Former Steamboat police chief would have been fired if she had not resigned, documents show
Burlingame and another top department official at the center of an internal investigation say the situation signals longstanding problems in the department
Former Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame resigned Jan. 27 after an internal investigation found she violated the city’s code of ethics and police policy.
According to documents obtained by Steamboat Pilot & Today through an open records request, had Burlingame not tendered her resignation on Jan. 27, Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter had decided to fire her from the role at 5 p.m. that day.
The investigation also involved former Support Services Division Manager Christina Stewart, who was put on administrative leave Dec. 12, the same day the city opened an informal investigation into complaints received by the human resources department, according to the documents.
Based on the investigative findings that found three police and city policy violations, Suiter had also decided to fire Stewart, though she resigned on Jan. 23, before her termination became effective.
In separate phone interviews with Pilot & Today on Saturday, Feb. 4, both Burlingame and Stewart said they believe the investigation was flawed, failed to objectively assess the evidence and made assumptions that cannot be supported.
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Each also spoke of deeper-rooted issues within the Steamboat Springs Police Department, particularly with how women are treated — comments that echo complaints levied by a former police commander that resigned from the department in April 2021.
“We have an environment that has been pervasive in the police department with how employees treat each other and I think this ultimately stems from that,” Burlingame said.
“There’s some work to be done with the treatment of women in the department,” Burlingame continued. “Part of the issue with (Stewart) was that people did not support her and undermined her efforts to be successful in that position. I know that there’s people that don’t support me in that organization because I am a woman and because of my sexual orientation.”
Documents show Suiter communicated his initial decision to terminate Burlingame as police chief on Jan. 12. At that time, Burlingame was placed on administrative leave and given the opportunity to respond to the investigation’s findings.
While the response from Burlingame’s attorney asserts the investigation “lacked evidence and is full of speculation and bias,” Suiter stuck with his initial decision to dismiss the chief.
“Taken together, the two violations indicate poor judgment and have undermined Chief Burlingame’s trust and credibility with her staff and her ability to lead effectively,” Suiter wrote on Jan. 26 to Burlingame’s attorney.
In that message, Suiter offered Burlingame until noon Jan. 27 to submit her resignation. Burlingame did, and just before 7 p.m. that night, the city sent out a news release announcing the chief’s departure, which came just over a year after she was hired as the department’s first female chief. That release also named Commander Mark Beckett as interim police chief.
In an interview with Pilot & Today on Jan. 31, Beckett said he was ready to assume leadership of the department.
“Change under unfortunate circumstances can always be a challenge, but I’ll tell you that nothing that’s happened in the last six months reflects on the officers and sergeants of this department,” Beckett said. “Anything that has happened here has been completely an internal process and it’s had nothing to do with our outward face or our product to the community.”
“As a department, I think the goal is simply to move forward,” he said.
Investigation at a glance
The investigative report indicates a member of the police department contacted city Human Resources Director Wendy Ecklund in late November regarding a potential personnel issue.
Documents show an informal investigation into that complaint started Dec. 12, with Ecklund eventually elevating the probe into a formal investigation into policy violations soon after. Burlingame and Stewart were made aware of the investigation on Dec. 19.
The investigative report is authored by Ecklund and Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Bock and concludes both Burlingame and Stewart violated police and city policy.
“If you read through that report, you can see that it’s incredibly subjective, very opinionated,” Burlingame said.
The report is based on two interviews with each Burlingame and Stewart, interviews with seven other unnamed witnesses and body camera footage from a Dec. 10 traffic stop.
One alleged violation against Burlingame was that she did not properly disclose her personal relationship with Stewart while considering Stewart for a promotion, which the report says ran afoul of the city’s code of ethics. Another alleged violation was that Burlingame failed in her supervisory role in relation to the Dec. 10 traffic stop. Investigators did not sustain three other potential violations against Burlingame.
The investigation also found three alleged violations of police and employee handbook policy against Stewart. Those violations allegedly included using profane or derogatory language, using her status with the department to gain influence during the Dec. 10 traffic stop and displaying conduct off-duty that is unbecoming of a member of the department. Another potential violation was not sustained.
