Law Enforcement

DPD's Latest Fatal Shooting and How to Prevent More Bloodshed

An image from a Police Executive Research Forum video intended to train officers how to deal with suicidal suspects.
An image from a Police Executive Research Forum video intended to train officers how to deal with suicidal suspects.
On Saturday night, January 25, Denver police officers ended the life of an armed robbery suspect they pursued into Aurora. It was the ninth officer-involved shooting of the new year in Colorado as a whole, the second time Denver Police Department personnel killed a man in Aurora in a matter of weeks, and the third death at the hands of DPD officers this month.

The latter total is almost half the number of individuals shot to death by Denver cops in all of 2019. Denver police officers took part in ten shootings over that span, with seven ending in a casualty.

The bloodshed statewide was even greater last year; the 68 officer-involved shootings in Colorado represents the highest sum since at least 2010 and may constitute a grisly new record. This toll begs a simple question: What can police do to decrease the body count?

Plenty, according to Chuck Wexler. The executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., Wexler believes the key is better and more consistent training. But all too often, that's not happening.

"Right now, a lot of departments are using 20th-century training for 21st-century policing," Wexler says. "And there's no central repository where departments can get training. We don't have national guidelines, and American policing is very fragmented. We have 18,000 police departments, and 80 percent of them have 25 officers or less — and many of them are stuck with training that's been taught for the last twenty years, even though there's been a revolution in how we train. The challenge is to let everyone know about it."

To that end, PERF has released three reports that are intended to get police departments up to speed on techniques that represent best practices in terms of resolving confrontations in ways that leave both suspects and officers alive afterward: 2015's "Re-engineering Training on Police Use of Force," 2016's "Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) Training Guide" and the recently issued "Suicide by Cop: Protocol and Training Guide."

These documents don't tout new policing tools as the magic ingredient. "It's not about less lethal tech," Wexler maintains. "We've become too dependent on things like tasers, which don't work for a variety of reasons 40 percent of the time. And if these electronic-control weapons fail 40 percent of the time, you need to have a Plan B."

The use of rubber bullets is also a nonstarter. "I don't know of a single department that uses them routinely," he divulges.

"Re-engineering Training" notes that the emphasis on maintaining the sanctity of human life is focused on law enforcement, and argues for a shift that would include suspects, too. The analysis also rejects a theory summed up as "Never back down — move in and take charge" and refutes the so-called 21-foot rule, which was originally based on a 1983 magazine article that described "the distance an officer must keep from a suspect armed with a knife in order to give the officer enough time to draw and fire his gun if the suspect suddenly charges him with a knife."

The latter two approaches are "completely outdated," Wexler feels, "but that's still how some police officers are trained."

The ICAT training guide, for its part, promotes officer safety and wellness by recognizing that "involvement in a police shooting can have detrimental and lasting effects on officers." It calls for mandatory wellness visits, follow-up visits, peer support, efforts to address collateral stress and attempts to keep officers better informed by way of regular scenario-based training, in which individuals are placed in simulations of dangerous situations they may encounter on the streets. The five-step process to deal with such challenges breaks down like so:

1. Collect information
2. Assess situation, risks and threats
3. Consider police powers and agency policy
4. Identify options and determine the best course of action
5. Act, review and reassess

The latest publication, "Suicide by Cop," addresses issues that have become all too prevalent in recent years — and have led to a tremendous number of preventable tragedies. It's accompanied by training videos such as this one:

"Up to this point, there's been no protocol for dealing with these situations," Wexler allows. "And many things that officers have been trained to do in other situations don't work. If you're dealing with someone who is suicidal, and you know that, aiming a firearm at them exacerbates the situation. It makes it worse."

If someone is in crisis, he continues, "the most important thing you can do is communicate with this person — and that doesn't mean pointing a firearm at them and barking orders. If you have a bank robber who's stabbing people, that's a different situation. That's a use-of-force situation, not a medical emergency. So you have to make safety a priority. You start to step back from the person, not move toward them, because a police officer can't do what they need to do if they're not safe. We're not asking officers to take more risks. We're asking them to take care of their situation first, make sure they're safe, and then communicate."

As the report states: "Talking to a suicidal person — establishing a personal connection and a relationship of trust — is the most effective way of defusing [suicide-by-cop] incidents."

Wexler thinks following these collected principles will greatly reduce officer-involved shootings — but eliminating them entirely is more difficult, partly because of the culture around firearms. "When police are confronted with a gun, there are limited options," he concedes. "That's what makes America stand out compared to other countries for police."

Here's the list of Colorado police shootings in 2020 thus far. As you'll see, the majority have happened in metro Denver.

Jan. 1 — Denver
Jan. 6 — Aurora (involving Denver police officers)
Jan. 8 — Aurora
Jan. 11 — New Castle
Jan. 12 — Colorado Springs
Jan. 12  — Wheat Ridge
Jan. 22 — Arapahoe County
Jan. 22 — Arvada
Jan. 25 — Aurora (involving Denver police officers)

Click to access three Police Executive Research Forum reports: "Re-engineering Training on Police Use of Force," "Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) Training Guide" and "Suicide by Cop: Protocol and Training Guide."
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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