LegislatureNewsPublic Safety

How to end line of duty deaths? Lawmakers, lobbyists, law enforcement grasp at straws

Authors: Erin Prater, Joey Bunch - February 6, 2018 - Updated: February 15, 2018

An El Paso County sheriff’s deputy works the scene of an officer-involved shooting that left at least one El Paso County sheriff’s deputy dead Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, at an apartment complex in Colorado Springs. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette)

What, if anything, can state legislators do to stem the tide of line of duty deaths seen by Colorado in recent weeks?

Lawmakers, lobbyists, law enforcement experts and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper grappled with the question and grasped at straws Tuesday as they mourned the loss of El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick, who was shot to death Monday during a stolen car investigation in Colorado Springs.

The answer seems both obvious and insidious: There is no simple solution.

“Short of penalties — and they are pretty severe now for killing anyone, including law enforcement officers — I really don’t know,” Chris Johnson, the executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, told Colorado Politics Tuesday.

“This senseless violence has got to end,” El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said Tuesday, echoing Hickenlooper’s  Monday night statement that we “must come together and say enough is enough.”

The governor wants to make sure we’re doing “all we can” to keep law enforcement officers safe, his spokesperson told Colorado Politics Tuesday.

Just what might that look like?

Johnson offered thoughts on ways legislators could mitigate the occupational hazards inherent to law enforcement, including “bringing more assets to bear on mental health” and noting that there are still law enforcement agencies in Colorado that don’t have ballistic vests or adequate ones.

But there’s no one solution, he said, noting that while mental health problems reportedly plagued the man who killed Douglas County sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish, 29, in suburban Denver during an ambush on New Year’s Eve, he wasn’t aware if such issues played a factor in the slayings of Flick or Adams County Deputy Heath Gumm, 31, who was shot to death while chasing a suspect on Jan. 24.

Not all ballistic vests are designed to handle rifle rounds, and “a vest doesn’t cover everywhere,” he said.

“If they shoot just above the panels, or in the right place — a gap in the panels — obviously the bullet is going to penetrate there,” Johnson said. “If the vest is overcome by a caliber it’s not rated for, the vest can be penetrated.

“I don’t know if a law enforcement officer is ambushed what you’re going to do about that.”

Still, “making money available for increased ballistic capabilities for law enforcement could be helpful,” he said.

He also credited Hickenlooper and the state legislature for the passage of Senate Bill 207 last year.

The bill, which takes effect May 1, abolishes the practice of locking people up simply because of mental health distress. Instead, the law creates a needs study, regional contractors, training for first-responders, community partnerships, mobile units and a 24-hour walk-in center on the Western Slope.

“There’s a lot more that can be done in community-based mental health services, allowing people to get respite care, mental health counseling, things like that to address issues of mental health before people get to the point where they become so ill that they commit a violent act,” Johnson said, adding that such cases are “more a rarity than they are a norm.”

“But when things like that happen, they can have devastating consequences.”

Eileen McCarron, president of Colorado Ceasefire Legislative Action, which lobbies at the state Capitol for tighter gun restrictions, acknowledged that the recent shooting deaths of Colorado sheriff’s deputies were all different.

But too many guns in society is a root problem that spreads in many directions, including causing the deaths of law enforcement officers, McCarron said, adding, “The gun is such a lethal object, and it gives so much power to people doing wrong to use against someone trying to stop them.”

This session’s Senate Bill 51 would ban bump stocks, the modification that can turn a semi-automatic weapon into automatic, squeezing off dozens of rounds instantly. The device was used in the Las Vegas mass shooting in October that left 58 people dead at a country music concert.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs.

House Bill 1077, sponsored by Reps. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, and Donald Valdez, D-La Jara, would make the burglary of a gun a Class 3 felony, up from the current Class 4 felony.

McCarron doubts gun thieves will know the difference, but it’s a step in the right direction, she said.

She thinks gun stores should be required to lock up their weapons each night, either by law or as a requirement of their insurance policy.

Homeowners also should lock up their guns, she said.

“We have a serious problem, and we still have too many people who have access to guns who shouldn’t,” McCarron said.

She would like to see Colorado become the sixth state that allows guns to be taken away for a year from someone reported to law enforcement or deemed by law enforcement to be a threat to themselves or others.

Lawmakers at the Capitol were deep in sorrow Tuesday over yet another law enforcement loss, but agreement on any legislative solution eluded them.

Each session they split along party lines over bills to clamp down on or free up gun rights, and neither Republicans nor Democrats expected that to change this session.

“We keep doing our best about moving some bills forward to rid our area of more and more guns, but we’re kind of locked in here, not being in the majority,” said Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver. “Some people want to move it to mental illness or to something else other than that piece of equipment.”

Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, was the Weld County sheriff before joining the legislature.

Gun control won’t solve the problem, he said.

“The evil is not in that gun,” Cooke said. “The gun is an inanimate object.”

He said departments should do all they can to equip and train officers, but beyond that, there is a societal problem of blaming cops who have to make split-second life-or-death decisions.

The death of an officer should be a wake-up call to those who fault and belittle officers who have to make those decisions, Cooke said.

“A split second can determine whether an officer gets killed or someone else gets killed, but when it comes to the after-action, the press and the courts have months, years, even, to sit and evaluate every step. Officers don’t have that.”

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, knew Flick personally. They played on the same church softball team together, but he couldn’t think of a policy solution that might have prevented the death.

“It’s a reminder to us how desperately we need good and honorable men and women in this profession who are willing to stand up and defend the safety of our communities,” Hill said.

Editor’s note: Erin Prater is married to a law enforcement officer. Gazette reporter Kaitlin Durbin and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Erin Prater

Erin Prater

Erin Prater is Colorado Politics' digital editor. She is a multimedia journalist with 15 years of experience writing, editing and designing for newspapers, magazines, websites and publishing houses. Her previous positions include military reporter at The Gazette, general assignment reporter at The Huerfano County (Colo.) World, copy editor at David C. Cook publishing house and adjunct mass communication instructor at Pueblo Community College. Her bylines include The New York Times Upfront, The Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, S.D.), Military Spouse magazine and Omaha Magazine (Omaha, Neb.). Her syndicated bylines include The Denver Post, MSNBC.com, Military.com and wire services.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.