Law Enforcement

DA: Antonio Blackbear Police Killing Justified Even Though Gun Was Fake

The September 9 killing of Antonio Blackbear led to protests in which Denver Police Department officers clashed with demonstrators up in arms over another person of color being fatally shot by cops. But Denver District Attorney Beth McCann has determined that no charges will be pressed in the case, even though the weapon Blackbear was carrying at the time of his death was an Airsoft pistol rather than an actual deadly weapon.

In a statement, McCann maintains that "this was a clear cut situation: Mr. Blackbear was threatening lives as these officers responded to several community members’ calls for help. ... When Mr. Blackbear saw the officers, he pointed what convincingly appeared to be a Glock handgun directly at these officers and they acted in self-defense and in defense of others."

The decision letter issued by McCann regarding the actions of Denver Police officers Kyle Saunier and Lynnea Vento includes an account of the confrontation shaped to support the police narrative.

Around 5 p.m. on September 9, the letter states, Saunier and Vento were dispatched to the area near West Tenth Avenue and Inca Street following multiple 911 reports about a man with a handgun. Subsequently discovered surveillance footage showed that the suspect, later identified as Blackbear, had come to the area from the light-rail station at Colfax and Auraria, where he could be seen carrying the Airsoft pistol, whose resemblance to a Gen 3 Glock 17 is emphasized.

The officers encountered Blackbear at around 5:19 p.m., after he'd aimed the pistol at the reportedly terrified occupant of a Ford Explorer. As Saunier and Vento took cover, Blackbear is said to have trained the Airsoft at a twosome in a pickup — "a man and his ten-year-old son on their way to football practice."

After waiting for Blackbear to move away, Saunier delivered a command: "Show me your hands!" In response, Blackbear reportedly pointed at the officers, both of whom unloaded on him multiple times. Blackbear initially survived the onslaught but succumbed to his injuries just after midnight on September 10. The shooting incident took approximately fifteen seconds.

Here's a look at some of the fallout from protests that took place shortly after Blackbear's death.

The decision letter highlights accounts from Saunier, Vento and several witnesses, after which McCann offers her judgment about what went down.

"Officers Saunier and Vento were justified in using deadly force to arrest Mr. Blackbear," McCann writes. "Under these circumstances, other means of apprehension were unreasonable. Mr. Blackbear was in the midst of committing several felonies and he posed an immediate threat to the officers and others in the area. Finally, the officers waited until the area behind Mr. Blackbear was clear of bystanders before confronting him so as not to create a substantial risk of injury to other persons. To provide earlier or additional commands would have unduly placed the officers and civilians at risk of injury and would create a risk of death to other persons in the immediate area."

As for the fact that the gun was essentially a toy, McCann notes that it was "designed to look like a real Glock brand handgun." As such, "officers Saunier and Vento...had an objectively reasonable belief that they or another person was in imminent danger of being killed or receiving serious bodily injury. Mr. Blackbear was pointing and aiming the pistol as if it were a real handgun capable of causing death."

In McCann's view, "There is no doubt these officers thought this was a real gun capable of causing death to themselves and the bystander in the area. ... Indeed, both officers as well as several witnesses believed Mr. Blackbear fired his replica gun at the officers."

McCann is scheduled to discuss her decision during an online community meeting scheduled to take place from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Monday, November 30 (access that gathering here).

Click to read the Antonio Blackbear Denver Police shooting decision letter.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts