The Toxic Combo Behind Colorado’s Police Shootings

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S1: Can you tell me again about the spreadsheet? Do you have it in front of you? Do you have a computer with you?

S2: I do. I do have it in front of me. Yeah. Can you pull it up? Yes.

S3: Alison Sheri is a reporter at Colorado Public Radio.

S1: Sounds like you’ve just been like living your life in the spreadsheet for six months.

S4: I have. It’s a it’s kind of weird, but it’s cool. I’m proud of our work.

S5: So Allison is proud of the hours she spent working on this spreadsheet. Despite the fact that the data inside it is grim, each row represents a single person and each person is the victim of an encounter with police that ended in gunfire.

S6: More than half of the people listed there died.

S7: One of the most recent people listed in this spreadsheet is 19 year old Darvon Bailey.

S8: He was killed just last year while running from the cops.

S9: What started with an officer involved shooting on Saturday nights led to a vigil on Sunday and protests on Monday.

S2: So the story started there with our executive editor asking how often does this happen?

S10: How often does someone run and get shot by cops in the back when he died?

S3: Demands loved ones demanded answers by marching into police headquarters. They raise their fists at the officers they could see behind the glass and chanted at them. Alison spreadsheet. It was a way to get answers to by breaking down what happened to Darvon and all those other people into component parts. To understand why a victim story ended the way it did.

S2: So that’s where this started. And it started with 10 columns on an Excel spreadsheet going through six years of shootings and then a grid of 14 columns because we started reading things that were interesting. We wanted to add more data to it and then it grew to thirty seven columns. Each column was a new data point the gender, the race, the date of birth of the person who had a weapon, whether they were in a vehicle, whether the vehicle was perceived by cops to be the weapon, because whether they had drugs or alcohol in their system if they died.

S11: So we had to pull autopsy reports from every single coroner across the state. And once Allison and her colleagues started this tally, they could see patterns when their questions got bigger about what happened to all of these victims. Well, I think we were asking, you know, was there another way that this could have been handled? Could this have been handled a different way?

S12: I think that’s the overarching theme in all of these today on the show, how piecing together a database of police violence from all across Colorado helped Allison and her colleagues understand these shootings in a way some cops and elected officials seemed to be missing. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S3: There ended up being more than 300 police shooting victims on that spreadsheet. Allison made one hundred eighty nine of those were fatal. She says over six years there was an average of one police shooting a week in Colorado as part of your research.

S1: You made this map and you put Colorado and the rest of the states on it. And look at how common it is for there to be an officer involved shooting per hundred thousand people.

S2: When you looked at Colorado, would you find we found that Colorado’s the fifth highest has the fifth highest shooting rate in the country. About one person a week gets shot by police. And does that surprise you? Yes, it did surprise me. But the one thing I want to say, just broadly taking a step back from the data is nobody keeps this data except for news organizations. The CDC doesn’t keep this data. I mean, I think that’s what’s most stunning about all of this. If you’re just going to take it from like a 50000 foot perspective is that very few people know about this problem. You’d think this would be a public health issue and there’d be some government agency trying to keep track of the stuff, but nobody does. We were able to compare us to other states because The Washington Post is attempting to keep the status on a national basis and they have a database. So we use their data to compare Colorado to other states. And now we have an exhaustive look at Colorado’s data, but that’s it.

S3: Once her data were sorted, two things stood out to Alison. Many shooting victims were armed or high on meth or both. And when Allison called around to try to figure out how other police departments dealt with this deadly combination of drugs and firepower, she was surprised that sometimes even law enforcement hadn’t noticed these trends.

S2: Tulsa, Oklahoma, has an extremely high officer involved. Shooting rate like for I mean, I can’t I don’t have enough stuff in my head, but it’s several times bigger than the national average. They did shot like dozens of people in a pretty small town. And I called the Tulsa district attorney and I’m saying, you know, you guys have a really high officer shooting rate and you make these decisions. Is there any trends you’ve seen? And I said we’ve seen that have been some that there’s a lot of math. When there’s a lot of math, there seems to be a higher number of officer shootings. And he says, well, just hang on a second. And he pulls up his last five shootings that he’d done decision letters on. And he says, wow, four out of five of these are math shootings. You never know. I didn’t know that. I never connected that before. That’s that’s interesting.

