Was "Contagious Shooting" a Factor in Confrontation Between DPD and Keith Roberts?

A screenshot of the body cam video taken by Joey Gasca on June 17.
A screenshot of the body cam video taken by Joey Gasca on June 17. Denver Police Department, Courtesy of Jason Flores-Williams
Last Father's Day — June 18, 2017 — the Denver Police Department received a 911 call stating that a man, later identified as Keith Roberts, had threatened someone with a gun near Falcon Park in Montbello. Officers raced to the area, where Roberts was found driving a silver Chevrolet Impala. A high-speed car chase ensued, and Denver Police officers allege that Roberts reached speeds of 80 miles per hour on Interstate 225 and threatened three pursuing cruisers with a rifle, a handgun and a red bandanna (a known symbol of the Bloods gang).

The chase would extend into and end in Aurora, where a police cruiser rammed Roberts's car as it was turning into an apartment complex at East Alameda Parkway and East Ohio Drive.

What happened next is now the subject of a lawsuit being heard in Arapahoe County District Court.

According to a report compiled by Larry Bailey, deputy district attorney of Colorado's 18th Judicial District, Denver Police officers Christopher Bailey and Joey Gasca were justified in using deadly force, firing 27 — maybe 28 — rounds at Roberts's car (also hitting their own DPD cruiser). Roberts was shot eight times but survived after he was transported to the Medical Center of Aurora.

The report lays out Roberts's criminal history: “a documented member of the Inglewood Family Gangster Bloods...his arrests include Aggravated Robbery (with a gun), Possession of a Weapon by a Previous Offender, Burglary, Possession of a Controlled Substance, Possession of a Handgun by a Juvenile, and Protection Order Violation.”

Roberts faces an uphill battle in court, with some sixteen charges filed against him, including evading police officers and illegally possessing firearms, two of which — a handgun and AR-15 rifle — were loaded.

Roberts's defense attorney, Jason Flores-Williams — a contentious figure in his own right, and the subject of a December 2016 cover story titled  “Ready for Action” — is pushing back against claims that his client personally possessed the weapons, had waved them outside of the car, or was attempting a suicide-by-cop, which an officer overheard Roberts saying in the hospital, according to the report.

Regarding the suicide-by-cop claim, Flores-Williams says, “even alluding to that is racist. [Roberts] was a black guy taking a Father's Day card to his Vietnam veteran grandfather. A family called 911 and said there's a black guy with a gun — even though there's like 10,000 cowboys driving around Denver with weapons in their cars — and then because the state used grossly excessive and indiscriminate force in a poor neighborhood, now they're trying to condemn him to 85 years in prison with this trial.”

Flores-Williams's argument also questions whether at least one of the officers, Gasca, was justified in using deadly force on Roberts. The reason, Flores-Williams says, is that Gasca may have been engaged in “contagious shooting” — a phenomenon in which an officer starts firing only because another officer is already firing, without independently assessing whether there is legal justification to use a weapon. Gasca's body-cam footage shows him firing his semi-automatic pistol at Roberts within seconds of exiting his police cruiser. That video, below, is graphic and may disturb some readers.

Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and an author who has written books and articles for The Nation and the New York Times about policing and police brutality, thinks that contagious shooting may have played a role in the Roberts incident.

“[Gasca] started shooting so quickly, so my first question was — and I wish we had the audio — is he responding to the other officer firing, or is he responding to the person in the vehicle firing? Because this could be a contagious-shooting incident."

A single spent .223 cartridge was later found in Roberts's car, but Flores-Williams claims his client did not shoot at the officers or even touch the guns in his car. It is unclear when that cartridge was fired, and both officers who shot at Roberts claim that they saw glass “shattering” or “exploding” in the corner of the Impala's windshield, which they assumed to be Roberts “engaging” them.

In the same report, Gasca admitted that he had trouble seeing Roberts because “the sun was at 'high noon,' which created significant glare.”

Vitale explains that contagious shooting is problematic because it is not legal — a police officer can't fire on someone simply because another officer is firing — and because it has led to excessive bullets fired in urban areas, putting innocent bystanders at risk.

As examples, he cites the Sean Bell case in New York, “when fifty shots were fired on a residential street,” and the Amadou Diallo case in 1999, when a black man was shot at 41 times but only hit nineteen times; the rest of the bullets were found lodged next to apartment doors and around a vestibule.

"It's important to keep in mind that large numbers of innocent bystanders get shot by police. And police shoot each other. And they shoot themselves. So there should be a broad consensus that firearms control is a legitimate concern,” says Vitale. “There is an understanding among training officers that [contagious shooting] is an issue. A good firearms training protocol would include stuff to address contagious-shooting potential. [That's] because up until about 25 years ago, the vast majority of police officers carried .38 revolvers, with only five or six shots, and you've got to really pull the trigger each time. Now they've got these fifteen-in-the-magazine, one-in-the-chamber firearms that dramatically increase the frequency of these high-bullet-count incidents."

At a pre-trial hearing for Roberts's case on January 2 in Arapahoe County, Flores-Williams says that prosecutors admitted that none of the weapons found in Roberts's car had his fingerprints on them:

“Today we established, and they admitted, that they did not find fingerprints on any of the weapons. So the state's entire story, that Keith [Roberts] was driving around waving weapons at people, falls apart. The ludicrous part of it is that he was driving around at 80 miles an hour hanging a red bandanna out the window, then an AR, because on a physical level, that's a near impossibility. Either he's the next Hollywood action star, or that's impossible.”

When Westword asked the Denver Police Department about Roberts's case, we were given a copy of Bailey's assessment, which concluded that deadly force was warranted. When we asked whether the department addresses contagious shooting in its officer training, a DPD spokesman declined to comment further, as the case is an open investigation.

Gasca had also been one of the responding officers at an incident at the Denver Zoo in 2011 during which Alonzo Ashley was killed. The City of Denver agreed to pay a wrongful-death settlement of $295,000 to Ashley's family in 2016.

Roberts's trial starts on January 22 at the Arapahoe County District Courthouse in Centennial.

Below is the full report on the Roberts shooting.

Roberts Shooting DA's Assessment

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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker