Burris was put on leave and was investigated before exit from Silt PD | PostIndependent.com

Burris was put on leave and was investigated before exit from Silt PD

Alex Zorn

Silt Mayor Rick Aluise conducts a 2015 Rifle City Council meeting.
Colleen O’Neil / Post Independent |

Levy Burris, Silt’s police chief for 10 years who retired last month with no public announcement, had been on leave since September before reaching a “mutual agreement” with the town that it was time to move on.

He was placed on leave a week after Silt’s mayor formally accused Burris of “a campaign of harassment and abuse of police power,” but Burris said Wednesday the two were unrelated. He said he wasn’t free to disclose why he was placed on leave, but said “multiple issues” had come up.

Mayor Rick Aluise and his stepdaughter Melissa Steinbach made the allegations of harassment in a formal “notice of claim,” required as a precursor to a potential lawsuit against a government body, filed with the city Aug. 31.

The claim was among documents the Post Independent obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act.

Burris was put on paid leave with pay on Sept. 7 and an investigation was launched.

“Placing an employee on administrative leave is appropriate when a complaint of misconduct is of a serious nature, such as an allegation of retaliation,” Town Administrator Pamela Woods wrote in the letter suspending Burris. “You are not to discuss this matter with any other employee except me or the external investigator. Moreover, you are prohibited from taking any action which may be construed as retaliatory.”

The claim sought economic damages of $500,000 plus other damages “to be determined.” Aluise told the Post Independent the claim is not settled, nor has it evolved to a formal lawsuit. Aluise did not participate in subsequent Town Council discussions about Levy.

Aluise’s and Steinbach’s complaint, which notes that Aluise owns a liquor store and pizza restaurant in town, said Silt police officers frequently followed and stopped pizza delivery vehicles and interrogated drivers “about mundane subjects.”

“Chief Burris and other specific police officers under his command frequently surveil Aluise’s places of business at all hours in police vehicles, stopping and observing Rick Aluise and his employees for no stated reason or need.”

The employees, the complaint said, “believe that they are being treated the way they have been on order of Chief Burris. Several of the Silt police officers who made these stops on patrol have said as much, such as, ‘I’m just doing what I am told to do.’”

Steinbach, who is 19, “is in fear of being stalked by the police in Silt,” it said.

Burris, who took over as Silt police chief in June 2007 after being an officer with the Glenwood Springs Police Department and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, said Aluise’s allegations were “proven unfounded. I don’t operate that way.”

“We did a good job,” Burris said, noting that crime in town was low and resident complaints were low.

Burris said any traffic stops in town were done with good reason, and noted that Aluise’s complaint followed the mayor being charged with a crime.

In May, Aluise was charged with harassment over a dispute involving an employee of his business, Mama Costa’s, and the stepmother of the employee’s child. The charge stemmed from Aluise intervening in a custody dispute between the women in which, according to documents, he repeatedly called the woman’s employer and tried to threaten her job status.

Aluise told the PI he agreed to a diversion program that will erase the charge.

Aluise’s claim against Silt also implicates Woods.

“The Silt Town Administrator [Pamela Woods] refuses to take action, and is believed to be complicit in permitting the abuse of police and administrative power herself,” the report alleges.

Woods denied that.

“Contrary to the unfounded, self-serving allegations, I as the town administrator followed all personnel policy and procedures,” she told the PI on Wednesday.

Records provided to the Post Independent under the open records law do not provide a complete picture of events surrounding Burris’ departure.

The letter putting Burris on leave and other material included in the CORA response indicate an external investigation was conducted, which Burris confirmed, but the PI is yet to obtain a copy of the investigative results or a specific denial or the document from lawyers representing the town. Burris said the investigation was done for the town’s insurer, but lawyers handling the CORA requests on Silt’s behalf denied that an investigation related to the police department was done for or by the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency.

A third open records request is pending seeking a summary of the investigation, which a person familiar with the process told the PI was conducted by former Littleton Police Chief Heather Coogan.

Coogan, a veteran Colorado law officer, now operates a firm called True to Course, whose web page says Coogan conducts internal investigations for public and private organizations.

“Coogan has extensive experience in investigating policy violations and failures as well as allegations of harassment, discrimination and other inappropriate workplace behavior,” the website says.

Minutes of Silt Town Council meetings suggest a couple of discussions of Aluise’s complaint and/or Burris’ status with the town.

The council went into executive session Sept. 12, five days after Burris was placed on leave.

Minutes show members received “advice on specific legal questions, including employment law issues, the board’s legal obligations and options related to complaints which require(d) independent investigation and the legal consequences related to complaints and the independent investigative findings …” Minutes show Aluise was present at the meeting, but did not join the executive session.

The council also met in executive session Nov. 14, with the same wording in minutes as to the purpose of the session. Aluise, again present for the meeting, did not sit in on the executive session. Attorneys Ashley Hernandez-Schlagel and Andy Nathan, whose firm has handled the PI’s CORA requests, are listed as being at the meeting.

Burris wrote to Woods on Dec. 20 telling her of his intention to retire effective Jan. 6.

Aluise also sat out of an executive session Jan. 9. Trustees in that session discussed “matters that may be subject to negotiations.”

At Monday’s meeting on Feb. 13, the Silt Board of Trustees granted approval for Woods to begin to advertise the search to find a new police chief.

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