Death by cop
Colorado police shoot civilians -
lots of them.
So many, in fact, that this year the state may surpass the Texas death chamber in its
number of executions.
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by Eric J. Ross
Machine in Texas stalled temporarily this month while Americans debated whether killing
convicted murderer Napolean Beasley would be appropriate in light of the fact he was only
17 at the time of the murder. That leaves the running total of 11 convicted Texas
murderers executed this year. Six more are scheduled to die before the end of 2001,
barring judicial stays, pardons or commutations. This slowdown may be the lucky break that
the Colorado executioners seem to be looking for in their quest to surpass Texas and earn
the state a new title: Execution State.
Say what? Some of the more erudite readers might ask how that can be,
considering the fact that Colorado has officially put to death only one person in the last
30 years through legal channels-Gary Davis in 1997.
The state of Texas, meanwhile, has become best known for its desire to convict
and kill violent murderers. But in Texas, unlike Colorado, the Judicial system actually
bothers with all the trouble and expense of what lawyers and legal scholars refer to as
"due process"-probable cause, warrants signed by judges, lawful arrest,
reasonable bail, free legal defense counsel, preliminary hearings, motions, pleadings,
trials by a jury of peers, comprehensive pre-sentencing reports, learned Judges presiding
over it all, post conviction sentences within legislatively approved guidelines, the
requisite appeals of conviction etc., etc., and etc. These are the little checks and
balances that our justice system tries to place as obstacles and deterrents to one of the
greatest tragedies that our country tolerates: the obscenity of wrongfully convicting an
The requirements of due process aren't always enough. As proven in Illinois in
recent years-where a pro-death penalty governor ordered executions to stop-states have
been incarcerating far too many innocent and wrongfully convicted people. Since the advent
of DNA identification in law enforcement-a practice instituted in the late 1980s-hundreds
of innocent people serving hard time have been exonerated and set free. The National
Institute of Justice reported that as many as 10 percent of the inmates in the United
States may be factually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. The
Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law has helped reverse the convictions of dozens of
innocent people who were wrongfully convicted; many of these people have been locked in
prison cells for decades of their lives. These innocent people cannot get the huge
portions of their stolen lives back, but at least they are free and still alive.
In Colorado, a growing number of suspects never see a courtroom or a jail.
Events of this summer have made it painfully clear that some Colorado cops shoot first and
ask questions later; and possibly without consequences for the policemen responsible. The
suspects get no representation, no trial, no appeal, no reprieve, no chance of reversal.
While Texas has executed 11 people lawfully this year, cops in Colorado have
killed 11 on the streets.
Wild West justice
It's not as if Colorado citizens and politicians haven't tried to use a system more
similar to the process in Texas. It's just that they've failed. When the U.S. Supreme
Court revalidated the Death Penalty in 1976, Colorado politicians quickly began thirsting
for its application. In 1984 the Colorado Legislature revised the law to allow executions
in capital murder cases.
The Colorado death chamber was dusted off after a nine-year hiatus, and people
waited eagerly for its use. But a funny thing happened on the way: Due process, in the
form of juries. In Colorado, juries not only decided the guilt or innocence of the
defendant, but also decided whether those they convicted should be killed, or imprisoned
for life. Juries showed an overwhelming reluctance to execute, even after sitting through
trials involving gory evidence and listening to the agony of grieving survivors. This
enraged the politicians and frustrated the would-be executioners. So in 1996 the Colorado
Legislature, strongly supported by the Colorado District Attorneys, decided to take the
decision away from the 12 jurors who witnessed the trial and stack the deck in favor of
They concocted a new method of sentencing, something they were sure would
result in more deaths. The plan was to place the life or death decision solely in the
hands of three-judge panels. Surely, hand-picked dispassionate judges would be more
willing to fry convicted murderers than timid jurors who had come face-to-face
daily-sometimes for weeks on end during a trial-with the people they were supposed to have
So in 1995 the three-judge tribunal was established by the legislature to
decide who gets death after being convicted of capital murder. It was yet another
unexpected setback for those who would make Colorado more like Texas. Lo and behold, the
wise and learned judges just weren't concluding that many of the capital cases before them
that were deserving of death. In fact, they were coming to much the same conclusions that
the old juries were. In response, the legislature threatened again to alter the system and
turn over the sentencing decision in each capital conviction to just one judge. So far,
the one-judge proposals-sure to result in more legal executions-have failed.
