and “wrong” statements from Yarbrough, including what he thought to be sexual harassment and possible admission of criminal culpability.
“He constantly said things that were illegal,” Gropp said. “â€¦ I was flabbergasted. He just completely dissolved and undermined the credibility of every officer at CSU.”
The lecture that inspired him to gather recordings, Gropp said, was one in which he says Yarbrough told the class “women want the dick, even when they say ‘no.’ They want the dick.”
“In my book he just kind of condoned rape,” Gropp said. “I was just floored â€¦ that was when I decided to start recording things and file a complaint.”
Gropp brought his collection of recorded lectures along with complaints from other students in the class to OEOD, but no public action was taken against Yarbrough.
The university, Gropp said, gave him “the run around,” and he stopped attending class after Yarbrough was informed of the inquiry, which the university closed in the fall.
The university has offered Gropp an alternative assignment to complete the course.
Citing a personnel investigation in cooperation with the CBI, CSU officials haven’t provided details as to why the chief was suspended indefinitely Dec. 19 and escorted out of his department while students were away on break.
A top university spokesperson confirmed that the current investigation is not related to the student’s tapes or other previous allegations.
“All of the findings and results, including any potential actions taken by the previous university administration in response to the findings of that investigation, are closed per state statute,” said spokesman Brad Bohlander in an e-mail.
Dissension in the ranks
Officers interviewed credited the chief for robustly increasing the department’s budget, allowing for much-needed equipment like new cruisers and rifles but said they weren’t surprised by Yarbrough’s in-class comments.
“He says things in that class that ex-cons don’t even write about,” said one officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid potential backlash from Yarbrough and CSU. “Yarbrough made us look bad. The reason no one came forward was Yarbrough would punish you — visibly.”
Since his arrival in September 2003, Yarbrough quickly established a culture of oppression, fear and intimidation within his ranks and drove out anyone who challenged him, sources said.
Lt. Karl Swenson, a campus bomb expert and former CSUPD officer, was one of those people who crossed the chief.
When Yarbrough’s police cruiser sustained damage to its front end in March of 2005, he asked Swenson and another officer, Sgt. Edward Bozic, to file a report as a hit and run, police reports and e-mails indicate.
But upon inspection of the damage, Swenson, a trained accident reconstructionist for the department, determined that the damage was consistent with the operator of the vehicle hitting a curb or rock — a structure very similar to a scuffed rock just outside Clark A where Yarbrough parked to teach his class.
After looking into the matter, Swenson wrote his police report — that Yarbrough had hit something and was not the victim of a hit and run — and approached the chief about the incident, but the chief told him not to investigate any further.
Yarbrough then ordered Bozic to write a separate report, which was filed in lieu of Swenson’s report, sources say.
“The chief ordered Bozic to change it until it fit,” one officer said. “That screams of corruption. We don’t even have internal investigations â€¦ in those incidents, (Yarbrough) had so much power over his subordinates â€¦ he could do whatever he wanted, and the President’s Office wouldn’t listen, and the vice president wouldn’t listen.”
But Swenson kept a copy of the original report and took it along with a summation, photos and an e-mail exchange to DA Abrahamson’s office, where it was swiftly evaluated and thrown out.
“We reviewed the report, looked at it and determined at that time that it wasn’t something that was necessarily criminal in nature,” Abrahamson said. “I know Karl was concerned that we look at it. There were allegations that the report was falsified.”
Sources say Yarbrough then systematically drove Swenson out of the department by eliminating his duties and, at one point, attempting to turn his office into a storage closet before ultimately banning him from the building.
“He’s run off damn near everybody who was in the organization when he arrived,” said another officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In another instance, an officer making a routine arrest from a bank of active warrants was publicly reprimanded for arresting a student athlete without first discussing it with the chief, sources said. The chief took over the investigation and changed policy to provide special treatment for student athletes.
After the incident, officers pursuing warrants must first call dispatch to ask if the student’s name is listed on the roster, which Yarbrough ordered to be kept in dispatch, sources say.
Bohlander said CSU in no way condones the special treatment of student athletes and declined further comment on the allegations.
In a separate issue, an officer who filed a complaint with the university against CSUPD received a settlement and was relocated to another department, according to a seven-page settlement obtained through Colorado’s open records laws.
Cpl. Veronica Olivas agreed to a settlement in January of 2008 to not pursue legal action against CSU and, specifically, Assistant Chief Frank Johnson. Olivas signed a confidentiality agreement, barring Johnson and her from commenting on the issue. Olivas relocated to Housing, where the university agreed to pay her a salary of $66,000.
‘The wicked witch is dead’
In addition to the five or so complaints to the university, sources said, Yarbrough routinely exercised autonomous and discomforting rule of the flow of information to the media and commandeered CSUPD facilities.
By the time of his suspension, the chief utilized three separate offices, two of which were the former resources library — filled with criminal procedure and law books — and the conference room.
Yarbrough’s eventual acquisition of the conference room was never justified to the staff and left officers with only holding cells and interrogations rooms to interview victims of crime, sources said.
“The sun rose on the police department that was free from intimidation, manipulation and corruption,” one officer said of the news that Yarbrough was suspended. “This isn’t an agency that does this — it’s a man.”
Another officer, weeks prior to the announcement of Yarbrough’s suspension told the Collegian, “I feel like I’m working for a criminal. People are afraid. What he is and what the officers are is two different things.”
Once using phrases like “reign of terror” and “juvenile” to describe the CSUPD work environment, that officer now says, “The wicked witch is dead.”
An officer close to the current investigation says of the complaints being reviewed:
“Everything that led up to his suspension was done quietly, secretly and in about the course of four to six weeks. All the new information was enough to get him suspended.”
University officials say CBI’s involvement in the investigation reflects a desire to have an objective look into the personnel complaints, but the officer also said the school requested the bureau’s assistance when it was clear that the “possibility of criminal culpability was there.”
The investigation committee, which includes OEOD Director Dana Hiatt, delivered an official copy of complaints to Yarbrough Monday, officers questioned by the committee said.
Interim President Tony Frank, who suspended Yarbrough after only a short time at the CSU helm, has promised a speedy investigation but declined further comment, citing an ongoing personnel investigation.
A report in the Maroon, the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, indicated that Yarbrough might have applied for a similar post there. The article has since been removed from the paper’s Web site. Reporters there have not returned calls from the Collegian.
Yarbrough did not return calls and e-mails from the Collegian over three weeks time.
Bozic and Penley did not return calls made by the Collegian.
This story originally printed in The Rocky Mountain Collegian on Jan. 20, 2009.