Law Enforcement

Why Boulder Cop in Racist Incident Was Hired by Sheriff, Then Dumped

Officer John Smyly was among the Boulder Police Department members who rousted Naropa student Zayd Atkinson for picking up trash at his own home in March 2019.
Officer John Smyly was among the Boulder Police Department members who rousted Naropa student Zayd Atkinson for picking up trash at his own home in March 2019. YouTube file photo
On March 1, 2019, back when few mainstream politicians used the term "systemic racism" while discussing law enforcement aimed at people of color, Boulder Police officer John Smyly starred in a viral video that captured his over-the-top harassment of Zayd Atkinson, a Black student at Naropa University whom he rousted for picking up trash on his own property. Smyly subsequently resigned in advance of likely suspension or firing, and Boulder agreed to pay Atkinson a reported $125,000 settlement over the episode.

Nonetheless, Smyly is still earning a paycheck from Boulder. According to the Boulder Daily Camera, he remained an official employee of the city's police department until February 2020 as a result of vacation time, administrative leave and sick days he'd collected prior to his supposed exit. Moreover, he was hired in January for what the paper described as "a two-year term position as a civilian training and development coordinator" in the computer support department of the Boulder County Sheriff's Office.

Smyly won't be completing this assignment — but neither will he be leaving the position right away. The Boulder County branch of the NAACP, which brought Smyly's new gig to the Daily Camera's attention, shared with Westword a letter from Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle in which he writes that Smyly has agreed to "immediately seek other employment outside of the county government" because of "controversy over his temporary position here." However, he will be allowed to "finish the projects he has in that we don't have to start over."

Pelle adds: "This was very difficult because John has not violated any policies here and has been a very productive, pleasant employee. He will leave as soon as possible, and we placed a written deadline on departure by the end of the year."

"Productive" and "pleasant" aren't words that spring to mind after viewing the clip of Smyly confronting Atkinson. And after the officer reported that the student was "failing to comply and had a blunt metal object" (a claw used to collect garbage), a dispatcher sent nine additional cops to the scene, creating a tense episode of the sort that have led to tragedies across the country:

Concerns have been expressed nationwide over law enforcement officers who are bounced from one department because of questionable behavior only to be hired by another. Although so-called Brady letters, which single out problematic cops who might suffer from possible credibility issues should they be called to testify at trial, are used as a de facto blacklist by some agencies, there's no single database for information identifying bad apples; a 2019 USA Today project that named 365 former cops banned from police employment in Colorado is the closest equivalent.

Pelle wasn't in the dark about Smyly's past, though. "I am not normally involved in hiring decisions," he writes in his letter to the NAACP. "When our staff interviewed the candidates for this term position, Smyly was the best qualified applicant. Some understood the past controversy in his role as a city police officer, so they brought this decision to some of our executive staff members, including myself, for discussion. We looked at this through the lens of safety and exposure. This was a temporary, non-enforcement job with no public contact or representation. We did not see any opportunity for harm. Ultimately, I approved the hire."

The tone-deafness of this decision appears to have dawned on Pelle only after it became known by the citizenry at large. He acknowledges that we "failed to consider the sentiment, or 'trigger,' that it might cause for people of color. That's my fault, I take responsibility. We have been engaged in race equity training and discussions and are committed to continuing those efforts and working with county staff on whatever tools might help us in those efforts. Obviously, I still have things to learn."

The NAACP's response to Pelle's letter avoids bashing him for the initial hire or the lag time before Smyly belatedly heads out the door. Instead, it encourages the sheriff to let Smyly know he might benefit from taking part in a "healing justice model, similar to restorative justice in the criminal justice system" offered by the organization.

Click to see the letters about Smyly from Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle and the Boulder branch of the NAACP.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts