Target Practice: Racism
and Police Shootings Are No Game
Are Denver cops
trigger-happy for minorities? A video game might hold the answer.
Denver Westword News
April 3, 2008
At 2:10 a.m.
on December 19, Denver police officer Timothy Campbell was standing in the
middle of the street in a west Denver neighborhood, his gun pointed at a
had been driving north on Irving Street when he'd passed a 1997 Saturn that
seemed suspicious. When Campbell made a U-turn, the Saturn quickly sped down
a side street and pulled into a driveway. As the officer drove up, a man
he looked to be in his early thirties, Hispanic, wearing a light, baggy
jacket jumped out of the car and ran. Campbell followed him on foot,
through back yards and over fences. The man reached the 3200 block of West
Ada Place, where he slipped on a patch of ice. He got up and continued down
the street, falling twice more. By now Campbell had closed the gap, and when
the man got up again, the two were facing each other, less than ten feet
apart. Campbell had his service pistol drawn: a .45-caliber semi-automatic
reached into his pants pocket, put his hand behind his back, then started
moving his hand forward. Campbell saw the glint of something metallic. He
fired two rounds, paused, then fired four more. The man fell onto a pile of
paramedics arrived just after 2:15 a.m., they found 33-year-old Jason T.
Gomez, hit in the shoulder, stomach and legs, mortally wounded. Near his
left hand, they spotted a white Bic lighter with a silver rim.
A lighter on
the pavement where there should have been a gun that sight can make even
the most hard-boiled law-and-order types queasy. And the image of a dying,
unarmed man, a minority shot by a cop, can rip open a city's carefully
patched-together image. When news broke that Gomez had been pronounced dead
at Denver Health, readers began leaving online comments comparing Gomez's
lighter to the soda can that Frank Lobato reportedly was holding when he was
shot and killed in his home by a Denver officer in 2004. Or the kitchen
knife that Paul Childs had in his hand when the mentally disabled teen was
shot and killed by cops the year before. The posters reached back nearly a
decade, to the death of Mexican immigrant Ismael Mena, shot by SWAT officers
in a botched drug raid.
not a perfect person, but [he] did not deserve to have an entire clip of
bullets emptied into him for pulling out a lighter," said one.
cops are exterminating Blacks and Mexicans," wrote another.
Campbell faced off against Gomez on that icy street, though, the Denver
Police Department had started taking a long, hard look at what role race
played in officer-involved shootings. To do so, it was using an unlikely
tool: a rudimentary video simulation developed by psychologists at the
University of Colorado. Over the past half-dozen years, that simple computer
game has allowed researchers to not only measure the influence that cultural
bias has on police decisions, but to make some surprising discoveries
regarding how the human mind forms and acts upon racial prejudice.
Tracie Keesee spotted a small article in the Rocky Mountain News
about a CU study demonstrating that participants playing a
virtual-simulation scenario were quicker to fire at black male figures than
at whites. This interested Keesee, who was not only a University of Denver
graduate student working toward a degree in criminal justice, but also a
lieutenant in the DPD with deep roots in the city's African-American
"I thought it
was really relevant to large police organizations the use of deadly force
and how it impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans," says
Keesee, who's now a district commander considered a strong candidate to
become the city's first female and first black police chief. "Whenever you
read the newspaper, whether it be New York or Chicago or Denver, it
continues to be a very prevalent question."
years, law-enforcement officials have used hundreds of jargon-filled
euphemisms to avoid the query at the heart of so many police-shooting
controversies: Are cops more trigger-happy when aiming guns at minorities?
Since the 1970s, sociologists and political scientists have consistently
found that minority suspects in the United States face lethal force from
police officers at a disproportionate rate. According to 2001 figures from
the Department of Justice, black suspects were five times more likely to be
shot and killed by officers than white suspects. But that same study also
showed that the chances of a police officer getting shot by a black man were
about five times higher than by a white man. And how much could these
findings be attributed to the fact that minorities are much more likely to
face economic deprivation and populate disadvantaged, high-crime areas and
thus have a greater probability of contentious encounters with police?
psychologists at the CU Stereotyping and Prejudice lab (CUSP), the 1999
death of Amadou Diallo an African immigrant shot nineteen times by New
York City cops when he reached for his wallet rather than a gun seemed an
ideal starting point for a study of racial bias. Joshua Correll, a graduate
student at the time, followed the subsequent investigation of the officers
and the allegations that race might have played a role in the shooting. "And
that seemed interesting and plausible, but it was hard to understand how
much of a role race actually played, because we didn't know what would've
happened if Diallo had been white," says Correll, now a professor at the
University of Chicago.
So Correll and
Bernadette Park, a psychologist who's been at CU since the mid-'80s,
developed a video shooting game that involved black and white male targets
holding either guns or innocuous objects such as cell phones or soda cans.
They told study participants found in college classrooms and along the
16th Street Mall to shoot only when the simulated characters were armed.
The data revealed that players forced to make split-second decisions were
prone to shoot images of unarmed black men and on average were quicker to
shoot at black men holding guns than white men who were armed.
"[Participants] set a more lenient criterion to shoot for African-Americans
than for whites," says Park, adding that this tendency was seen not just
among Caucasian players, but also among players identifying as black or
Hispanic. In 2002, she and four colleagues published a report on their
research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A year
later, University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald did his own
study, putting college students in the role of plainclothes police officers
in a computer simulation where potential targets of different races appeared
from behind dumpsters as fellow officers, citizens or gun-wielding
criminals. Players had greater difficulty distinguishing weapons from
harmless objects when they were in the hands of blacks rather than whites,
resulting in more wrongful shootings of black targets.
established shooter bias as a broad cultural predisposition, but researchers
had no way of knowing if police officers would test the same way. So CUSP
contacted the Chicago and Los Angeles police departments, but they refused
to participate in further studies. "Basically, we had a really hard time
finding anyone who was willing to even say 'I'll open the doors,'" Park
remembers. The academics finally teamed up with the Police Executive
Research Forum, a national law-enforcement policy group, and won a grant to
extend the shooter-bias tests to cops. But the police group got nervous and
backed out at the last minute, Park says, effectively closing the door on
the CUSP project.
Then Park got
an unexpected call from Keesee.
"She said she
was a graduate student and wanted to ask me some questions about the study,"
recalls Park. "I called her back and we chatted a little bit about it, and
about ten minutes into the conversation, she said she was actually a police
the conversation to her colleagues: "And they said, 'Did you ask her if we
could have access to the Denver police?' And I said, 'No, she just wanted to
know about the work.' And they said, 'Call her back after the meeting!'"
Park did, and
Keesee was open to discussing the idea. But as a then-thirteen-year veteran
of the DPD, she knew that gaining authorization to test the city's cops for
racist shooting tendencies would not be easy. For starters, the departmental
bureaucracy would have to overcome its natural instinct to close ranks to
outsiders, a stance that becomes particularly useful whenever race is at
issue. "A lot of large organizations would not allow outside researchers to
come in and look at hot-button topics such as race bias and the use of
deadly force," Keesee acknowledges.
So she decided
to take the idea right to the top: Chief Gerald Whitman, who agreed to let
the CUSP researchers have a sit-down with department brass. Then Whitman had
to weigh whether getting useful data on police-shooting decisions was worth
the possible damage that negative results might have on the department's
already tenuous image within the black and Hispanic communities. After all,
fallout from the Mena shooting had ultimately forced the resignation of the
previous chief, Tom Sanchez, in 2000. But ultimately, Whitman agreed to the
"I wanted to
see what we could learn from this survey," says Whitman. "It was something
that would improve officer safety and citizen safety and make us better
"It took a lot
of courage for the chief to agree to let them come in and do some research,"
Keesee, who is
continuing her education by working toward a Ph.D. in intercultural
communications at DU, is currently the commander of District 3, which covers
Capitol Hill south to the Denver Tech Center. It's the district in which she
was born and raised her mother was a nurse, her father in the military
and where she started her career as a police officer in 1989. At the time,
she was a single parent with a young daughter. She'd considered becoming a
lawyer, but opted for law enforcement instead. "It was between joining the
Denver Police Department and joining the Houston Police Department," she
says. "This being my home, I decided to stay here."
district includes neighborhoods with some of the lowest minority populations
in the city. So when it came time to find officers to volunteer for the
study, Park and Keesee spread their recruitment efforts across four police
districts, eventually getting shooter data from 124 local officers. To
compare the cops with community members, they staked out Division of Motor
Vehicle offices in the same districts and asked citizens to do the shooter
simulation. For a national sample of cops, Park and other researchers
traveled to officer-training seminars across the country.
The results of
their study were published in the Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology last July, in a paper titled "The Thin Blue Line: Police
Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot." As in the earlier CUSP
study, community members displayed a greater willingness to shoot an
African-American target than a white one. But while police officers still
displayed discrepancies in speed of response depending on race, they vastly
outperformed civilians in accuracy meaning that cops did not make the
ultimate decision to shoot based on a target's skin color.
who'd initially hypothesized that officers would show the same biases as
civilians, the results were very surprising. "Police officers are people,"
he says. "They have the same basic mental processes that we do, and they
should be governed by the same types of things. So in a culture that pretty
regularly associates black people with danger and criminality, we might
expect [police] to look just like everyone else."
study indicated that police officers' training not only affected whether
they chose to fire at a target, but made them less likely to shoot on the
basis of race.
The DPD and
the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance held a press conference to
announce the results. The New York Times picked up the story, as did
National Public Radio, but to the disappointment of both the researchers and
the DPD, no local outlets covered it. After all the times the department had
been hammered by the media for controversial police shootings, the one time
it had new information shedding light on a complex subject, no one paid
"It made you
stop and think about the long-held assumption that we all have," Keesee
says. "This was very important from a law-enforcement prospective. A
significant step was made to answer a question that communities of color
have had for a very long time."
receive inquiries about the study from police departments in several other
cities. And national law-enforcement organizations heralded the results as
further evidence that cop-shooting decisions are not driven by race bias,
that the widely held belief that police are "trigger-happy" for certain
ethnicities doesn't stand up.
If anyone is
trigger-happy for minorities, it's society at large. <![if !vml]><![endif]>
I have come to
the "shooter study" test site in the psychology building on CU's Boulder
campus to find out if I'm a racist.
by a graduate student whose job is to watch other students as they simulate
shooting people of different races. The data is then compared to the
performances of Denver citizens and police officers, as well as officers
from around the country. This is not the only CUSP study in progress; five
faculty social-psychologists and half a dozen graduate students work here,
researching everything from how blacks with greater Afro-centric facial
features are disproportionately represented in prison populations to how
racial prejudice can be measured in brain waves.
"Go ahead and
have a seat," the grad student says, gesturing toward dozens of desks, a
small computer on each, lined along the walls. I'm given a consent form that
says I know this is an anonymous, voluntary study. On the desk in front of
the computer screen is a little box with three buttons. The green one is
labeled "shoot," the red one "don't shoot." There's also a yellow button
that I'm supposed to press when I want to start. I do, and instructions pop
up on the screen that tell me my task is to shoot anybody holding a gun. I
have less than a second to make a choice, and if I don't, I lose points. The
point system goes like this:
for deciding not to shoot at an unarmed man
for shooting an armed man
for shooting an unarmed man
for being shot
There are two
versions to this game a fast one and a super-fast one. I'm on the
super-fast one, which calls for quicker decisions and has a greater
likelihood of revealing racial bias. I'm given a practice round, and the
game flips through a series of background images showing locations in
Denver: a light-rail shelter behind Union Station, a sidewalk in Civic
Center Park, an alleyway near downtown, a spot on Capitol Hill. The first
man who pops up is a white guy crouching with a gun. I press "shoot." As the
game continues, the images come faster. I find myself accidentally shooting
white men with Coke cans, black guys with cell phones. But if I wait too
long on an image, I lose my chance and points. So I choose "don't shoot"
prematurely a few times and get shot, losing still more points.
When I start
the real game, I make correct choices on the first three images but bungle
the next two. There's no gunfire; the only sound is the periodic clack of
the button as I try to decide on my course of action as quickly as possible.
When I shoot another black guy with a cell phone, I wonder if I've just
revealed some hidden racial bias. So when I see the image of another black
male, I overcompensate by hitting the red button too quickly and end up
getting shot myself.
two minutes, the game is over. While I'm not confident of my accuracy score,
I think I'm pretty safe from scoring as a racist, since I probably shot as
many unarmed white males as blacks. The truth of the simulation, however, is
not necessarily measured by the overall score, but in milliseconds. How long
did it take me to decide if I viewed a person as a threat and with which
race was I most often correct?
The results of
my test are determined by this formula: f(1,361)+239.37,p<.001. It showed
that I was 3 percent more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black than
an unarmed white; it took me a third longer to decide that a black, unarmed
man was not a threat. And this was a computer game.