S4: So it’s like even the people whose job it is to to sort of watch over this and make decisions about this. You know, police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, prosecutors. They don’t know about this data. And it’s it’s because it’s not easy to get your sons fragmented.

S1: I mean, you brought up meth and guns as major factors in officer involved shootings. When you broke down the data and it’s interesting to me because you got interested in gathering all this information because of this case of a young black man who was killed by police while he was running away. Did you find someone like that is actually the typical victim in these officer involved shootings?

S13: No. I mean, I would say that the most likely person who died in our database, if we were gonna put like a composite person together of all these 309 people, would be a white man who is on math and had an illegal gun and was in a stolen vehicle like that was probably that’s probably a composite person.

S1: I guess the one thing we need to say here is there’s been so much conversation about the opioid crisis. Meth may be a surprise to people.

S13: Yep.

S2: I’m glad you brought that up because in our database of the people killed, we you know, we looked at all the autopsy reports, all their toxicology reports. I don’t think there’s a single person. And if there is, there’s like maybe one. But I don’t think there’s a single person who died from a cop shooting who was just on heroin or opioids. You know, in the northeast, there’s a much bigger opioid and heroin problem. But if you look at officer shootings in the northeast, they’re way lower than out west, where you have much more meth here than opioids and heroin. And that’s kind of new. I mean, the meth thing is surging. It’s if you look at arrest rates and everything, it’s like the last two years that you’ve really seen it go completely crazy.

S1: And you said it there. But meth meth impacts you differently. You behave differently when you’ve had methamphetamine than when you’ve had an opioid like you. You tell this one story of a guy named Kristian Martinez who was at his family’s cabin. He was literally setting the lawn on fire when he was high on meth. And then when the police come at his family’s request to help him, he comes towards them with a pitchfork. And it puts the officer in this situation where they have to make a really hard decision really quickly.

S2: Yep. And that story was sad because we interviewed his parents, his parents live in the Denver area. They sent him to this rural part of the state to get away from the drug influences they saw in the Denver area. And so they thought sending him to his family’s house will be better. But it turns out that part of the state actually has a higher has a huge math problem. And so they just kind of put him right back in the element where he would be have access to this again. And yeah, I mean, he had set the lawn and the barn on fire. And I think that’s one of those stories. It’s so tragic and it’s one of those stories where you wonder, I mean, a pitchfork obviously could be used as a deadly weapon. But you also wonder, could that have been handled a different way because a pitchfork isn’t a gun? You know, is there a would there been a different way?

S1: I mean, I wonder, why wouldn’t an officer use a Taser instead of a gun?

S2: So that’s I’m glad you brought that up. Tasers don’t really work when you’re on meth. It makes you so impervious to pain. They try to tase them first. And it had like zero effect on the person.

S3: So they would just keep going. So they would keep going. Another factor about these shootings that kept coming up in Alison’s reporting was the prevalence of guns in Colorado and how quickly they could end up escalating a police encounter.

S1: You know, it’s interesting because I’ve done some reporting with police in rural areas and they talk about guns in different ways than folks in the city do. Like, I talked to one cop who said, you know, I’m grateful that people around here have access to guns because I’m often responding to calls somewhere where there’s not going to be backup. That’s, you know, less than 20 minutes away. And so people having guns means that there’s just as likely to be a good guy with a gun is a bad guy. I wonder if the officers you spoke with felt that way or whether they saw it differently because you did find this relationship between access to guns, an officer involved shootings.

S2: You know, I we did not I did not hear that sentiment. I’m cops. It’s it’s an interesting thing we have. We tried to explore this a lot. We even talked to the U.S. attorney, the federal U.S. attorney about this here. Why is there seem to be, at least from our perspective, a disproportionate focus on drugs over guns, like illegal drugs, over illegal guns? What do you mean when you say that? It means that, you know, even just yesterday, the U.S. attorney’s office put out a press release about a huge drug ring that they just busted. They made this huge announcement. They had a press conference. They had police chiefs. They had everybody there. It’s like you don’t see that equivalent with guns. And there are a lot of illegal guns out there. There are people selling illegal guns. There are people who have illegal guns. I mean, I talked to some beat cops who are like, oh, yeah, we pull over people all the time who have guns. They don’t usually pull them on us. But, yeah, it’s it’s a major problem.

S1: So I guess what you’re saying is looking at your database, you see that these two things are really associated with officer involved shootings, guns and meth. Right. But only one of those things is being policed in a certain way.

S4: Yeah. And I I mean, the combo is a very toxic combo, because if someone is just on math and they don’t have guns, they did get shot a couple of times. We actually have some really terrible cases of people who are unarmed and got shot. But if they do have a gun and they’re on math, the very the likelihood of them getting shot and killed is high. And so we ask police is it’s like, is this a politics thing for you? Do you not like going after illegal guns? And the way they explain it simply is that it’s harder. Right. Because there are legal guns. There are no there are no legal drugs.

S2: I mean, there’s legal marijuana, but there’s not legal methamphetamine. There’s not legal heroin. It’s harder to go find the person who is skipping the background checks or selling guns on the street because the person might actually be selling legally as well. So it’s a much harder thing to go after. But the one thing we did see was the increase in assaults on officers in the last two years has put an a renewed attention on the gun issue. And there are a couple of the Denver Police Department, even the federal at the U.S. attorney’s office, has put some more emphasis on trying to get guns off the street because they think they’re seeing it so tied to other crimes that it’s a major problem. And police officers and a lot of times privately will say, I hate these bad people having guns. It makes our jobs super dangerous, you know, and we are are pulling over just doing routine traffic stops. That guy’s got a gun in the glove compartment. It’s it’s awful. You know, it makes everything way worse. It’s interesting that they say it privately. Yeah. They don’t want to say it into the microphone. Yeah. And I mean, the police chiefs will talk about it and I’ll talk about some of their recent crackdowns. But you don’t seem made major buybacks and stuff like you do on the East Coast. There are some police departments I know that have the big high-Profile like will buyback your guns. You don’t see that here. But you have I have seen, you know, they would point out we’re trying to crack down a little bit on the illegal guns because we feel like it’s just hit this tipping point where it’s so bad.

S1: So one of the things that makes your reporting so revelatory is that you got access to police officers who had been involved in shootings. And it’s it’s so rare to hear them speak from their own perspective about exactly what happened. What stood out to me was really how honest they were about the trauma that they’d been through. One police sergeant named Dale Leonard said that the work he does is corrosive to the soul.

S2: I was surprised at how much they wanted to talk. And, you know, I’ve been a reporter for 20 years, but it wasn’t the hardest interview I’ve ever had to get either. You know, we had to reach out to the police department way to tell them exactly what we what we were doing, this the cases we were talking about. And, you know, it’s hard to get to these cops sometimes. And we both of the both of the people we reached out to agreed to talk to us. And when they did agree, I didn’t know if they were gonna be stoic and have walls up, but they opened up. I mean, both of them cried in front of me. And I I I was surprised at that.

S14: They had a gun in his hand, put it out the window and yelled, I’m not going out like this.

S3: One of these officers. Jeff Broncho, he shot and killed a suspect in 2015 after the man took some of his in-laws hostage.

S14: I watched him bring the gun down in and then he lunged forward like this and put the gun in the back of the guy’s head.

S3: And at that time, when I shot him years later, Deputy brunk out still has trouble coping with what happened.

S15: I still have nightmares. I don’t sleep at night. I think about it.

S14: Price six out of seven days a week. I’ve actually had to go back to our psychologist recently because my nightmares were again so that he has started a group of officers who have shot somebody on the line of duty.

S2: They go out and get beers once every month or two just to talk about it. And he also now goes and talks to trainees about how hard it is. So if they don’t think they can handle what this might take, they should leave now.

S1: You talked about this question that you went into this reporting having, which is. Is there a better way and listening to your interviews with the police officers? It just made me wonder if they were acting as forces within the police department to ask that same question, because they don’t sound like cowboys. They don’t sound like people who are just, you know, let’s go back out there. They’re pretty honest about their trauma.