But those who favor the swift execution of convicts need not despair entirely.
With none of the buildup, none of the drama, none of the average 10 years of due process,
these people are seeing suspects-not convicts-get shot routinely throughout the state. In
the past 12 months, mostly this summer, Colorado cops have shot 21 people, 11 of whom are
dead. The nature of the alleged crimes is diverse, ranging from serious assaults to
shoplifting to sitting peacefully in one's own home, watching TV while the emergency 911
Of the hundreds of thousands of federal, state and local laws on the books in
the United States, only two-premeditated murder and treason-can result in the option of
capital punishment upon conviction.
Although capital punishment requires a seemingly endless cycle of checks,
balances and due process, executions by cops require nothing but a feeling on the part of
the gun-toting officer. Under state law, one needs only to interact with a cop, and that
cop needs only to "fear" for his life in order to be authorized to shoot to
kill. Whether he's in "fear," and therefore justified to shoot, is entirely up
to him. Internal investigations of police shootings come down to this:
Interrogator: "Did you fear for your life?"
Cop: "Yes, lieutenant, I thought he might run over me."
Cars have been declared "deadly weapons" without much, if any,
scrutiny from the media or the public. As a weapon it makes a rather poor and cumbersome
choice if one is intent on harming or killing a specific person. Visualize an old
western-style showdown. You, in your car, are a mere 20 paces from your opponent. He has a
loaded gun. Ready, set, go! Bet heavily on the gun.
But being anywhere in a car can give the cops authority to kill you, if they
happen to be anywhere near or around your car. It doesn't matter what "crime"
you may be suspected of at this point. It could be anything or no crime at all. Scare a
cop, even by accident, and he can kill you with near absolute impunity.
Trained to kill
Cops always shoot to kill. Gabe Suarez, an LA cop and author of The Tactical Pistol:
Advanced Gunfighting Concepts and Techniques, believes that it's unwise and unethical for
an officer to shoot to disable a suspect. His book argues that police should only shoot
when they feel their lives, or the lives of civilians, are imminently at risk. And when
shooting a would-be killer, who's going to murder before he can be subdued, no risk should
be taken. If injured, the suspect will only be angry and is likely to take a cop or
civilian with him to the grave. Injured, Suarez argues, a dangerous suspect will do
anything to kill. So he, and others who teach cops how to shoot, try to instill a
two-to-the-chest, one to-the-head model. Suarez recommends that police plug a suspect
twice in the chest, then aim the gun directly at the suspect's head. If the head is in the
sights, pull the trigger. If it's not, then the two to the chest put him down.
When someone shot by a cop doesn't die, it is merely a reflection of the
ballistic incompetence of the officer or just a freak stroke of luck, and not because the
cop intended to spare a life.
How threatening must one be to receive two bullets to the heart?
Again, it comes down to how an officer feels. More technically, however, the
officer is on less shaky ground if the suspect is within 21 feet of the cop. It's not
state law, but an arbitrary guideline established by Denver's police trainers. They have
established an imaginary 21-foot circle around each cop. They have said publicly that a
suspect moving toward an officer with a weapon available, even a tire iron or
screwdriver-or any object that can be construed as a weapon-must be dropped with lethal
By following the arbitrary mechanical dogma of the training manual, police are
immune when they use lethal force.
The issue, then is one of morality, not legality. Simply because a cop
"may" legally kill a suspect, the question becomes: "Must" he kill the
suspect? That semantic nuance, and the wisdom and discretion to choose between them, is
what many say separates the truly corageous cop from the trigger-happy robocop. However,
the moral fortitude of some cops provides little protection for Colorado citizens.