In the field,
cops are dealing with chaotic and hazardous situations, when mere
milliseconds separate the momentary flash of a potential weapon and when
they have to decide whether to pull the trigger. How can training even the
best training overcome the entrenched factors of cultural bias? <![if !vml]><![endif]>
was spared the brutal race riots that shook cities like Chicago, Los Angeles
and New York in the '60s and '70s, race relations here have an uneasy
history, stretching from Denver's earliest days through its stint in the
1920s as a KKK stronghold. "Another Black Man Killed," a pamphlet
distributed around the city in 1961, denounced the shooting of Eugene "Skijump"
Cook by two officers. "How long are these white men going to be allowed to
walk our streets and kill us off and walk again?" its anonymous author
Views of the Police, a book based
on numerous interviews with Denver residents and police officers, published
by the University of Denver in 1969, concluded that the most important
factor influencing residents' view of the police was ethnicity: "Negros and
Spanish-named persons share among themselves views of the police that are
less favorable than those of the rest of the community and which are not
materially affected by the success they achieve in life in terms of social
and economic position." At the time, the percentage of black and Latino
officers in the Denver Police Department was about 5 percent. At the end of
2006, approximately 32 percent of Denver officers were minority below the
city's non-white population of about 50 percent, but a close match with the
ethnic makeup of the metro-area recruiting pool.
changing realities, as well as studies like CUSP's, don't deter the DPD's
critics. African-American activist Shareef Aleem, who's read the "Thin Blue
Line" report, says it has little to do with real-life scenarios. "I don't
deal with video games when I'm out on the street. I'm dealing with real cops
with attitudes," he notes. "With the Denver and Aurora police departments,
if you're black or Latino, the police are more aggressive towards you,
insofar as shooting you or beating you down." The only reason the DPD would
feel compelled to participate in such a study, he adds, is because it has
such a checkered past with racially biased shootings: "I'm looking at what's
the motivation of the study and what's the political message they're trying
to get out. If they're trying to show that this is some kind of magic pill,
that they don't discriminate, that's bullshit. If you've got to do all this
to prove you're not racist, you're definitely racist."
Sandoval, a professor of criminal justice at Metro State College, thinks the
study suggests that the DPD is becoming more open to changing a culture that
once permitted and even encouraged the use of deadly force. "In the '60s and
'70s, if an [officer] didn't pull out a gun and shoot immediately, they were
branded as cowards," says Sandoval, who helped create the Public Safety
Review Commission and the Citizens' Oversight Board.
Sandoval thinks the department has come a long way regarding the shooting of
civilians, particularly minority civilians, he doubts that racial bias can
ever be eliminated completely. "Police officers are a product of the
communities within which they live and those biases are there very clearly
in our society," he notes. "Maybe it will never be eliminated. However, that
kind of racial bias can be pushed to the background in situations involving
In 2006 and
2007, there were nineteen officer-involved shootings. Of the individuals
shot, eleven were Hispanic, five were black, two were white and one was
forty people have been killed by Denver police, out of a total of 86
deadly-force incidents when an officer shot someone. The vast majority of
those killed were armed with guns and knives, but other instances involved
just a stick, a fake gun, a cell phone or a soda can.
In July 2004,
Officer Ranjan Ford and two other cops used a ladder to climb through the
second-story window of an apartment in the South Lincoln Park housing
projects. They were searching for Vincent Martinez, who was suspected of
assaulting his girlfriend after an argument in a bar, then refusing to let
her leave her home for seventeen hours. When they crawled into the dark
house, they didn't know that Martinez had already fled out the back and that
his uncle, 63-year-old Frank Lobato, was lying naked in bed, unable to walk
'There's someone on the bed,'" Ford recounted in a videotape, "and before I
know it, this guy pops up out of nowhere...just sat straight up and goes,
'What the fuck?' And I saw something shiny in his right hand. And my
reaction was to drop down and shoot. I mean, I, I thought I was going to get
Ford said that
he mistook a soda can in Lobato's hand for a gun. Although tests didn't find
Lobato's fingerprints or saliva on the can, both the Denver District
Attorney's Office and a grand jury declined to press charges against Ford.
Denver Manager of Safety Al LaCabe concluded that Ford was not justified in
the shooting and suspended him for ninety days (later cut to fifty). "I
believe there is a reasonable possibility that officer Ford may have simply
been startled by Frank Lobato's movements," LaCabe wrote in his 22-page
decision letter, "or interpreted those movements as a deadly ambush and
momentarily reacted while his finger was on the trigger of the weapon,
causing him to unintentionally squeeze the trigger while simultaneously
didn't satisfy Lobato's family. Attorney Kenneth Padilla filed a $10 million
civil-rights lawsuit against the city for "failing to properly hire, train
and supervise" the officers who'd responded to the scene; a city attorney
fought to get the lawsuit dismissed. This past January, a federal judge
ruled that a jury be allowed to hear Padilla's argument that the DPD's
failure to train its officers on decisional shooting and use-of-force policy
had resulted in Lobato's death. Rather than take its chances at an ugly
public trial, the city decided to settle with the Lobato family for
"The city paid
over a million dollars to defend that case," says Padilla. "They could've
settled with this family early on and saved the city a million dollars in
taxpayers' money. I think that's obscene."
