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Top pick for Fort Collins police chief dealing with his own controversy

Officer-involved shooting could slow process
Posted at 10:49 PM, Mar 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-22 01:03:56-04

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- It could be several more months before Fort Collins will officially have a new police chief. The police department has had an interim chief since last year, when Chief John Hutto stepped down amid several controversies.

The top candidate to replace Hutto is now facing a controversy of his own. Elgin, Illinois Police Chief Jeff Swoboda beat out 65 other candidates to become the top pick for Fort Collins.

He was supposed to come to Colorado this month for contract negotiations. However, that meeting might be pushed back by a few weeks after an officer-involved shooting at Swoboda’s current police department.

The Elgin Police Department is facing protests and allegations of racial discrimination after a black woman was shot and killed by a police officer. The woman, 34-year-old Decynthia Clements, died last Monday.

Police officers tried to pull her over just after midnight but she allegedly sped off. Officers chased her briefly but called of the chase. A short time later, her car was spotted on a highway. Officers spent more than an hour in a standoff with Clements trying to convince her to get out of the car.

During a press conference, Swoboda said Clements told officers she was carrying knives. Eventually, the car caught on fire and officers tried to help Clements get out. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

When she got out of the car, officers said she had a knife in her hand. That’s when Lieutenant Christian Jensen opened fire, hitting Clements. She was transported to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Illinois State Patrol has taken over the investigation into the shooting. However, on Sunday, more than 100 protesters stood outside the Elgin Police Department demanding answers.

On Tuesday, Swoboda told reporters he wouldn't leave for Fort Collins until the issue is resolved.

That could pose a hurdle for Fort Collins City Manager Darin Atteberry.

“It’s typical that they would start work with the city 30 or maybe 45 days after they’ve been offered the job and accepted it, but I think in his case it could be longer,” Atteberry said.

He’s been closely overseeing the hiring of the new police chief, even traveling out to Elgin with some deputy police chiefs and city leaders to see how Swoboda runs the police department there.

He said Swoboda showed strong leadership within the department and collaboration with the community throughout his tenure as Elgin Police Chief. He’s served in that role since 2010 and has been a police officer since 1992.

“He has shown executive leadership, he’s shown that he can make decisions that are not always popular. He’s always professional and, as I said, he’s very solid communicator,” Atteberry said.

Atteberry says he understands the situation Swoboda is facing and is trying to give him the time he needs to find a resolution.

“If Jeff is our next chief, we want him to be able to get closure on some of those issues with his community in his department,” Atteberry said.

However, that investigation could take several months to complete.

“Five to seven months might be a challenge. That's something that we hope to get together at the end of next week face-to-face and talk through and see what we can expect, and see if we can mutually agree to a plan,” Atteberry said.

Atteberry has been trying to keep his distance from Swoboda so that he can focus on Elgin but said the police chief has been in contact with him and kept him up-to-date on the situation.

The city of Fort Collins has already completed all of the necessary background and credit checks it needs on Swoboda and has already verified his work experience and education history.

The next steps are a drug test and contract negotiation to discuss salary.

“I don’t want to rush him. I want to make sure that Elgin is well served and that’s his interest as well and obviously we want to get our new chief settled in,” Atteberry said.

In the meantime, Atteberry has been keeping an eye on the story and respects how Swoboda is handling it.

“As I’ve watched him from the initial event to now, they have been working together with the community to continue the high level of trust and that’s one of his highest attributes, is his level of connectivity to the community and many diverse groups in the community. My respect for him and appreciation for his talent has grown as I’ve seen him navigate through this difficult process,” Atteberry said.

For now, retired Aurora Police Deputy Chief Terry Jones has been running the Fort Collins Police Department and will continue to do so until a replacement takes over.

He’s been there for about 10 months and Atteberry said Jones has agreed to stay a bit longer if necessary for the transition to take place.

The Fort Collins Police Department itself faced controversy after several high-profile incidents that were caught on camera.

Last April, a video surfaced of a Fort Collins police officer slamming a woman to the ground. That officer was later exonerated and allowed to return to full duty.

Earlier in the year, the city agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by two former police officers who claimed the department discriminated against them based on their race.

And in 2016, the department came under fire when officers shot and killed a suspect who was wielding a knife.

Atteberry hopes Swoboda will be a positive change for the department