Colorado underreports officer-involved shootings
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Lacking the digitized system other states use, Colorado struggles to accurately count the number of these deaths
By Katharina Buchholz
CU News Corps
National scrutiny of police shootings has been reignited with the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri this summer. Still, it is difficult to gauge the impact officer-involved shootings have across the United States. In Colorado, official statistics on legal intervention deaths capture only a fraction of actual shooting deaths.
In 2013, CU News Corps counted 20 fatal shootings by police officers in Colorado. Only eight of those appear in death statistics published by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. By switching to the revised U.S. Standard Death Certificate, Colorado could improve on this inaccurate statistic. A new web-based system will assist coroners and medical professionals with assigning deaths to the most accurate category.
“We won’t be the last, but we will be among the last states,” said Ron Hyman, Colorado’s registrar of vital statistics. “The thing that has held us up was primarily finding a funding source. It took us a while to convince the legislature that it was a good idea to raise the fees.”
The state will be the last in the union, along with Alabama, to make the change in early 2015. The new federal standard for recording deaths was implemented more than 10 years ago.
Because state governmental departments can introduce only a limited number of bills per legislative session, Hyman said preference was given to bills dealing with regulating inspections and emission standards for the oil and gas industry.
“Anytime you raise fees, especially fees many families have to pay, people view it as a tax increase and people are very sensitive to that,” Hyman said, adding that he promised to lower fees to from $20 to $18 once the system was paid for.
Death certificates previously cost $17 in Colorado. Hyman said an extra dollar would be kept for system maintenance.
STATISTICAL FLAWS WELL KNOWN
Statistics on officer-involved shooting deaths are also published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System. The CDC’s system gathers data on officer-involved shootings by reviewing death certificates, coroner reports and police reports, but the process takes time; the latest year on record with the CDC is 2011.
While CDC numbers are generally more accurate, they are still far off. The National Violent Death Reporting System counted 11 people shot and killed by Colorado law enforcement in 2011. In the same year, CU News Corps found news articles on 16 separate fatal officer-involved shootings. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lists seven deaths caused by law enforcement in 2011.
Kirk Bol from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Vital Statistics Unit wrote in an email that data inaccuracies were well known.
“It is possible that a death involving law enforcement would not be coded to this category, which would happen if such mention was not made,” Bol said.
The offline system now in use in Colorado leaves it to county coroners to mention the involvement of law enforcement in a shooting death. But a law enforcement database collecting data of civilians killed by police action does not exist on a state or federal level.
“There has been talk for years about doing something like that, but it never gets done,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.
POLICE HOLD ON TO INFORMATION
Cato, a libertarian think tank, has been running the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project since 2012. Lynch said lack of information was affecting many areas of law enforcement activity.
“The information is held by police departments, and they hold on to it very tightly,” Lynch said.
While the new system will be an improvement, training individuals who fill out death certificates remains important. In Colorado, these people are medical professionals, funeral home directors and coroners, who are elected officials.
“It won’t be fool-proof, but it will be a lot closer than where we are today,” said state registrar Hyman.
But late implementation also has advantages, Hyman said.
“The software is now mature. What we are purchasing now has been used by several states,” he said.
COLORADO VICTIMS HAD ARRESTS CONNECTED TO GUNS
In Colorado, people killed in police shootings in 2013 were predominantly white. According to CU News Corps numbers, six of the 20 deceased were Latino and two were black.
Out of the 20, 15 people threatened the police with real or simulated firearms before being shot and killed. Three victims brandished knives. One attacked police with a car. Another reached for the officer’s gun, according to the district attorney decision letter.
Seven people shot at police.
Six had previous arrests for carrying concealed weapons illegally, possessing a weapon while intoxicated or felony menacing with a real or simulated weapon. Not all suspects were charged with an offense.
Anyone charged with a felony cannot legally own a gun in Colorado. But illegal concealed carry and carrying a gun while intoxicated are in many cases a misdemeanor.
Sonny Jackson, spokesman for the Denver Police Department, said every officer-involved shooting had its nuances, and blanket statements should not be made.
“I know officers are trained to stop the threat. No one feels good about having to use a weapon,” Jackson said.
Persons shot by police carried legal guns, illegal guns, dysfunctional guns, pellet guns and even toy guns.
Jackson said that Denver police thought realistic-looking replica weapons “represent issues,” the same as illegal guns carried by people who cannot own a gun under Colorado law.
“If you have something you are not supposed to have, that’s a problem,” Jackson said.
ALMOST ONE-THIRD WERE SUICIDAL
Roughly a third of the offenders had expressed suicidal thoughts or were experiencing mental illness prior to their deaths by the hands of police, according to district attorney decision letters.
Individuals who were shot by police while they were experiencing suicidal episodes often had an arrest record lacking weapons offenses or a clean arrest record and typically did not fire a weapon at police.
“I believe there are indeed people who are suicidal and engage law enforcement in their deaths,” said Jarrod Hindman, suicide prevention unit manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Hindman said his office encouraged calling law enforcement to help with a person who is in danger of harming themselves as a last resort. Before that, friends and family should encourage the individual to see their primary care physician, go to the emergency room or call the suicide lifeline. Lifeline also offers advice to someone who is helping a suicidal individual.
Hindman said that while these individuals were a small group compared to overall suicide numbers, the real toll was on law enforcement. First responders also experience an elevated level of suicide, Hindman said.
“It’s a male-dominated field, and access to lethal means is a component,” Hindman said. “Law enforcement officers are very familiar with firearms and how to use them. It’s something they are trying to change, but it’s still very much a culture of taking care of themselves, and it keeps guys from reaching out and asking for help.”
CONCRETE CASES DIFFER
Out of the seven who are confirmed to have opened fire on officers, four had previously been arrested for mishandling weapons, Colorado Bureau of Investigation background checks showed. Two had no felony record.
Sonny Archuleta of Aurora shot and killed his sister-in-law, his father-in-law and a family friend at a residence in Aurora and was shot in a standoff with police at the same location on Jan. 5, 2013. Archuleta had been arrested for prohibited use of a weapon twice and carrying a concealed weapon once in between 2004 and 2012. He had no felony record.
Ronette Morales of Denver exchanged gunfire with police at her apartment when officers tried to serve a warrant on Jan. 30, 2013. Morales was arrested for menacing with a deadly weapon in 2011, but the charge was dismissed by the district attorney. Morales was shot by police in the presence of her two children. She had no felony record.
Two offenders opened fire on police who had no previous arrest record.
Christopher Tavares of Colorado Springs injured Pueblo police officer Michael Slattery in a New Year’s day shooting before being shot by officers. His was the first gun death in Colorado in 2013.
Gerald Rubin of Durango took an overdose of pain medication on April 29, 2013. He fired at officers who were alerted to his suicidal behavior in a Durango park.
If you feel you are in danger of harming yourself or someone else, please talk to someone. Call the 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit http://www.suicidepreventioncolorado.org/.
CU News Corps is an investigative news project housed in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. Currently, graduate students and undergrads are working on two projects: Colorado Gun Dialog and a 2014 election fact-checking project.
CU News Corps has been tracking Colorado gun deaths since January 2013 and has had stories published in several Colorado media outlets during that time. Find archived stories at http://cunewscorps.com/category/gundialogproject/.