represents Vicky Trujillo, the wife of Jason Gomez. <![if !vml]><![endif]>
Tiffany Ito, a
social neuroscientist with the CUSP lab, used the shooting simulator to map
out the brain activity of citizen volunteers, attaching electrodes to their
heads to measure electrical impulses. On her computer screen, she now pulls
up a series of charts that detail which parts of the brain were working, and
how powerfully they were working, during the milliseconds it took for a
shooter image to appear and the participant to decide what to do.
studies, Park explains, the scientists would talk about whether only white
participants would show cultural bias. "Because then it would have a
meaning, right?" she says. "If it was something that whites show and blacks
don't, then it is a prejudice of dislike toward black." But that's not what
more recent data indicated. "It has less to do with 'I don't like this
group' and more to do with 'I associate this group with danger,'" Park
notes. "It's certainly part of the culture, given that you see it within
African-Americans, and given that they are picking up on more general
cultural associations with blacks and danger."
a police officer and shooting trainer for thirty years who's studied
so-called questionable shootings since 1995, calls the CUSP study "absolute
a computer game where they splice a brief exposure of a still photo," he
says. "So there's really no realistic situational context. We don't have a
crime being committed, we don't have actions."
who's with the New Hampshire-based Police Policy Studies Council, has done
research of his own using a more elaborate shooting simulator, which he says
shows that the behavior of the suspect, rather than the suspect's race, has
the biggest influence on an officer's decision to shoot. Aveni presented
more than 300 officers with dozens of scenarios involving everything from
robberies to muggings to burglaries; the suspects the officers encountered
varied in age, race, gender and manner of dress. In half of the situations,
the suspects were holding flashlights or cell phones. Aveni found that
officers were more likely to shoot if the suspects were young rather than
old, and wearing "punk clothes" rather than dressed up. But the most
important factor was whether the subject acted in a way the officer found
officer responds to an armed robbery and gives a verbal command 'Show me
your hands! Don't move!' and the person turns abruptly, especially in a
partial crouch or a full crouch, he's gonna get shot whether he's armed or
not," says Aveni. "Because the expectation is, this guy is fleeing the scene
of a robbery, he's not obeying verbal commands, and now he's turning toward
me in a threatening manner. That is what drives a decision to shoot.
Irresponsible behavior in a felonious context will get somebody shot."
researchers have been careful to point out that their simplified task is in
no way meant to simulate what officers experience in real-life situations.
"But I do think that factors in the environment affect cognition and how
people process information, including how easy it is for a person to process
if another person is holding a gun or not," Park notes.
At its most
basic level, Ito says, a stereotype is a natural human function that allows
the brain to detect various threats. "We have primitive, quick-acting
threat-detection systems we call them visualence systems that would be
sensitive to a wide range of stimuli," she explains. "If you're walking
through the forest and you feel something move next to you, it could be a
snake, it could be a little critter trying to bite you. You'll orient to
that, try to quickly figure out what it is."
So if it's a
snake, you jump but if it's a bunny?
says it's fine," she says. But since the brain is pretty sensitive when it
comes to false-positives, it's better to jump even though it's a stick than
not to jump. "And there's a lot of biologically relevant stimuli that would
trigger reactions from snakes, spiders, certain kinds of movement," she
But while some
of our responses are encoded by nature, other threat-detection stereotypes
are social constructs that we've learned. "Through years and years of TV
shows, for example, that have given your brain unconscious signals that one
group is like this and another group is like that," Ito points out. "Well,
then, maybe when you're walking down the street, you just unconsciously
orient to those kinds of folks more."
environments, the brain is constantly on the lookout for danger. This same
response is activated by the shoot/don't-shoot scenarios, where a brain
might react faster to a black man as a threat (i.e., holding a gun) than a
white man, resulting in the skewed results. But the brain also has a
"conflict-monitoring" stage of decision-making where it tries to resolve two
seemingly incongruent images (black guy without a gun) in order to make the
Ito hasn't had
a chance to do brain scans of the police officers who've done the
simulations, but she says she suspects the results would show that through
training, the officers have better developed the process of separating an
actual threat from their initial bias. "The subtle influences that we have
growing up are so powerful. We're talking about decades of influence," she
explains. "And in the case of race, everything around us is giving us
messages about the way different racial groups are, whether we realize it or
She points to
the tiny voltage measurements that show where the participants' brains
seemed to be separating black targets from white targets.
