Criminal Justice, Denver, Featured, Legal

Carroll: You can both support reform, reject condemning all cops

More than 80% of all citizens killed by police in Colorado from 2014 through the end of last year were armed, usually with a gun. Eighty-six percent were high on drugs or alcohol, with methamphetamine showing up in an astonishing 44% of total cases.

Colorado Public Radio reporters, who compiled those statistics, noted how meth, in particular, “dramatically increases your chances of being killed in an encounter with police. . . The reason seems clear in reviewing the prosecutors’ investigations. In most of Colorado’s meth and gun cases in the past six years, hypercharged and delusional suspects left officers with little choice but to shoot to protect themselves or the public.”

It’s tough to be a cop, and even harder to be a cop who makes all the right split-second decisions when confronting defiant suspects, especially when it is entirely reasonable to fear they are armed. Perhaps this should go without saying, except in recent days it hasn’t.

Instead, a growing chorus condemns police in sweeping terms, accusing them of being pervasively racist and even an “extremist violent group,” demanding that departments be sharply cut back and cops kicked out of schools, and suggesting the priority of catching criminals may need to be displaced.

“I’m 100% committed to imagining a future without police,” said Denver Councilwoman Robin Kniech.

Even Denver’s public safety chief, Murphy Robinson, got into the act, offering the following gibberish to The Denver Post: “I would refocus a police officer’s job from the ultimate purpose of jailing people to how do we utilize them in a capacity to bring life to someone.”

To his credit, Mayor Michael Hancock has kept his head, swatting back a question about possible defunding by asking “who are you going to call” when you are physically threatened “if we don’t have the right complement of law enforcement?”

Notably, the CPR database revealed that “48% of those shot by police in Colorado over six years were white, 11% were black and 36% were Latino…Colorado’s population is 68% white, 4% black and 22% Latino.” So people of color shot by police “are overrepresented compared to the state’s population — but not compared to those already inside the criminal justice system. The racial breakdown among inmates in the state Department of Corrections is 46% white, 18% black and 32% Hispanic.”

Perhaps, as some argue, heavier policing in minority neighborhoods and longer average sentences account for part of the disparity. But there is little doubt that a greater incidence of violent crime afflicts black communities. For example, the FBI reports that in 2018, “of the murder victims for whom race was known, 53.3% were Black or African American,” and “when the race of the offender was known,” more than half were black, too.

You can’t expect data on violent encounters with police to mirror the ethnic breakdown of the larger population so long as cops are being called more frequently into some neighborhoods than others. That too ought to go without saying.

To be sure, the grotesque killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis did not involve a serious crime. Nor have several other notorious cases, such as that of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014.  Such incidents shock the conscience, but in statistical terms they are outliers, despite what many voices now want us to believe.

This is awkward. For decades I’ve supported efforts to curtail police brutality and instill accountability. My editorials as opinion page editor of The Rocky Mountain News and later The Denver Post pushed for a ban on police shooting blindly into vehicles, restrictions on hot pursuit, adoption of body cameras and prompt release of video, deployment of non-lethal weapons, creation of a civilian agency in Denver to monitor police conduct, an end to military-type vehicles for police, and more.

When safety manager Al LaCabe in 2007 moved to make lying by police a serious disciplinary matter in the face of union resistance, I argued that, “Just because Denver went more than 100 years without firing premeditated liars in its police force doesn’t mean the policy is sacrosanct.”

And when Denver Civil Service officers made a habit of reversing punishment for unsavory officers, my editorials ridiculed their reasoning and called for revamping commission rules.

For that matter, I supported the amended legislative reform bill prompted by the killing of Floyd. I am not tardy to this issue.

But that doesn’t mean I have to buy into today’s simplistic pieties that cops, as a rule, are bigoted and brutal, that nothing has changed in 40 years and that it’s easy to identify suspects who pose little threat. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s impossible.

As a result, incidents of apparent excessive force often tend to be ambiguous. And if jurors seem too prone to acquit the few officers who are actually charged, it’s at least partly because they understand that police have to make quick decisions that involve their own safety, and sometimes they make honest, even if tragic, mistakes.

The killing of Floyd is a tragedy triggering useful reform. But it is also spawning poisonous exaggeration that will make a hard job even harder for the many police who no more condone his death than do the rest of us.

Vincent Carroll is the former editorial page editor of both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, where a version of this column first appeared.

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