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Nicholas Alvarado Morales shooting: Denver DA calls officer-involved incident justified

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On December 15, in the days after Denver Police Officer Kevin Ford shot and killed Nicholas Alvarado Morales, a Mexican national in the U.S. illegally, reports surfaced suggesting that cops kicked and beat the severely wounded man while taking him into custody.

These assertions are addressed tangentially in Denver DA Mitch Morrissey's letter to DPD chief Gerry Whitman about the shooting. However, the focus is on whether or not Ford was justified in firing on Morales -- and Morrissey concludes that he was.

The following account appears in a section entitled "Statement of Facts:"

On December 12, 2009 at 11:57 p.m. the first of a number of citizens called 9-1-1 to report a person firing shots in the vicinity of South Knox Court and West Louisiana Avenue. After taking information from the callers, Officer Ford, working car 431-A, was dispatched at 12:02:46 a.m. to locate and apprehend the suspect. Officer Stephen Garber, working car 432-A was dispatched at 12:03:00 a.m. to cover Officer Ford. The suspect was described as an Hispanic male ... 5 feet 8 inches tall ... 145 pounds ... all black clothes ... black hoody ... walking down the middle of the street shooting a handgun in an unknown direction ... about 4 shots fired. Officer Ford and Cadet Nicole Martinez ("Cadet Martinez") were traveling eastbound on West Louisiana Avenue when they made visual contact with the described suspect who was at the intersection of West Louisiana Avenue and South Patton Court. Officer Ford illuminated the suspect with his spotlight. Officer Ford radioed at 12:05:35 a.m., "With one." (This indicated that Officer Ford had a visual spotting of the described suspect.)

The suspect, later identified as Nicholas Alvarado Morales ("Morales"), was walking westbound on the sidewalk on the north side of West Louisiana Avenue with both hands in his black-hoody pockets. As Morales crossed Patton Court, Officer Ford turned left in the intersection of South Patton Court to pull in behind Morales, intending to exit his marked patrol car to contact him. Officer Ford made this tactical move in order to place himself and the left side of his patrol car between Morales and Cadet Martinez, because he believed Morales was armed with a firearm. Cadet Martinez was on her mandatory monthly ride along with a Denver police officer as part of the Denver Police Cadet Program.

As Officer Ford stopped his Denver Police patrol car northbound in the intersection, Morales stopped and turned facing Officer Ford and Cadet Martinez. Officer Ford put his hand on his service pistol, but did not draw it. As Officer Ford was exiting his patrol car, he saw Morales pull a pistol with his right hand from his right-hoody pocket, holding the pistol close to his body as he leveled the barrel in the direction of Officer Ford and Cadet Martinez. Officer Ford drew his service pistol and started to move quickly toward the back of his patrol car for cover. Cadet Martinez reacted to Morales' deadly threat by immediately exiting the passenger door and seeking cover behind the back tire.

Officer Ford raised his service pistol at Morales and repeatedly ordered Morales to drop the gun. Rather than dropping the firearm as commanded by Officer Ford, Morales began extending his arm and raising the firearm up toward eye level -- directly at Officer Ford. Officer Ford believed Morales was going to shoot him. He responded by firing five shots at Morales. Morales turned away as he fell to the pavement. Morales still had the firearm in his right hand. Morales rolled over on his back, kicking his feet as if he was trying to get up. At some point Morales' gun fell from his hand to the pavement. Officer Ford repeatedly ordered him to stay down. Morales did so at that time.

When Officer Garber heard Officer Ford's radio transmission that he was "With one," he accelerated westbound on West Louisiana Avenue to South Patton Court. As he pulled up to the intersection and was beginning to exit his patrol car, he heard multiple shots. He drew his service pistol as he exited. He could only see Officer Ford's upper body on the other side of Officer Ford's patrol car. He could see smoke from the gunshots. He did not know who had fired or if anyone had been shot. He saw Cadet Martinez crouched by the rear tire for cover. He immediately ran around the front of Officer Ford's patrol car to cover Morales and assist Officer Ford in taking him into custody. He saw a gun on the pavement near Morales. When Officer Ford saw Officer Garber was present to cover, dispatch was radioed, "Shots fired -- suspect down." It was 12:07:19 a.m. The two officers approached Morales with weapons drawn. Morales' firearm was still on the pavement near his head. Officer Garber kicked the weapon away from Morales' reach.

Officer Garber provided armed cover while Officer Ford holstered his service pistol and took out his handcuffs. When Officer Ford put a cuff on one wrist, Morales swung his other arm preventing completion of the cuffing. The officers repeatedly ordered Morales to "stop resisting" as they struggled to control him. Officer Garber still had his service pistol in his right hand. He only had his left hand available to gain control. Officer Ford had holstered his service pistol. Morales had not been patted down and it was unknown if he had any other weapons. Morales continued aggressively resisting efforts to handcuff him. The officers struggled in an attempt to gain control of Morales arms. Officer Garber told investigators he struck Morales in the area of his upper body and head with his service pistol, which was still in his right hand, in an effort to gain control.

At this time, Officer Brian Mudloff and Jeff DiManna arrived at the scene in separate patrol cars. Officer Mudloff saw the officers wrestling to control Morales. Morales was on his stomach actively resisting the officers. He saw two handguns on the ground in the area of Morales head. Officer DiManna pushed the firearm nearest Morales away from him to the west. The officers were then able to secure Morales' arms and handcuff him. After being cuffed, Morales continued to kick his legs at the officers.

Officers Mudloff and DiManna held his legs down until paramedics arrived. Twenty-one seconds after radioing, "Shots fired--suspect down," Officer Ford radioed, "Suspect in custody -- officer involved." It was 12:07:40 a.m. (This indicated the suspect was in custody and it was an officer-involved shooting.) Twelve seconds later, at 12:07:52 a.m., Officer Ford radioed, "Party shot." (This indicated confirmation that the suspect had, in fact, received a gun-shot wound.) Paramedics responded and placed Morales in the ambulance with officer assistance. Officer Mudloff rode with the treating paramedics to Denver Health Medical Center. Morales was pronounced dead at 12:37 a.m. by Dr. Peter Pryor.

And here are several key passages from the document's conclusion:

The intent of the officers who responded to the citizens' 9-1-1 calls of shots being fired in their neighborhood was to identify the suspect, protect the citizens from his dangerous conduct, and take the suspect into custody. Morales' armed, non-compliant, life threatening response to the police contact forced Officer Ford to shoot him.

Officers have a right to defend themselves from a perceived imminent deadly threat. Morales clearly presented a deadly threat to Officer Ford. There is no justification to draw a firearm and threaten a police officer who is performing his lawful duty. The officers were attempting to protect the citizens in this neighborhood from Morales' dangerous conduct. When an assailant is ordered by a uniformed police officer to drop a firearm in these circumstances, his refusal to do so invites a deadly force response by the officer.

Had Morales simply complied with Officer Ford's lawful commands, the confrontation would have ended peacefully at that time. Instead of dropping the firearm, Morales chose to point and raise the firearm at Officer Ford, who reacted to this deadly threat by shooting Morales. Morales suffered a single gunshot wound. Officer Ford stopped firing when Morales fell to the pavement and was no longer a direct threat.

Based on a review of the totality of facts developed in this investigation, we could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was unreasonable for Officer Ford to fire the shot that caused Morales' death. Therefore, no criminal charges are fileable against Officer Ford for his conduct in this incident.

Read the entire twenty-page letter here.

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