Is this what a
stereotype looks like? <![if !vml]><![endif]>
are in red shirts, standing behind four twenty-something police recruits in
"Shoot 'em six
times, real quick," says one trainer. "Ready! Go!"
snatch the guns from their holsters and fire a quick volley of bullets into
the paper targets about ten feet away. The blasts reverberate through the
bunker-like firing range near Invesco Field that the DPD uses for training
boom, boom, boom, boom.
Okay, let's do it one-handed now. Go!"
"Ribs" Rybkowski stands behind the recruits, carefully watching to see whose
hand dips and who has the best trigger control. He's going to show me the
correct way to fire a gun using the department's shooting simulator, which
is much more technologically advanced than the CUSP lab's simulator.
officers, we're responsible for every round that leaves the muzzle of the
gun," Rybkowski explains. "We have to make sure that if we make the decision
to shoot, obviously the ramifications to the public and to ourselves is
paper targets have the familiar silhouette of a human, they also include the
image of a gun. "Everything we shoot at has to have a threat on it,"
Rybkowski says. "So all of our shoot targets have a gun or some other type
of weapon. We don't shoot at anything that isn't armed." The DPD started
using this target in 1998.
That was the
same year the department bought its first training simulator, the Range
2000. The string of events leading to its purchase stretched back to the
1985 shooting death of Leonard Zuchel. One evening that August, the manager
of a McDonald's near downtown called police after the 26-year-old Zuchel
created a disturbance. Officer Frederick Spinharney and another partner
responded to the scene and found Zuchel on the street, arguing with two
teenagers. As the officers approached, Zuchel spun around and Spinharney
shot him, mistaking a pair of nail clippers the young man was holding for a
knife. Zuchel's parents filed a lawsuit charging that police training was
inadequate and that the city lacked "live" drills that would provide
practice on when to shoot or not to shoot. A court agreed that "a direct
connection existed between the inadequacy and the shooting," and in 1993 the
family was awarded $330,000. That case led to cities around the country
adopting greater requirements in decisional shooting training.
The same year
as that verdict, Spinharney shot and injured another man during a
domestic-disturbance call. In 1996, after Spinharney fired into a car during
a traffic stop, then-chief David Michaud kicked him off the force. Two years
later, Officer Robert Schneider, an expert in firearms training, testified
at a civil-service hearing on Spinharney's dismissal. He criticized the
city's decisional training efforts since Zuchel's death and said that
Spinharney had received no additional training of any kind after his three
shooting incidents. (Schneider went on to file his own lawsuit against the
city, claiming that he had been transferred as a trainer in the SWAT
division as retaliation for his damning testimony. A jury awarded him
$75,000 in damages.)
Rybkowski acknowledges that high-profile shooting incidents prompted some of
the alterations in DPD firearms training, he says the changes are more a
reflection of the general evolution of police-training techniques
nationwide. These days, the city is using an upgraded video simulator called
the MILO Range. While the DPD has two other video simulators in buses that
rotate between districts so that officers can complete their required
regular training, the MILO is a live-fire simulator, with a
twenty-by-twenty-foot screen and speakers. A video is projected onto the
screen; behind it are infrared lights that show where bullets pass through
Though I admit
I have never fired a gun in my life, I am given a handgun.
"Do I have to
wait for the person to point it at me?" I ask.
necessarily," Rybkowski says. "A lot of it depends on your perception. Do I
perceive a threat? It's something that we deal with as far as the law goes.
Let's say I see someone just bringing the gun up. I can shoot. Or maybe you
have a suicidal party that has their gun like this." He points his fingers
like a gun and puts it to his temple. "And they move their gun. How much
time does it take to go from here to there? It's all about your perception
of a threat, and that's what you have to be able to articulate, which is
also part of the training. Can I articulate why I did what I did, and does
it follow state law? Does it follow department policy?"
"Do I have to
give any voice commands?"
But before I
get an answer, the simulation has begun. A recorded voice tells me that I've
gotten a report of a suspicious individual by a parked car. The video has me
approaching the side of a car; there's an older black male in the driver's
seat. I see something on the seat next to him, but he's already grabbed it
and swings it around to me. I barely have time to utter "Drop the gu"
before he hits me with a spray of bullets. I fire back twice, but it's clear
I am dead.
Then we run
through the simulation again, and instead of reaching for a gun, the man
suddenly pulls out his ID and cooperates.
simulation features a suicidal waitress holding a knife to her wrist.