Under Colorado law, the legal standard for self-defense is exactly the same for
cops as it is for citizens. In order to use deadly force against an assailant legally, one
must be in "imminent danger" of being killed or of receiving great bodily
injury. While police have certain special powers of arrest and apprehension, the legal
requirement for justifiably killing another person in self-defense is exactly the same as
it is for any other citizen. In practice, it rarely happens that way. The legal standard
that must be met before anyone can kill another is high and should be so in a civilized
society. Some disagree with this concept and expect that the standard should be even
higher for professionally-trained, full-time law enforcers. But the police have the same
rights to self-defense as you or I do.
So when you read reports of justifiable lethal force and wonder about their
legitimacy, ask yourself: Would the actions appear reasonable if an average citizen,
standing in the cop's shoes, did the exact same thing?
The body count
The number of killings by cops in Colorado, or anywhere in the United States, is not an
easy statistic to obtain. It's actually a statistical black hole, one resulting from blind
trust in law enforcement coupled with the lack of required accountability-an historical
recipe for trouble.
One reason given for the absence of these statistics-unlike other crime data,
which is copious-is that law-enforcement officialdom doesn't consider the shooting of a
suspect to be a crime. Never. Not ever, based on the wording of a U.S. Justice
Department-Bureau of Justice Statistics report.
When it comes to lethal force by police against citizens, the city of Denver
ranks as one of the deadliest cities, based on extensive research by the Washington Post.
Nationwide, Denver ranked in the top 10 in measurements of fatal shootings per
100,000 residents; in the top 10 in fatal shootings per 1,000 police officers; in the top
10 in fatal shootings per 1,000 arrests for violent crimes; in the top 10 in fatal
shootings per 100 murders; and ranked second in fatal shootings per 10,000 violent crimes.
But statewide, no single agency keeps or collates such data. Boulder Weekly's
calls to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the State Attorney General, and the
Governor's office were met with "we don't keep those statistics." The Colorado
Bureau of Investigation responded with: "we have no idea" how many times
Colorado cops shot or killed someone this year. The law does not mandate that such
important data be compiled or kept, much less analyzed. One has to rely heavily on news
media coverage throughout the state, trusting that all incidents of lethal force are known
to reporters and subsequently published.
According to a story titled "When Cops Shoot, Who's Counting?" in the
New York Times, this absence of meaningful statistics is a nationwide problem. In the
April 29 story, reporter Fox Butterfield wrote:
"Despite widespread public interest and a provision in the 1994 Crime
Control Act requiring the Attorney General to collect the data and publish an annual
report on the statistics, police shootings and use of non-deadly force continue to be
piecemeal products of spotty collection, and are dependent on the (voluntary) cooperation
of local police departments. No comprehensive accounting of all the nation's 17,000 police
In the 1980s, the International Chiefs of Police, a police organization, tried
to collect such information. But members of the organization didn't like what they saw.
"The figures were very embarrassing to a lot of police departments"
said James Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University and a former New
York cop, in the Times.
In Colorado, no law requires that shootings or killings by police be
investigated by outside agencies, much less analyzed. Some metro agencies use outside
"shoot teams" to investigate when one of their own shoots or kills a citizen.
These investigative teams are usually comprised of law enforcement members from the
At the whim of the agency involved in each shooting, the use of outside
investigators is completely optional and discretionary. Many times they simply investigate
themselves. If they do call a shoot team, the investigators do not have authority or
jurisdictional control, says Linda Holloway, a CBI shoot team investigator. The team or
its findings can be dismissed or denied access, Holloway says, at the whim of the agency
involved in a shooting.