The investigative document depicts a “general unprofessional environment” in the department that “does not seem to be addressed by Chief Burlingame.” This unprofessional environment included profanity, disrespectful treatment of city employees, inappropriate joking and a lack of focus on job duties, the investigation report shows.
“These are instances of poor judgment and leadership displayed by individuals at the highest level of command, who should be expected to set a higher standard of integrity and judgment in their on- and off-duty conduct,” the report says.
“These lapses in judgment have created a deleterious effect on the effective and orderly operation of the department and have undermined confidence in department leadership,” the report concludes.
Typically, an internal police investigation would be handled by supervisors of the subjects being investigated, but as this case involved the highest levels of police leadership, Suiter assumed those responsibilities.
After the investigative report was finalized on Jan. 6, it was referred to Suiter for discipline.
‘A complete lack of evidence’
Burlingame and Stewart disputed the findings of the investigation in responses sent to the city and in interviews with Pilot & Today. Burlingame noted the report indicates some witnesses interviewed had conflicting stories.
“Yet, with a complete lack of evidence, they’ve decided to weigh in and say that there was some wrongdoing,” Burlingame said. “I adamantly deny that the allegations that they’re saying against me are true — far from it. Everything that I’ve always done has been for the best of that organization and for the best for our community. Hopefully, time will bear that out.”
Stewart also criticized the investigation, adding that she feels it was “completely subjective” and “lacking evidence.”
“They made a whole lot of assumptions about my motives and my thought process, not knowing the facts of what I was thinking, feeling or what was actually happening,” Stewart said.
Burlingame said she absolutely disagrees with the report’s characterization that she was not addressing culture in the department. She said she brought in a consultant that trained the entire department in workplace culture, bias and how employees treat each other.
“I created a culture team so that our employees could start addressing what kind of culture they wanted,” Burlingame said. “I followed that up with identifying an officer who was going to champion advancing our culture forward, and the intent was to bring the consultant back sometime this year to do follow-up work on that.”
“To say that I’m not addressing those things is wholly inaccurate,” she continued.
Stewart’s promotion, Burlingame’s ethics
The report shows Burlingame’s ethics violation related to Burlingame promoting Stewart to a new command position at the department — support services division manager — and the chief’s failure to disclose their personal relationship.
Previously, this role had been filled by a sworn officer that could take over the department in the absence of the chief or operations commander. Stewart is not a sworn officer.
In an Oct. 11 news release, Burlingame said Stewart would be a “key executive team member.” While the announcement came in October, Stewart had been working in the role for about a month.
That release did not disclose the department had tried and failed to find a sworn officer to fill this role. Documents show when the position was declined by the one sworn applicant to whom it was offered, Burlingame restructured the role so a civilian could fill the job.
That restructuring, combined with Burlingame and Stewart’s personal relationship and comments made by Stewart prior to being promoted, created a perception in the department that the position had been adjusted to allow Stewart’s hiring, documents show.
The report details an incident prior to the promotion where Stewart walked into the office of an unnamed department official and made comments about how she would decorate that office, which was set to be assigned to the support services manager. Stewart eventually moved into that office.
“Information provided during this investigation indicates the existence of some relationship between the Chief and Ms. Stewart beyond that of simple supervisor/subordinate work,” the report says.
“The chief’s failure to disclose (her relationship with Stewart) at worst constitutes concealing pertinent information in an attempt to benefit Ms. Stewart and at best constitutes poor decision making owing to a foreseeable perception within the (department) that the hiring was unfair,” the report continues.
While city policy does not forbid friendship among coworkers, the report notes that when a personal relationship is within the same line of command, it needs to be considered ethically. In this case, Burlingame should have disclosed that relationship, the report says.
Burlingame’s response to the investigation asserts that she was not required to disclose her friendship with Stewart, as they are not “immediate family, spouses, domestic partners (or) persons in a civil union.”
Burlingame’s response states that there is not evidence to assert their relationship was anything more than “friendship” and says that rumors, which had been spread around the department that Burlingame and Stewart were having an affair or living together, are “completely false.”
