Thornton Won't Pay for City Employees' Damages From Police Shootout | Westword

Thornton Employees Suffer Thousands in Damages in Police Shootout, but City Won't Pay

"It would cost him 25 hours of work to pay for damage that occurred because he was working for the city in the first place."
Three City of Thornton employees found their vehicles littered with bullet holes from the shootout.
Three City of Thornton employees found their vehicles littered with bullet holes from the shootout.
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An average workday turned into a tragedy for employees of Thornton's Margaret W. Carpenter Recreation Center, when a police shootout erupted on the morning of May 14.

An adult male suspect reportedly ran away from police during a traffic stop, fleeing into the rec center's parking lot. He then allegedly opened fire on an officer, who shot back, fatally wounding the unnamed suspect, according to the Thornton Police Department. When the dust settled, rec center employees were left shaken — and for some, the damage was more than psychological.

Three employees found their vehicles littered with bullet holes from the shootout. Now they're stuck with the bill, says Jason Morton, whose son Christian's car was caught in the crossfire while he was working as a lifeguard at the rec center.

"To make Christian pay for the [insurance] deductible victimizes him all over again," Morton says. "We're not blaming the police for this at all. But it should be the city's responsibility to pay. ... If they hadn't been city employees and hadn't been at work, their cars wouldn't have been damaged."

Morton started a petition calling for the City of Thornton to cover insurance deductibles for the employees whose vehicles were damaged by the gunfire. The petition has collected over 200 signatures as of June 14.

Christian, 22, bought the car himself less than two years ago. The blue Toyota Corolla was in the middle of the firefight, taking gunshots from both the suspect and police, Morton says. Three of the four side windows were shot out, and there were two bullet holes in the car's body. Morton says estimates to fix the damage ranged from $6,500 to $17,000; after insurance coverage, they have to pay a $500 deductible.
click to enlarge A blue car with two passenger-side windows shot out and a bullethole near the trunk.
Christian Morton's vehicle was severely damaged during the shootout.
Jason Morton

"For Christian, who earns $20 an hour as a lifeguard, it seemed unfair that it would cost him 25 hours of work to pay for damage that occurred because he was working for the city in the first place," Morton says. "And the car, even if it's repaired very well, is going to have lost some of its value because it's now a car that's been in a gunfight."

But the city has no plans to pay up — and it likely has no legal responsibility to do so, as courts have ruled that governments are not liable for private property damage that occurs when police enforce criminal law.

"We understand and sympathize with everyone affected by the public safety emergency," says Thornton spokesperson Todd Barnes in a statement. "Thornton has responded to employees affected with a variety of resources and support through our Employee Assistance Program. There are elements of a situation such as this that are not covered by programs offered by the city and for which people have to rely on their private insurance for coverage."

Thornton's Employee Assistance Program offers "non-financial assistance" such as counseling, Barnes says. He adds that the city is set on its decision not to provide any monetary compensation for damage to the three vehicles.

"If there were a hailstorm and employees' cars in the parking lot at one of our facilities were caught in the storm and damaged, the city would not cover deductibles for those employees," Barnes explains.

However, Morton argues that an unavoidable weather incident should be treated differently than a shooting that occurs on city property, involves city police and victimizes city employees who were on duty, serving their community.

Christian has been a lifeguard at the rec center since he was sixteen. He attends college in Idaho but works at the rec center during his summer breaks. For the last month, he's been left without a reliable way to get to work because of the incident, Morton says, putting strain on his family.

"It's been very frustrating for Christian. He worked really, really hard for that car. It's his pride and joy. He was devastated," Morton says. "My wife and I have tried to be his champions and tried to help the city look at this from a position of accountability, instead of just their legal liability."

Morton's petition is directed to Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann and Thornton City Council members Jessica Sandgren and Roberta Ayala, who represent the ward where the shooting took place. Kulmann and Sandgren didn't respond to requests for comment from Westword — but Ayala says she is working on the issue.

Ayala says she is gauging council support for a study to create an Employee Assistance Fund that would help city workers "in times of crisis and tragic loss."

"My focus is on the future, and in my conversation with the car owner's father, we discussed the need to make sure our city workers feel supported in times of crisis and loss," Ayala says. "A fund like this could support city staff in times like these, and I want to make sure that if we have other incidents or tragic events, we have a fund in place to support workers in need."

State Representative Julia Marvin, who represents Thornton, says her office is looking into state-level resources or policies that could help the situation. She's been collaborating with Ayala on exploring municipal-level solutions, as well.

"I'm waiting right now and trying to be hopeful," Morton says. "Even if we can't solve anything for Christian and the other two employees, maybe we can change things for the better. Maybe we can help others who will be caught in this unfortunate situation in the future."
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