Rybkowski tells me it was filmed at a local C.B. & Potts. When the waitress
comes at me with the knife, I shoot her twice, both direct hits. I am
feeling proud of myself until Rybkowski tells me that I got so close the
waitress could have stabbed me. I should have stepped farther away, behind a
table or other obstacle.
simulation is a robbery situation in a bar, where I get fired upon by a
white male. Again, I am dead.
the MILO works well because it forces officers into situations where they
have to learn to take multiple factors into account so that race becomes
"The fact of
the matter is, we all do have prejudices," he admits. "But through training
and experience, you have to learn how to put those aside and treat everybody
the same way. And that means treat everybody with respect and
professionalism, first of all. But also, if I would have been biased in my
life to think of a person as perhaps being more of a threat than someone
else because of their race, I might be making a big mistake. My life might
depend on that. If I have two males, one's white and one's black, but if I'm
focused on the black because I have a bias to him as a threat, well, he may
not be the problem.
the other guy." <![if !vml]><![endif]>
then-Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter asked retired Colorado Supreme
Court justice William Erickson to chair a special advisory commission and
look into police deadly-force procedures after the death of Jeffrey Truax,
who was shot by two Denver officers moonlighting at a Broadway club. The
Erickson Commission ultimately reinforced the DA's existing process of
determining if criminal charges should be filed against an officer following
a shooting, but advised that certain changes be enacted to promote openness.
Some of its recommendations were implemented in 2003 by new Denver mayor
John Hickenlooper, who created the DPD's Use of Force and Tactics Review
Board and mandated that the Denver Manager of Safety, who oversees the
police department, also issue a public report after any DPD incident
involving use of force that results in a citizen's death or serious bodily
later, after the shooting of Paul Childs, the city also established the
Office of the Independent Monitor, hiring as its director Richard Rosenthal,
who came from a similar position in Portland. Denver is now one of only five
cities in the country that has a city-funded watchdog independent of the
police department whose sole focus is police use of force, Rosenthal says.
whenever a Denver officer intentionally shoots at a human being, the
incident is investigated by four separate entities, each of which issues a
report. The DA's office determines whether the officer should be charged
criminally; the DPD's Use of Force Review Board considers whether the
officer's decision to shoot violated department policy; the Denver Manager
of Safety issues a comprehensive report, and the OIM also issues an
office doesn't just review documents after the fact; it's involved as soon
as a shooting occurs. The OIM has a "roll-out protocol" that applies to
assorted critical-force situations. In 2007, there were sixteen roll-outs,
seven of which involved shootings.
"We can cover
the questions that night and not have to wait a month and try to get our
questions answered," Rosenthal says. "The facts, the evidence, is
established within 24 hours of any case. And this is the stuff we need to
return our decisions. And most of the time, we find the department's
decisions to be reasonable. But every once in a while, there are instances
where we're not going to agree."
Gomez case is not one of them.
Gomez had an
arrest record dating back to 1993 on charges of burglary, vandalism and
assault, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Out on parole
since February 2007, he was wanted again for a previous parole violation by
last December, when Campbell spotted his Saturn moving erratically on Irving
Street. A seven-year veteran of the force, Campbell decided to execute a
U-turn and get the license-plate number, but the car made a quick move to
the right and into a driveway.
pulled up, a man exited the car and ran. After radioing dispatch, the
officer gave chase. When he caught up with the man, he was "bobbing kind of
like a fighting cock," Campbell later said. "He was prancing all
around...jerking back and forth...bobbing his head." Along with making
aggravated motions, the man also shouted, "I'm going to kill you" loud
enough so that the threat was heard by nearby residents inside their homes
and "GKI! GKI!," referring to the west-side gang Gallant Knights Insane.
Campbell said he had his gun drawn when he observed the man pulling his arm
from behind his back, and metal flashed. Campbell pulled the trigger twice.
"Is that all you got?" the man yelled, and moved toward him, saying, "I'm
going to kill you." Campbell shot him four more times before he fell.
several residents said they heard the commotion and the gunshots, only
eighteen-year-old Max Alderton said he witnessed the incident.