On Saturday, Burlingame said she is close friends with Stewart but noted she has close friendships with many of the people she works with. Burlingame doesn’t think their relationship was unprofessional, and she said she has always has had an open and casual relationship with employees in her career.
As for not disclosing their friendship, Burlingame said she never considered it a potential conflict. She noted in her response to the investigation that Stewart was the top candidate for the job and the hiring process involved numerous other people, including some from outside of the department.
“I have a friendship with (now interim chief) Mark Beckett and I didn’t disclose that either,” Burlingame said. “To say that (Stewart) didn’t earn that promotion would be an absolute lie.”
The traffic stop
Burlingame and Stewart were passengers in a vehicle driven by a third male party that was pulled over for allegedly running a stop sign on Walton Creek Road on Dec. 10. A Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputy, who was working within the city amid low staffing at the police department, performed the stop.
“What are you doing pulling (audio inaudible) traffic in my jurisdiction,” Burlingame told the deputy from the back seat of the vehicle, according to body camera footage obtained by Pilot & Today.
“I’m working in your jurisdiction today,” the deputy responded, after which Burlingame can be heard laughing.
“Can you cut (redacted) a break?” Stewart then asked the deputy. “We were totally just talking to (the driver).”
“Can I see your license and insurance please?” the deputy responded, not acknowledging Stewart’s request.
The traffic stop continued over the next several minutes, ending when the deputy let the driver off with a warning. In the video, the driver’s face is blurred, and all references to his identity were redacted from documents.
In reviewing this incident, the city’s investigation concluded that while Burlingame did not directly identify herself as police chief or ask for favorable action, she did allude to her status by referencing her jurisdiction.
In investigative interviews, Burlingame said she was “merely joking” as jurisdictional issues have come up between the department and sheriff’s office.
“Nonetheless, the chief did not intervene or correct Ms. Stewart when Ms. Stewart asked for a break for (redacted) and in a manner implicating the chief and following up on the chief’s presence,” the report says.
Burlingame told investigators that she intended to have a conversation about the incident with Stewart, but that never happened, as Stewart was placed on administrative leave Dec. 12. The investigation found Burlingame failed to fulfill police policy regarding her supervisor responsibilities.
“The chief’s failure in this instance showed poor leadership and a lack of professionalism,” the report says. “The incident was serious enough in nature that it should have been addressed immediately — if not during the traffic stop, then in the hours or days afterward.”
The report suggested that Stewart also violated a policy forbidding any member of the department from using their status “in any way that could be reasonably perceived as an attempt to gain influence or authority for non-department business or activity.”
The report concluded that “this lends itself to being reasonably perceived as an attempt to gain influence.”
Burlingame’s response to the investigation contends that she had no authority over the sheriff’s deputy and that if he felt uncomfortable, “he could have issued a ticket after the fact.”
It also states that Stewart’s demeanor during the traffic stop was “not demanding, angry, authoritative or directive.” Instead, Stewart was “very respectful at all times towards the deputy.” It also notes the chief intended to discuss the incident with Stewart.
“Chief Burlingame making the decision to speak with Ms. Stewart about the incident at work and not in front of (redacted) does not amount to a lack of leadership or poor decision-making,” the response says. “In fact, it shows good judgment and social awareness.”
In Stewart’s response, she noted that she never introduced herself or mentioned her position with the department during the short exchange with the deputy.
“I was talking to (redacted) while he was driving and likely distracted him from coming to a complete stop and thus asked the deputy to give him a break,” Stewart wrote. “This was no way an implication that I was trying to bring Chief Burlingame into it and this conclusion is subjective and highly inaccurate without factual basis.”
Allegations of inappropriate language
The investigation reviewed incidents in which Burlingame and Stewart were accused of using inappropriate language, though not all allegations were substantiated by investigators.
Documents show the first incident stemmed from a June birthday party at the Combined Law Enforcement Facility, where both the police department and sheriff’s office are housed.
The investigation did not substantiate that Burlingame used language that violated department policy, though an unnamed witness said: “unprofessional comments were made that made her feel uncomfortable.”