S2: Well, I was interested in the trauma. He’s two. And I was also interested in how that affects you going forward on routine traffic stops. I mean, you know, you get a gun pulled on you and someone you’re your best friend is shot in front of you. How do you approach the next time you pull over a white Volkswagen Jetta and a traffic stop? I mean, does that make you want to pull out your gun and shoot someone faster? Because it seems like a few tried to do this once. It would just it would it would forever change how you approach people. And they talked a lot about the time it takes to get over it, because just, you know, you just can’t be expected to go back and do your job in the most effective and safe way after you’ve been through something like that, especially like just a couple days later.

S1: You looked closely at three counties that had no police shootings in six years to see if they did anything differently than other places in Colorado which had more shootings. What did you find about what those places did differently? Were there noticeable differences?

S2: You know, there were. I mean, they do they’re small counties and they have small budgets. But one of these counties spends like $90000 a year on hiring actors from Albuquerque to come up and act like they’re on meth and act like they’re suicidal and act like they’re drunk or they’re disorderly or whatever. And I think that real life actor training is super expensive. You know, it’s way more expensive than just like watching a video or something. But it it seems to help a lot. But I think overall, the one thing that I would say is I think culture in a police department matters a lot. You know, there are other police departments in the metro area. We saw it with like shooting rates that were way higher than the state average. And it’s like, what what’s going on there? You know, do they just have a culture where it’s OK to just pull out your gun? An excessive force is kind of the norm. And then you kind of go down to another police department where they probably have a lot of the same problems. And you don’t see excessive. You don’t see this as a norm. And I do think if you’ve got an overarching culture in a police department where something is okay and it happens a lot, but then you look over at another police department, it’s not happening at all. I think there’s something I think there’s something there.

S1: I mean, it’s as part of your reporting, you spoke to a number of state politicians, people from the legislature, the attorney general. Everyone seems shocked. What you found is anyone making motions to change something at the state level that might impact these numbers.

S2: Yeah, well, there’s three things that are happening. One is I think there’s there’s some look at changing the states fleeing felon statute to make it a little narrower that you can’t shoot someone when they’re running away just because they’re suspected of a felony or they’re suspected to have a gun. The other thing that’s happening at the legislature is there is a state law on the books that requires officers or should require officers to report this information, but it’s voluntary. So I think there are some lawmakers looking at how to make this data more available statewide and more helpful. The data about who’s shot, right. Just an accounting of officer involved shootings. It seems like they should know more about this. It shouldn’t require six months of work from media to know about this. The third thing is the state the state attorney general is very interested in the fact that the Durango police in that area and the state hasn’t had a shooting in six years. And the attorney general is also in charge of state officer training, police officer training. So he’s going to go down there and see what they’re doing differently and see if he could replicate some of that statewide.

S1: I wonder what else you learned through this reporting. Did it change how you thought about your state?

S2: Yeah, I don’t think I ever realized the magnitude of the math problem. A lot of people don’t know what to do about math because it’s not like heroin and opioids have some antidotes that can help with withdrawal, set withdrawal symptoms and that sort of thing. There is nothing that’s like that quite with math yet. I mean, according to a couple people we interviewed, they just aren’t there yet and knowing on how to deal with this addiction. But you know, what’s interesting is all these names in our database of people who are shot. You start running the names through criminal background checks. I don’t think this was anyones first brush with law enforcement. Right. And what you saw, if you just found someone who was shot by a cop high on meth with a gun, stolen car. If you looked at their criminal background or their criminal record, it started in 2016 with a possession charge. Then it went to possession with intent to distribute. And what you see is these stories of how addiction grips people who otherwise were good people, had productive lives, were, you know, members of families who loved them and all of that, you know.

S11: Is this a big story about how we need better drug treatment?

S16: Maybe because so many of these stories, you can see how they start and then how they end and they start minor and they end tragically.

S17: Alison Cherry, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for talking to me about this. I really appreciate it.

S7: Allison Sherry is a reporter at Colorado Public Radio. You can find the series she worked on with her co reporter Ben Markus at Sniper’s Web site. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Daniel Hewitt, Morris Silvers and Jason de Leone. If you appreciated the show and any of the other work we do, go spread the word.

S18: Leave us a review and a rating on Apple podcasts so other people can find out about the show. And so my mom can read them. She does. All right. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to tomorrow.