In a statement
given immediately after the shooting, Alderton said he was in bed when he
heard screaming outside his window. He looked out and saw a "bald man,"
identified as Campbell, standing with another man, who was kneeling. "The
bald guy was shouting, 'I'm gonna fucking kill you!'" Alderton said, adding
that when the other man got up to run, "the bald man withdrew a gun, began
chasing him and fired five to seven shots at him." But Alderton changed his
version in a later video testimony, when he said the bald guy fired one shot
after the other guy ran. At that point, Alderton said, he ran to tell his
roommate to call 911 and heard more shots.
discounted Alderton's accounts because they didn't match up with autopsy
results that showed all the bullet entry wounds being anterior rather than
posterior. If Gomez had indeed been running away when Campbell fired, the
bullets would have struck him in the back rather than the front. The autopsy
also showed that Gomez had crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol in his
system at the time of his death.
office decided not to charge Campbell in connection with the unarmed man's
shooting. "The fact that Gomez made his verbal and physical threats to kill
Campbell while possessing a lighter, rather than a firearm or edged weapon,
is of no consequence under the facts of this case," the DA's report
concluded. The OIM concurred with the DA's determination that Gomez's death
was "suicide by cop." (The Manager of Safety has not yet released his
is considering another lawsuit against the city in connection with Gomez's
death, is skeptical of both Campbell's account and the subsequent
investigations. "I think this raises very serious issues of the [DA's
office] discounting the ear- and eyewitnesses to what they say occurred in
this case," he says. "And to claim that this was suicide by cop belies
sister, Cynthia Pacheco, says the behavior described by Campbell doesn't
sound like anything her brother would do. "If this was in a different
neighborhood, I think they would've taken steps," she says. "They could have
Maced him, they could have Tased him, something like that. There are certain
procedures they should follow instead of just shooting at people and killing
researchers are now studying Denver Police Academy cadets to see how well
they perform the simulated-shooting task at different stages in their
training. "One thing that they care about is that there isn't anything that
goes on by way of training that would promote cultural bias," Park says of
the DPD. "That's something that community members will often lob against the
police, that if they don't come as racists, they're trained to be racists."
however, the data shows that the cadets look and act like the community
they're from when they enter the academy, which means they show race bias
both in the latencies differences in speed of decision to shoot and the
actual shooting errors. But by the time they exit the academy, they no
longer display the race bias in errors. "They look much more like the
police," Park says.
For Keesee and
other veteran police officers, the shooting studies seem to prove that
training reduces instances of biased shootings. But the research also raises
other questions. What part of the training is most successful? Is it
something cadets learn at the academy or on the job? "There are still a lot
of questions that have to be answered, and a lot of things need to be done,"
says Keesee. "Why do these perceptions still continue? Why have the
[shooting] events occurred? Why do they continue to occur? Is there
something that is in the training? The studies just give us another
direction on where to look, another jumping-off point. Where do we go from
In his 2003
research, Anthony Greenwald determined that while more sophisticated
simulators, such as MILO, make people more sensitive to weapons, that
training doesn't undo unconscious race stereotypes or bias; he recommended
that police receive bias-awareness training that would give officers the
chance to discover and counteract automatic stereotypes that could interfere
with the best performances of their duties. Correll has started working with
Meggitt Defense Systems, a company that develops police-training simulators,
to create videos that will test if officers are showing race bias. Officers
will then get printouts of their results so they can see how any hidden
prejudices might be influencing their shooting choices.
The DPD is
hoping to use CUSP's research to help develop a training program that could
be a national model for other departments. Keesee would like to see the
department create a research consortium with other law-enforcement agencies,
to ensure that critical questions continue to be asked and police officers
continue to take a long, hard look at themselves.
"There's a lot
of interest there, but there's a lot of fear there as well," Keesee says.
"Especially from a chief's standpoint, from a liability standpoint. Would
you open yourself up to do that? At some point as leaders, you have to take
that risk to answer the question." <![if !vml]><![endif]>
at the DPD's shooting range involved a call from other officers about a
suspicious man near a bus stop. He was sitting on the grass, kind of hunched
over. There were children standing behind him, and one of the other officers
told the kids to move to the other side of the street. A bus was pulling
around the bend in the back right as the man stood and began ranting about
not passing school and losing his girlfriend. He turned to face us and his
sweatshirt flapped open, revealing something long and cylindrical underneath
stopped the tape. "Now, what do you see here?"
"Is it a
replied. "Or maybe not."
harder. It could have been a bomb, or a thermos or a package. Rybkowski
moved the simulation forward frame by frame. The bus was pulling up directly
behind the man.
"Now, I've had
officers refuse to shoot because they said they didn't want to miss and hit
the school bus," he said. "We often discuss the morality of it. Yeah, it may
be a legally justified shooting, but is it morally justified? Did you
actually have to do that? And that's something that everybody had to decide
in their head."
"play," and the man detonated the bomb in a fiery explosion.
Was that man
black or white?