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Report: Police-Involved Shootings Escalate in Colorado

Stephanie Cook, CU News Corps

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Note: This story was produced for The Denver Post and for Public News Service, and ran in the Post’s newspaper on March 5, 2017. Nearly 40 PNS stations ran an audio version of the story, and it also ran on the PNS website

The number of officer-involved shootings in Colorado has increased each year since 2011, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of incidents reported by law enforcement nearly doubled, from 27 in 2011 to 52 in 2015.

While data from the second half of 2016 is not yet published, a higher percentage of officer-involved shootings resulted in death during the first six months of last year than during any of the previous six years.

The report, released this week, includes data on officer-involved shooting incidents that occurred between Jan. 1, 2010 and June 30, 2016. Across the state, 75 law enforcement agencies contributed information to the report.

Of all incidents recorded in the report, one resulted in an officer’s death. In contrast, nearly half of all citizens involved in shootings with officers were killed – 132 of the 294 total. Another 34 percent of citizens were wounded, compared with 7 percent of officers.

Civilians involved in police shootings were more diverse racially than the officers themselves. Minorities comprised at least 43 percent of those shot – 29 percent were Hispanic and 14 percent were black. In comparison, 10 percent of officers were Hispanic and 5 percent were black.

According to data collected by the state demographer’s office between 2011 and 2014, Colorado’s general population is 70 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 4 percent black, 3 percent Asian and 1 percent American Indian. The divide between law enforcement and citizens, especially minorities, is something police and community leaders in Denver say they are working to address.

“People see a police officer for the uniform and not for the human that lives there,” said Alexandra Alonso, the program manager for the Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy & Research Organization. “Looking at the other side of that lens, there were a lot of community members who showed up and said, ‘Police officers are not meeting us where we are. There’s not enough dialogue.’”

Alonso said Denver Police Department Commander Ron Thomas has made an effort to open up communication with the city’s Latino and black communities, holding meetings with organizations like CLLARO and Black Lives Matter 5280.

The new report is the result of a 2015 Senate Bill mandating that Colorado law enforcement agencies collect and report certain data specific to officer involved shootings. A previous report, spanning from 2010 to June 30, 2015, was the first to be completed under the law.

“We drafted SB 217 because we knew the issue was on the public’s mind,” said former Colorado state senator Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley. “Rather than have it be addressed reactively, we wanted to get ahead of it.”

Roberts said she is proud that those behind the legislation acted proactively and with bipartisan support.

While 279 agencies meet the reporting requirements, only 75 participated. That number is up from 2016, when 48 agencies submitted relevant data. Of the 75 agencies that contributed to the updated report, only 48 actually reported one or more officer-involved shooting. This is thanks in part to a “no incidents” collection tool added this year, which resulted in 27 additional agencies to comply.

While the bill created a uniform procedure for compiling data on officer involved shootings, some agencies were already keeping track of these instances prior to the legislation.

“We were ahead of the bill,” said Aurora Police Department spokesperson Crystal McCoy. “We were reporting and prepared for the bill and doing it prior.”

Under the new reporting mandate, the state compiles information on a range of topics. The report outlines fundamental facts, such as the number of officer involved shootings that take place and how many people are killed or injured, as well as more detailed topics, including the racial makeup of officers and citizens involved, whether or not officers issued a verbal warning prior to shooting and what type of weapons were involved.

Some categories included in the report seem difficult for agencies to answer. For example, one table offers a breakdown of the sexual orientation of citizens involved in incidents. The table is vague, with 89 percent of citizens categorized as “unknown” and the other 11 percent classified as straight.

Asking questions about a person’s sexual orientation is not routine, McCoy said, but some suspects may offer the information voluntarily. Another table on the percentage of citizens with disabilities – and what type of disability they might have – is similarly vague.

State and law enforcement officials who favor the reporting mandate hope the reports will enhance transparency between law enforcement and the public.

“The data provided in this report allows the public to dig deeper to learn more about the factors and people involved in these incidents,” said Denver Police Department spokesperson Doug Schepman.

The Denver Police Department also goes beyond state reporting requirements by posting data on its state website and posting findings from officer-involved shooting incidents spanning back to 2010 on the Denver District Attorney’s Office website, Schepman said.

In addition, recording and analyzing data from officer-involved shootings can help the state avoid misinformation and identify any issues that may need to be systematically addressed, Roberts said.

“The benefits are that, to date, although it’s not been in existence a long time, we’ve not had a police shooting that I’m aware of where rumor got ahead of fact,” she said.

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Explanatory Multimedia Reporting from CU Boulder Journalism Students
Report: Police-Involved Shootings Escalate in Colorado