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Shootings by Denver Police Prompt Inquiries, and Outcry

With 11 people killed in the last 11/2 years, the City Council president says, 'Enough is enough.'

August 01, 2004|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Fatal shootings by Denver police have raised questions over the department's use of force and prompted the U.S. Justice Department to consider an investigation into local law enforcement.

The latest killing was July 11, when a Denver police officer looking for a domestic violence suspect crawled through an upstairs window and shot 63-year-old Frank Lobato as he lay in bed, watching television. Police said the officer thought Lobato, who was not the wanted man, was holding a gun. It turned out to be a soda can.

"Enough is enough," said Elbra Wedgeworth, the Denver City Council president who is calling for an independent investigation into the department. "This guy is in his bed, and you're going to tell me this is legitimate self-defense? There is a serious pattern of excessive force and the police are in denial about it."

Denver police fatally shot eight people last year and three this year. The circumstances surrounding many of the cases have raised eyebrows. Last year, an officer killed Paul Childs, a 15-year-old developmentally disabled black teenager armed with a knife. The shooting sparked demonstrations and anger throughout the city. The officer was suspended for 10 months.

An 18-year-old hearing impaired man carrying a knife was killed in 2002, and in 1999 police broke down the wrong door in a drug raid and gunned down a man inside. In many cases, those killed were black or Latino.

"The police are very much distrusted in the minority community," the Rev. Patrick Demmer, a community activist, said. "They go into these communities like they are going into a war zone."

After the Lobato shooting, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division was alerted by the Colorado attorney general's office, which was disturbed by the number of killings. The government has ordered the FBI to review the results of the Denver district attorney's investigation into the shooting.

"An inquiry has been initiated," said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Denver. "At the end of the criminal investigation, we will review everything to see if anyone will be prosecuted."

Dorschner said the Justice Department was considering a full review of the patterns and practices of Denver law enforcement. The government could sue the city to require changes in the police force or, in an extreme case, take over the police department.

Reacting to the threat of a federal probe, city officials sent a seven-page letter to the Justice Department describing their use-of-force policy, new civilian oversight boards and a system they hoped would identify problem officers before there was trouble.

"I welcome anyone who can help us reduce situations where lethal force becomes an option," said Mayor John W. Hickenlooper, who made police reform a top priority after the Childs shooting. "Does this mean we have failed in our reform efforts? No, we are just getting started. This is something I am going to be doing as long as I am mayor."

Hickenlooper went to the west Denver housing project where Lobato was shot and apologized for it. And during his state-of-the-city address -- 10 days after Lobato was killed -- he said his administration had done more than any other in Denver's history to train police in nonlethal tactics.

"We are determined not to let Denver be defined by these tragedies but by our responses to them," he said.

Why local police seem quick to shoot remains unknown.

Critics say there is a cowboy mentality on the force and a view of blacks and Latinos as inherently dangerous. Defenders of the police say each shooting is an isolated incident, not a pattern. They say Denver has changed: It's bigger and more violent than it used to be.

"There is a permissive culture within the department concerning the use of deadly force," said Joseph G. Sandoval, a professor of criminology at Metropolitan State College in Denver and former member of the city's public safety review committee, which handles complaints about police. "Changing that culture is a slow, painful process."

Mark Silverstein, Colorado's legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, cited a 2001 study by the Washington Post on police shootings in 51 major American cities. The study put Denver in the top 10 for number of shootings per 100,000 residents.

"There are too many people getting shot and killed by Denver police," he said. "The bottom line is this keeps happening again and again."

Denver Dist. Atty. Bill Ritter Jr. has not filed criminal charges in any shooting case involving an officer since taking office in 1993.

"He has not yet had a case that rose to the level of criminal behavior," Lynn Kimbrough, Ritter's spokeswoman, said.

Silverstein said convicting an officer under state law was difficult because police were given leeway for mistakes as long as the mistakes were reasonable.

"The D.A. is not convinced he could persuade jurors beyond a reasonable doubt to convict," he said.

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