Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game

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

"We can cover the questions that night and not have to wait a month and try to get our questions answered," Rosenthal says. "The facts, the evidence, is established within 24 hours of any case. And this is the stuff we need to return our decisions. And most of the time, we find the department's decisions to be reasonable. But every once in a while, there are instances where we're not going to agree."

The Jason Gomez case is not one of them.

Gomez had an arrest record dating back to 1993 on charges of burglary, vandalism and assault, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Out on parole since February 2007, he was wanted again for a previous parole violation by last December, when Campbell spotted his Saturn moving erratically on Irving Street. A seven-year veteran of the force, Campbell decided to execute a U-turn and get the license-plate number, but the car made a quick move to the right and into a driveway.

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.

Details

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

As Campbell pulled up, a man exited the car and ran. After radioing dispatch, the officer gave chase. When he caught up with the man, he was "bobbing kind of like a fighting cock," Campbell later said. "He was prancing all around...jerking back and forth...bobbing his head." Along with making aggravated motions, the man also shouted, "I'm going to kill you" — loud enough so that the threat was heard by nearby residents inside their homes — and "GKI! GKI!," referring to the west-side gang Gallant Knights Insane. Campbell said he had his gun drawn when he observed the man pulling his arm from behind his back, and metal flashed. Campbell pulled the trigger twice. "Is that all you got?" the man yelled, and moved toward him, saying, "I'm going to kill you." Campbell shot him four more times before he fell.

Although several residents said they heard the commotion and the gunshots, only eighteen-year-old Max Alderton said he witnessed the incident.

In a statement given immediately after the shooting, Alderton said he was in bed when he heard screaming outside his window. He looked out and saw a "bald man," identified as Campbell, standing with another man, who was kneeling. "The bald guy was shouting, 'I'm gonna fucking kill you!'" Alderton said, adding that when the other man got up to run, "the bald man withdrew a gun, began chasing him and fired five to seven shots at him." But Alderton changed his version in a later video testimony, when he said the bald guy fired one shot after the other guy ran. At that point, Alderton said, he ran to tell his roommate to call 911 and heard more shots.

Investigators discounted Alderton's accounts because they didn't match up with autopsy results that showed all the bullet entry wounds being anterior rather than posterior. If Gomez had indeed been running away when Campbell fired, the bullets would have struck him in the back rather than the front. The autopsy also showed that Gomez had crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol in his system at the time of his death.

The DA's office decided not to charge Campbell in connection with the unarmed man's shooting. "The fact that Gomez made his verbal and physical threats to kill Campbell while possessing a lighter, rather than a firearm or edged weapon, is of no consequence under the facts of this case," the DA's report concluded. The OIM concurred with the DA's determination that Gomez's death was "suicide by cop." (The Manager of Safety has not yet released his report.)

Padilla, who is considering another lawsuit against the city in connection with Gomez's death, is skeptical of both Campbell's account and the subsequent investigations. "I think this raises very serious issues of the [DA's office] discounting the ear- and eyewitnesses to what they say occurred in this case," he says. "And to claim that this was suicide by cop belies common logic."

Gomez's sister, Cynthia Pacheco, says the behavior described by Campbell doesn't sound like anything her brother would do. "If this was in a different neighborhood, I think they would've taken steps," she says. "They could have Maced him, they could have Tased him, something like that. There are certain procedures they should follow instead of just shooting at people and killing them."

CUSP researchers are now studying Denver Police Academy cadets to see how well they perform the simulated-shooting task at different stages in their training. "One thing that they care about is that there isn't anything that goes on by way of training that would promote cultural bias," Park says of the DPD. "That's something that community members will often lob against the police, that if they don't come as racists, they're trained to be racists."

So far, however, the data shows that the cadets look and act like the community they're from when they enter the academy, which means they show race bias both in the latencies — differences in speed of decision to shoot — and the actual shooting errors. But by the time they exit the academy, they no longer display the race bias in errors. "They look much more like the police," Park says.

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