A few departments in Colorado, and throughout the country, voluntarily send
their data on shootings by cops to the FBI. The statistics end up in an annual report by
the US department of Justice crime statistics division that's labeled "Justifiable
Homicide of Felons by Police." In other words, all reported shootings are
"justifiable," and all those shot are felons. The federal government has
official knowledge of exactly zero instances in which a police officer unlawfully shot a
The report explains:
"When a police officer deliberately kills someone, a determination is made
as to whether the homicide was justified to prevent the imminent death or serious bodily
injury to the officer or another person. If an investigation determines that the homicide
did occur in the line of duty and that circumstances did warrant lethal force, a record of
a justifiable homicide is voluntarily sent by the officer's agency to the FBI in
Washington. Each record of justifiable homicide is then entered into the database."
This leaves the reader of this report with a few questions, such as: What
happened to the non-justifiable or questionable killings of "felons" by police?
What happened to the non-justifiable or questionable killing of misdemeanor offenders by
police? What happened to the non-justifiable or questionable killings of traffic offenders
by police? What happened to the murders of civilians by police?
Answer: The victor gets to write the history books.
The introduction to the report seems to make mockery of the data, stating:
"In this report, killings by police are referred to as 'justifiable
homicides,' and the persons that police kill are referred to as 'felons.' These terms
reflect the view of the police agencies that provide the data used in this report."
Reread that. Let it sink in. Why are all killings by police justified? Because
the police say so in every single case they ever report. Why are all those killed called
"felons?" Because the police shot them. The police say they're felons, and they
don't need a prosecutor, a judge and a jury to concur.
The "felon" description of all reported suspects who get killed was
dubbed "deeply offensive and legally incorrect" by Samuel Walker, a professor of
criminal justice at the University of Nebraska. Even the Justice Department itself was so
embarrassed, reports the Times, that it did not send out its usual promotional material
trumpeting the report.
In a novel mission to fill this peculiar informational void in the Information
Age, a non-profit Internet site and database has been launched to begin a national count.
LethalForce.org and DeadlyForce.org will act as national central repositories for all
instances of police lethal force in the U.S. The repositories will rely on data sent in by
citizens. News media and public watchdog groups will also be invited to submit records of
every instance of which they are aware.
Legally, and for all practical purposes, it appears to be obvious and clear
that police can shoot suspects, almost at will, without recourse-especially in Colorado.
But in this country, at least, citizens are free to keep count. The People will keep
count, and will continue to count until each and every instance of lethal force by police
is recorded. At the end of all the counting, perhaps the analysis will show no bias or
raise no further questions. Perhaps it will turn out that every incident of force by
police in the U.S. is indeed "justifiable homicide," just like the Department of
Justice claims. Wouldn't that be comforting?
The following provides a look at some of the 21 executions and failed
executions that have taken place in Colorado in only the past 12 months.
Jerry Norris: suspected of watching TV, July 26, two shots
David Grodney: suspected of shoplifting July 23, eight shots
Joshua Torres: suspected of speeding July 19, three shots
*Hakijah Ogobonna: suspected of assault July 18, one shot
Christopher Cali: suspected of being suicidal July 17, two shots
Christopher Olguin: suspected of assault July 7, one shot
*Richard Dutson Jr: suspected of purse snatching July 8, 42 shots
Michael Jackson: suspected of assault May 8, one shot
Larry Olsen: April 21, aggravated assault, four shots
Brandon Meraz: suspected of traffic violations April 14, five
*Ascary Macias: suspected of car theft April 14, one shot
*Joseph Daniel Martinez: suspected of aggravated assault April 8, two shots
*Jamie McIlrath: suspected of acting erratically Mar 14, one shot
*David Mercado: suspected of bank robbery Feb. 28, one shot
*Brian Pannebaker: suspected of being suicidal Feb. 8, two shots
*Abran Lovato: suspected of running Feb. 3, three shots
Matthew Arroyo: suspected of car theft Jan. 18 2001, one shot
*Bruce Graham: suspected of lighting a fire Oct. 19 2000, four shots
Bryant Wynn: suspected of robbery Oct. 18 2000, one shot
*Eric Vantslot: suspected of violating restraining order Aug. 29 2000, two shots
*Mark Anthony Russell Jr.: suspected of disturbance Aug. 16 2000, one shot