Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game

Are Denver cops trigger-happy for minorities? A video game might hold the answer.

Though I admit I have never fired a gun in my life, I am given a handgun.

"Do I have to wait for the person to point it at me?" I ask.

"Not necessarily," Rybkowski says. "A lot of it depends on your perception. Do I perceive a threat? It's something that we deal with as far as the law goes. Let's say I see someone just bringing the gun up. I can shoot. Or maybe you have a suicidal party that has their gun like this." He points his fingers like a gun and puts it to his temple. "And they move their gun. How much time does it take to go from here to there? It's all about your perception of a threat, and that's what you have to be able to articulate, which is also part of the training. Can I articulate why I did what I did, and does it follow state law? Does it follow department policy?"

Commander Tracie Keesee took the Denver Police Department to a new level when she suggested working with CU.
tony gallagher
Commander Tracie Keesee took the Denver Police Department to a new level when she suggested working with CU.
Bernadette Park and other researchers at CUSP are using a video game to test a deadly serious issue.
tony gallagher
Bernadette Park and other researchers at CUSP are using a video game to test a deadly serious issue.

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Are you a trigger-happy racist? Find out here.

"Do I have to give any voice commands?"

"Absolutely."

"Like, 'Drop the gun'?"

But before I get an answer, the simulation has begun. A recorded voice tells me that I've gotten a report of a suspicious individual by a parked car. The video has me approaching the side of a car; there's an older black male in the driver's seat. I see something on the seat next to him, but he's already grabbed it and swings it around to me. I barely have time to utter "Drop the gu—" before he hits me with a spray of bullets. I fire back twice, but it's clear I am dead.

Then we run through the simulation again, and instead of reaching for a gun, the man suddenly pulls out his ID and cooperates.

Another simulation features a suicidal waitress holding a knife to her wrist. Rybkowski tells me it was filmed at a local C.B. & Potts. When the waitress comes at me with the knife, I shoot her twice, both direct hits. I am feeling proud of myself until Rybkowski tells me that I got so close the waitress could have stabbed me. I should have stepped farther away, behind a table or other obstacle.

The next simulation is a robbery situation in a bar, where I get fired upon by a white male. Again, I am dead.

Rybkowski says the MILO works well because it forces officers into situations where they have to learn to take multiple factors into account so that race becomes irrelevant.

"The fact of the matter is, we all do have prejudices," he admits. "But through training and experience, you have to learn how to put those aside and treat everybody the same way. And that means treat everybody with respect and professionalism, first of all. But also, if I would have been biased in my life to think of a person as perhaps being more of a threat than someone else because of their race, I might be making a big mistake. My life might depend on that. If I have two males, one's white and one's black, but if I'm focused on the black because I have a bias to him as a threat, well, he may not be the problem.

"Maybe it's the other guy."


In 1996, then-Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter asked retired Colorado Supreme Court justice William Erickson to chair a special advisory commission and look into police deadly-force procedures after the death of Jeffrey Truax, who was shot by two Denver officers moonlighting at a Broadway club. The Erickson Commission ultimately reinforced the DA's existing process of determining if criminal charges should be filed against an officer following a shooting, but advised that certain changes be enacted to promote openness. Some of its recommendations were implemented in 2003 by new Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who created the DPD's Use of Force and Tactics Review Board and mandated that the Denver Manager of Safety, who oversees the police department, also issue a public report after any DPD incident involving use of force that results in a citizen's death or serious bodily injury.

Two years later, after the shooting of Paul Childs, the city also established the Office of the Independent Monitor, hiring as its director Richard Rosenthal, who came from a similar position in Portland. Denver is now one of only five cities in the country that has a city-funded watchdog independent of the police department whose sole focus is police use of force, Rosenthal says.

Today, whenever a Denver officer intentionally shoots at a human being, the incident is investigated by four separate entities, each of which issues a report. The DA's office determines whether the officer should be charged criminally; the DPD's Use of Force Review Board considers whether the officer's decision to shoot violated department policy; the Denver Manager of Safety issues a comprehensive report, and the OIM also issues an assessment.

The monitor's office doesn't just review documents after the fact; it's involved as soon as a shooting occurs. The OIM has a "roll-out protocol" that applies to assorted critical-force situations. In 2007, there were sixteen roll-outs, seven of which involved shootings.

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