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Police sergeant at center of controversial train crash labeled "liability risk" by previous police department

Platteville sgt. criticized by previous dept. after train smashes into cruiser with woman inside
Platteville sgt. criticized by previous dept. after train smashes into cruiser with woman inside 03:01

A Platteville police sergeant who parked his patrol car on train tracks last month was labeled a "significant" liability risk by a previous police department, and his former department called his work "poor," according to a CBS News Colorado investigation. Despite those "red flags," the Platteville Police Department hired Sgt. Pablo Vazquez in 2020. 

Sgt. Pablo Vazquez LinkedIn

Vazquez was placed on leave following the September 16 incident in Weld County. He stopped a female suspect in an armed road rage incident. Vazquez parked his patrol vehicle on train tracks, later saying he thought he had cleared the tracks.

A Fort Lupton police officer — who was second to respond to the road rage incident after Vazquez — placed the suspect, Yareni Rios-Gonzalez, 20, in Vazquez's police car. Moments later, a freight train smashed into the police car leaving Rios-Gonzalez with serious injuries. CBS News Colorado was the first to identify the officers involved with the incident.

Dramatic dash camera video shows the moments a police car parked on train tracks was smashed, with a handcuffed suspect inside, by a speeding train in Weld County.  Platteville Police

Now, a CBS News Colorado investigation found this was not the first time Vazquez's police judgment had been called into question.

He previously worked as a police sergeant with the Federal Heights Police Department starting in 2014. But in 2019 and 2020, Vazquez was the subject of five internal affairs investigations, two of them initiated by fellow officers.

One of the internal affairs complaints, obtained by CBS News Colorado, says, "police officers serving under Sergeant Pablo Vazquez approached police administrators with concerns regarding Sergeant Vazquez's work performance." 

In a second internal affairs complaint, according to a summary obtained by CBS News Colorado, "a police officer complained that Sergeant Pablo Vazquez... has a lack of radio awareness and often requires several contacts before he responds... unit and call awareness need improvement... rarely knows where his officers are and what kind of call they are on... has an extremely slow response time to calls or requests for cover."

In September of 2019, Federal Heights police administrators put Vazquez on a performance improvement plan to address the issues, documents show. 

As part of that plan, administrators wrote, "Sergeant Vazquez's documented failure to provide adequate supervision presented a significant risk of liability to the City of Federal Heights and the safety of the officers under his supervision."

For his annual employee performance evaluation in 2019, supervisors graded him as performing "poor quality of work," the second lowest score possible.

His leadership was graded as: "needs improvement; employee is unable to achieve effective results."

But on March 14, 2020, Vazquez resigned from Federal Heights, and immediately went to work for the Platteville Police Department saying he was leaving Federal Heights, because he needed to be closer to home.

Platteville Police Chief Carl Dwyer told CBS News Colorado, "Platteville conducts a standard background check that inquires into an applicants prior employment history and criminal record." 

Dwyer did not respond when asked if he was aware of Vazquez's prior issues during his employment with Federal Heights.

Gregory Smith, Vice President for Law Enforcement Education with The Center for American and International Law, told CBS News Colorado smaller police agencies like Platteville feel extreme pressure to fill jobs and don't always have the resources to do thorough background checks.

"It wouldn't surprise me if some of those agencies, if they have positions to fill, shorten the process, and if you shorten that process, you're rolling the dice," Smith said. 

He said the problem is even more acute with "lateral hires," who move from one department to another.

"That trust factor is here. It's easy to not do a good background like you would for a new candidate," Smith said.

Dwyer did not respond when CBS News Colorado asked him to describe the background check done on Vazquez.

Vazquez's lawyer did not respond to a request from CBS News Colorado for comment on the sergeant's previous employment.

Internal affairs documents show in January of this year, Platteville's Chief issued Vazquez a written reprimand for tampering with a co-worker's cellphone. The Chief called the tampering "inappropriate." 

He told Vazquez, "please use better judgment moving forward to avoid further disciplinary action."

Multiple law enforcement agencies are investigating the September train incident and will present their findings to prosecutors for consideration of possible criminal charges.

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