“(Redacted) removed herself from the situation and indicated to both Chief Burlingame and Ms. Stewart that their behavior was borderline inappropriate,” the report reads.
The report says Stewart admitted to investigators to making a comment about a sheriff’s office employee not wearing underwear at this June party. In her response, Stewart denied making the comment and denied admitting to investigators.
The investigation reviewed other incidents in which Stewart allegedly used language that was disparaging to her colleagues.
One unnamed witness said they recalled Stewart asking if they knew human resources was talking to people within the department. In this interaction, Stewart allegedly referred to her department colleagues as “those f—ers,” and stated that they were out to get her. Stewart denied making that comment.
“Although not all of the allegations regarding Ms. Stewart’s language have been substantiated, at least two of these incidents have been confirmed,” the investigative report says.
Stewart denied making inappropriate comments in her response to the investigation. Furthermore, Stewart said she and other members of the department had become frustrated with profane language in the department and that she shared seven pages of notes outlining incidents where she was undermined and excluded, and where her staff was ostracized.
“The culture around women in the department has been for years one of a demeaning nature,” Stewart wrote. “Since my promotion to Division Manager, I have felt like I have not been supported by me peers or subordinates; quite the opposite — they have tried to undermine me and my authority.”
Incident at Stagecoach
In late July or August, members of both the police department and sheriff’s office went on a “social outing” at Stagecoach Reservoir in which alcohol was consumed, the report says.
The report notes disagreement among witnesses as to how intoxicated everyone was and what may have been said or done by Burlingame and Stewart.
But the investigation also turned up a photo from that day where Stewart is seen making an “arguably obscene” gesture in which she adjusted her board shorts to expose her swimsuit, the report says.
“The gesture is arguably obscene in nature and certainly in poor taste and judgment when socializing with fellow SSPD employees and (sheriff’s office) employees,” the report says. “Ms. Stewart and Chief Burlingame do not recall this occurring, but the photograph provided substantial evidence.”
Burlingame was not found to have violated policy during this incident, but Stewart was, the report says.
In her response, Stewart said that she has not been shown the photograph, which she asserts violates her “due process”
“For this report to state my clothing issue was obscene and in poor taste is again subjective, inaccurate, and an unsubstantiated attack on my reputation,” Stewart wrote.
A checkered history
Burlingame and Stewart’s departure from the department is the third time in the last two years that a female in a key leadership role left saying the department needed to do better in regard to how women are treated.
In April 2021, former police commander Annette Dopplick resigned her position. A month later, she struck a settlement with the city in which she received nearly $109,000 in compensation.
In that agreement, the city committed to investigate complaints Dopplick made relating to her working conditions, as well as the working conditions of other female officers, according to previous Pilot & Today reporting.
But issues in the Steamboat Springs Police Department go back further.
When former Police Chief Cory Christensen was hired in 2015, he was brought in following an external investigation that found evidence the department’s previous leadership had presided over a hostile work environment. That investigation characterized the department as having a “paramilitary culture.”
Specifically, that investigation revealed incidences of hazing, bullying and gender-based harassment that had likely occurred for more than a decade.
Stewart, who first started with the department in 2017, said she has seen gender-bias throughout her career.
“The culture has always been a challenge in the department,” Stewart said. “I think the culture still supports just a lack of respect and gender bias and for me personally, I didn’t really feel entirely supported by a number of the men in the department.”
The newspaper’s request was filed on Wednesday, Feb. 1. Statute outlines that the city has three days to respond with documents or to ask for an extension. The first round of documents was sent to the newspaper within two days of the request.
Suiter indicated the city was still working to put together any responsive documents to the newspaper’s request, and that if any exist, they would be disclosed next week.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Steamboat Springs City Council will meet for the first time since the chief’s departure, though there isn’t an agenda item about the staffing change. The change is also not mentioned in Suiter’s city manager report.
In a phone conversation Friday, Feb. 3, after the city turned over documents to Pilot & Today, Suiter said everything the newspaper received had first been sent to City Council and officials at the police department.
Steamboat Pilot & Today Assistant Editor Shelby Reardon contributed to this report.