Critics of the Denver Police Department's discipline system frequently complain that officers fired for misconduct often don't stay fired thanks to a labyrinthine process than can drag out for years.
The bureaucratic odyssey of Stephanie Southard is a case in point, albeit one with a bizarre quality all its own. Southard was sacked in 2014 for allegedly having sex while on duty as many as thirty times with Nathan Sanchez, a fellow Denver police officer with whom she was conducting an affair. Sanchez, who resigned from the department before any punishment could be imposed on him, also accused her of attacking him during two arguments.
A few months later, a hearing officer determined that Southard should be reinstated with the DPD based partly on her denials and the conclusion that the sex acts as described by Sanchez were improbable and sounded painful. But then-Deputy Director of Safety Jess Vigil appealed the decision, and the Denver Civil Service Commission decided that the firing should stand.
Now, however, a Denver District Court judge has ruled that the hearing officer was right and Southard deserves her job back.
The order, by Judge Ross B.H. Buchanan, is accessible below, along with the hearing officer's 2014 report. The former's "Statement of Facts" section lays out the case in head-spinning and surprisingly graphic detail.
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In October 2011, the document maintains, Southard and Sanchez "began a romantic and sexual relationship." She wasn't married; he was. The two were involved for 21 months and generally got together on Mondays and Tuesdays, when they were off duty.
Cut to January 2013, when Southard was transferred to the police department's DUI unit, which is said to have allowed her "greater freedom of movement" because officers working under that assignment can "travel anywhere in the city." As such, Southard and Sanchez were able to get together while on the job. She said their physical interactions were limited to hand-holding and hugging; he maintained they included "sexual contact."
Then, on June 17 of that year, a new party entered the picture: Erika Sanchez, Nathan's wife, who discovered Southard's number on her husband's phone. Nathan subsequently fessed up to Erika about Southard, whom he informed via text messages. The next morning, Southard drove by the Sanchez home, but left before seeing him and headed to a nearby park. She was sitting in her car, crying, when Erika appeared and confronted her, then tailed her "for some distance," the ruling states.
Two days later, on June 19, Sanchez and Southard encountered each other at the intersection of Yosemite and Colfax, but their accounts of what happened in the hour or two that followed are very different.
Sanchez said Southard yelled at him before agreeing to rendezvous in the parking lot of an Aurora church, where she assaulted him, "breaking his necklace, scratching his neck and causing his watch to fall off." From there, they traveled to the parking lot of the Lowry sports complex. Citing that location, Sanchez made a variety of additional assault claims against Southard.
For her part, Southard denied attacking Sanchez, admitting only to grabbing both of his wrists when he thrust his hands at her face. That's when she said his watch came off.
The next day, June 20, when both officers were on duty, another get-together took place, and the order outlines the disparate accounts. Sanchez said Southard freaked out when she saw he was wearing his wedding ring; after she scratched his left eye, he asserted, she pulled her service revolver and intimated that she wanted to kill herself.
In Southard's version, none of that happened. She insisted that the most she did was hold Sanchez's hand through his car window before leaving to take a call.
This situation came to a head on June 21, when Erika Sanchez filed a report with the DPD's internal affairs bureau. Southard and Sanchez were interviewed shortly thereafter and again in January 2014, and based on his claims, she was charged with third-degree assault, harassment and disorderly conduct.
Later that year, Southard pleaded guilty to the last charge as well as reckless endangerment, and the following April, Deputy Director of Safety Vigil issued his order of disciplinary action. In his view, Southard was guilty of conduct prohibited by law, sexual misconduct and commission of a deceptive act. She was suspended for fifteen days without pay for the first offense and canned for the other two.
The situation changed after hearing officer Hazel Hanley filed a report based on two days spent interviewing the assorted parties and collecting evidence in July 2014. Afterward, she characterized Sanchez as "an inveterate liar" who was dishonest on multiple levels — and she believed he gave false testimony against Southard in an attempt to save his marriage.
Additionally, Hanley said Sanchez's description of the sex he supposedly had with Southard "evolved substantially over time. In his first IAB interview in June 2013, Officer Sanchez initially told the investigator that there was 'no sex or anything like that' at his on-duty meetings with Officer Southard. Over an hour and a half later, Officer Sanchez revised his story. In his new version, he stated that he would touch Officer Southard 'on an intimate spot' every once in a while, but she would only touch him over his clothes. The version which included digital penetration and oral sex did not arise until seven months later, at Officer Sanchez's second IAB interview in January 2014. There, Officer Sanchez claimed that he had penetrated Officer Southard's vagina 25-30 times in the 23 weeks they were able to meet on duty. He also claimed for the first time that Officer Southard performed oral sex on him, even though he denied any such activity in the first IAB interview, which had been conducted barely two weeks after the oral sex supposedly occurred."
There was also the question of logistics. If Sanchez's calculations were correct, Hanley wrote, he and Southard would have had to engage in intercourse "at least once a week, all the while in full gear and at the ready to respond to dispatched calls. Not only is that implausible...but there is an inherent improbability that Sanchez could access Southard's vagina beneath her clothes while she wore her duty belt."
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In contrast, Hanley found Southard to be credible and eventually sided with her. But the Civil Service Commission, looking at the same evidence, saw her as having lied for reasons that frankly mystify Judge Buchanan. He writes: "The simple question in this case is whether Officer Southard had sex with Officer Sanchez while on duty and then lied about it. While the Commission catalogued several undisputed facts regarding the relationship between officers Sanchez and Southard...neither individually nor collectively do they amount to having sex while on duty." And since the hearing officer's conclusion was "well supported by the record as a whole," Buchanan reversed Southard's termination.
Is this the end of the story? Not necessarily. In an email exchange with Westword, Kelli Christensen, communications director for the Denver Department of Public Safety, stresses, "We stand by the discipline we issued and are very disappointed in the decision to reverse Officer Southard’s suspension and termination. Further, we are extremely dismayed it has taken almost three years to rule in this matter. We will now confer with the City Attorney’s Office to discuss next steps."
As for Sean T. Olson, an attorney who represented Southard, he didn't respond to our request for comment. If and when he gets back to us, we'll update this post.