At 2:10 a.m. on December 19, Denver police officer Timothy Campbell was standing in the middle of the street in a west Denver neighborhood, his gun pointed at a man.
The patrolman had been driving north on Irving Street when he'd passed a 1997 Saturn that seemed suspicious. When Campbell made a U-turn, the Saturn quickly sped down a side street and pulled into a driveway. As the officer drove up, a man — he looked to be in his early thirties, Hispanic, wearing a light, baggy jacket — jumped out of the car and ran. Campbell followed him on foot, through back yards and over fences. The man reached the 3200 block of West Ada Place, where he slipped on a patch of ice. He got up and continued down the street, falling twice more. By now Campbell had closed the gap, and when the man got up again, the two were facing each other, less than ten feet apart. Campbell had his service pistol drawn: a .45-caliber semi-automatic Glock.
The man reached into his pants pocket, put his hand behind his back, then started moving his hand forward. Campbell saw the glint of something metallic. He fired two rounds, paused, then fired four more. The man fell onto a pile of dirty snow.
When paramedics arrived just after 2:15 a.m., they found 33-year-old Jason T. Gomez, hit in the shoulder, stomach and legs, mortally wounded. Near his left hand, they spotted a white Bic lighter with a silver rim.
A lighter on the pavement where there should have been a gun — that sight can make even the most hard-boiled law-and-order types queasy. And the image of a dying, unarmed man, a minority shot by a cop, can rip open a city's carefully patched-together image. When news broke that Gomez had been pronounced dead at Denver Health, readers began leaving online comments comparing Gomez's lighter to the soda can that Frank Lobato reportedly was holding when he was shot and killed in his home by a Denver officer in 2004. Or the kitchen knife that Paul Childs had in his hand when the mentally disabled teen was shot and killed by cops the year before. The posters reached back nearly a decade, to the death of Mexican immigrant Ismael Mena, shot by SWAT officers in a botched drug raid.
"[Gomez] was not a perfect person, but [he] did not deserve to have an entire clip of bullets emptied into him for pulling out a lighter," said one.
"Again, Denver cops are exterminating Blacks and Mexicans," wrote another.
Long before Campbell faced off against Gomez on that icy street, though, the Denver Police Department had started taking a long, hard look at what role race played in officer-involved shootings. To do so, it was using an unlikely tool: a rudimentary video simulation developed by psychologists at the University of Colorado. Over the past half-dozen years, that simple computer game has allowed researchers to not only measure the influence that cultural bias has on police decisions, but to make some surprising discoveries regarding how the human mind forms and acts upon racial prejudice.
In 2002, Tracie Keesee spotted a small article in the Rocky Mountain News about a CU study demonstrating that participants playing a virtual-simulation scenario were quicker to fire at black male figures than at whites. This interested Keesee, who was not only a University of Denver graduate student working toward a degree in criminal justice, but also a lieutenant in the DPD with deep roots in the city's African-American community.
"I thought it was really relevant to large police organizations — the use of deadly force and how it impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans," says Keesee, who's now a district commander considered a strong candidate to become the city's first female and first black police chief. "Whenever you read the newspaper, whether it be New York or Chicago or Denver, it continues to be a very prevalent question."
Over the years, law-enforcement officials have used hundreds of jargon-filled euphemisms to avoid the query at the heart of so many police-shooting controversies: Are cops more trigger-happy when aiming guns at minorities? Since the 1970s, sociologists and political scientists have consistently found that minority suspects in the United States face lethal force from police officers at a disproportionate rate. According to 2001 figures from the Department of Justice, black suspects were five times more likely to be shot and killed by officers than white suspects. But that same study also showed that the chances of a police officer getting shot by a black man were about five times higher than by a white man. And how much could these findings be attributed to the fact that minorities are much more likely to face economic deprivation and populate disadvantaged, high-crime areas — and thus have a greater probability of contentious encounters with police?