The Aspen police officer who approached a 17-year-old, who faces numerous criminal counts, and allegedly threatened to kill him if he spoke to a member of the cop’s family will not face any charges, the police department announced Friday.
Marcin Debski, who had been on administrative leave since the March 20 encounter, will be returning to patrol.
On March 20, the 17-year-old had been at the county health and human services building near Aspen Valley Hospital to take a drug test.
He said Debski, in his full police uniform, followed him out of the building and to a nearby bus stop before asking him if he knew who the officer was. The teen said no and that he didn’t want to speak to him.
“The officer told [the teen] that he was speaking to [him] as a father and not as a police officer,” and asked him if he knew a member of his family, wrote Jesse Steindler, a patrol director with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, in a report, citing the teen’s statement.
The teen replied that he did know the person. The officer said that if the 17-year-old talked to the person or tried to sell the person drugs, “the officer would ‘murder’ [the teen],” the sheriff’s report says.
The juvenile’s father said Friday that he was dismayed but not surprised by District Attorney Jeff Cheney’s decision. The father made a formal complaint to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which turned the case over to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
“Do I think he should be charged? Hell, yes,” the man said. “Furthermore, he should not have a badge or a gun.”
Steindler wrote in the report that he told Bill Linn, an assistant Aspen police chief, that the teen’s complaint “fit the parameters of a harassment charge and possibly a menacing charge and … I considered it to be a criminal investigation.”
But Cheney, in a letter sent Monday to Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, wrote that, based on CBI’s inquiry, his office will not charge Debski.
“Except for the assertion of [the teen] that officer Debski threatened to kill him, there is no evidence sufficient to support a reasonable person to believe officer Debski did, in fact, make such a threat,” Cheney wrote. “Despite there being a number of potential witnesses who would have overheard such a threat, no one corroborated [the teen’s] assertion.”
The father, a former Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy, said his son has never wavered from his story and would take a lie-detector test to prove he’s telling the truth. He said CBI agent Brooks Bennett could not find that Debski did anything other than “scold” his son. The other people at the bus stop were 10 to 12 feet away, “and Marcin was very, very close to his face so no one actually heard” the supposed threat, he said. “No one really heard anything, there were no witnesses to the face-to-face they actually had, so it’s the officer’s word against my kid, who is currently in trouble with the law.”
He said a prosecutor told him, based on that, there would be little likelihood of a jury convicting Debski.
But “my son still maintains his story is truthful and correct,” the man said.
Cheney, responding to Bennett about the report, wrote that Debski was cooperative with the CBI inquiry.
“When you confronted Officer Debski with the possibility of there being a number of potential witnesses to the alleged threat and a potential recording of the interaction, [he] was adamant that he did not threaten [the teen],” Cheney wrote. “I find this denial credible, and consequently, this ‘he said/he said’ conflict with respect to what actually happened would not yield a reasonable probability of conviction if formal charging were to occur.”
In a press release about the district attorney’s decision, Linn said the police department conducted a concurrent internal investigation that resulted in a “corrective action plan [that] follows the city of Aspen’s progressive discipline policy.”
Pryor said in the release that Debski is “regretful, apologetic and disappointed in his own behavior, as are we. Compassion applies not only to how we must treat all members of our community, but in how we treat our staff when they make an error.”
The 17-year-old’s father said he expects Debski will be required to undergo sensitivity training or the like. Linn, who said Debski was not wearing a body camera at the time, declined comment on what possible discipline the officer faces.
The teen faces 11 charges, including distribution of Xanax, menacing, tampering with evidence, burglary, theft, two protection-order violations, and domestic violence-related false imprisonment and harassment, according to court records.
But he has been working hard to right his wrongs, his father said.
“He’s been expelled and painted as just such a monster,” he said. “This is hard on his life. … Did my son get justice? Probably not. I just don’t want [Debski] making threats to murder my kid.
“Anyone with a gun attached to his waist, you have to take it seriously.”
He said he would have respected Debski more had the officer approached him out of his uniform and parent to parent. Police officers need to be held to a much higher standard than the general public, he added.
Upper-valley law enforcement “has been preaching for years this concept of community policing,” he said. “I don’t think Marcin followed the doctrine of community policing.”