Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor announced on Friday that he asked for longtime officer Walter Chi’s resignation earlier this week and also placed another officer, Marcin Debski, on administrative leave.
The two personnel moves were unrelated, the chief said.
In the case of Chi — who served the department for 26 years and made an unsuccessful bid for Pitkin County sheriff last fall — Pryor declined to provide details, only saying in a letter to the editor (see page 9) that “recent information indicates that he had not fully carried out his duties.” Following an internal affairs investigation, “I found it in the best interest of the community to ask Walter to resign.”
Debski is being investigated by both the APD and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation following a complaint to the sheriff’s office that he approached a local 17-year-old at the Castle/Maroon bus stop on Wednesday and threatened the juvenile’s life. Debski joined the APD in 2011, switched over to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and then returned to the municipal police force in 2016, according to Pryor.
“The Aspen Police Department is dedicated to treating all members of our community with respect as well as in conducting professional and thorough investigations. We have high expectations of our staff and we take these responsibilities seriously,” Pryor’s letter says.
Chi did not return calls seeking comment. During the sheriff’s race, he was heavily criticized by his opponent, incumbent Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, along with others in the community, for allegedly failing to report a possible case of child sexual abuse a few years ago. A local teen, said to be the perpetrator, was officially accused last fall of sexual assaults involving multiple victims. He is currently being held in a Grand Junction juvenile detention facility as his cases await resolution in Pitkin County District Court.
“I understand many in the community will be surprised at this news, especially knowing Walter as a friend. Many of us at the police department are equally as saddened at this situation,” Pryor’s letter states.
Reached by phone for comment, Pryor said that he could not be more specific about the internal investigation that led to his request for Chi’s resignation given that it was a personnel matter. He also would not say whether it had anything to do with the allegations that surfaced during the sheriff’s race. However, Pryor did say that the investigation was recent, occurring over the last few weeks, and that Chi is retiring.
The sheriff’s office provided local media with copies of the complaint against Debski, whose record with the police department had been “exemplary,” Pryor said.
According to the report, the father of the teen was adamant about speaking with the sheriff’s office because “he did not trust the Aspen Police Department.” Following the initial complaint, the sheriff’s office referred the case back to the police department, which has jurisdiction over the matter.
The sheriff’s office report states that the teen had been at the Pitkin County Health and Human Services Building at around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday to submit to a drug test. A uniformed police officer, later identified as Debski, also was in the building and looked at the youth after leaving a conference room.
As the teen left the building to catch a bus, the officer allegedly followed him, the report says. Confronted by the officer at the stop, the youth said he didn’t want to speak with him.
The officer pressed on, asking the boy if he knew a certain member of the officer’s family, the report says. The teen said he did. The officer allegedly told the youth that if he ever talked to the relative or tried to sell her drugs, he would “murder” him. The officer then left the bus stop.
Though witnesses were present, they denied hearing the officer’s words, the youth told investigators. The teen then cursed at the departing officer, who then returned to the stop, argued with the teen and denied any mention of harm.
Pryor said that CBI was asked to assist with the criminal investigation of Debski to ensure that it’s unbiased. Potential charges against Debski include misdemeanor harassment and menacing.
The police chief responded to questions about the department’s morale on Friday in the wake of the two personnel actions. The APD has 27 police officers.
“When thinking about Walter — many of us had long-standing working relationships and friendships with him — it’s shocking and surprising, it’s sort of disappointing … just a variety of emotions,” said Pryor, who noted that Chi trained him back in 1997.
“With Marcin, it’s the same reaction. People are surprised and then obviously you get introspective and start worrying about yourself,” the chief said. “It is without a doubt an unusual set of circumstances.”
Regarding the father’s statement about not trusting the police department, Pryor said he “hopes our actions over the long term can demonstrate a track record that proves we do a pretty good job.”