Examining Why Fatal Shootings Involving Colorado Police Have Increased Colorado has among the highest per capital rates of police shootings, and an unrecognized connection between them and meth use. You can find the full investigation at Colorado Public Radio.

Examining Why Fatal Shootings Involving Colorado Police Have Increased

Examining Why Fatal Shootings Involving Colorado Police Have Increased

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Colorado has among the highest per capital rates of police shootings, and an unrecognized connection between them and meth use. You can find the full investigation at Colorado Public Radio.


Each week in this country, police shoot and kill 19 people - 19 people, week after week, according to the most comprehensive database available. Increasing numbers of police shootings have come in Colorado, where fatal incidents doubled in recent years. Colorado Public Radio reporters Allison Sherry and Ben Markus spent six months asking why. Their report, we should warn you, includes sounds from a police shooting, which will not be appropriate for some listeners. Here's Ben Markus in Denver.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: We reviewed hundreds of police shootings in Colorado over six years. We noticed a theme. In half of all the fatal shootings, the suspect had methamphetamine in their system.


MARKUS: On an October night in 2017, a call came into the 911. It's from a rural area in Colorado near the New Mexico border.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My cousin, who lives next door to me, he's been high on meth, I take it, for the past few days. And he just lit the backyard - his backyard on fire...

MARKUS: The sheriff's deputy named Henry Trujillo is dispatched to check on the fire. Things are quiet for a while at dispatch, and then he radios back.


HENRY TRUJILLO: I don't know if you copy. I have shots fired, one down. He tried to attack me with a pitchfork. We do have a small fire also.

MARKUS: Trujillo says the pitchfork attack is why he had to shoot Kristian Martinez eight times. Martinez died so quickly that the medevac helicopter was turned away.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. So if you haven't already, you can go ahead and stand down flight.

MARKUS: Martinez's dad, Jose, is a retired attorney. He sent his son to the empty family homestead three hours from Denver to get away from methamphetamine and the friend groups that enabled it.

JOSE MARTINEZ: We were just trying to figure out how to help him. Basically, we didn't know what to do.

MARKUS: But meth has spread throughout the entire West as Mexican cartels have flooded the market with unexpected consequences. States where meth is the go-to drug have the highest rates of police shootings - New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Hey, put your hands up.


MARKUS: Last summer, Colorado Springs police responded to reports of a man with a gun. The cops finally locate Joshua Vigil in the entryway of a senior citizen apartment complex behind a glass door.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Put your - [expletive] put your hands up.


MICHAEL COX: The methamphetamine is, like, the worst possible drug for these encounters.

MARKUS: Michael Cox is a special prosecutor in Albuquerque, N.M., who studied the link between officer shootings and meth.

COX: It makes people paranoid, and it makes them irrational and angry and violent. And it lasts a long time.

MARKUS: Joshua Vigil is cornered. Cops have their guns drawn. There's no rational thing to do but surrender. But meth clouds rational thought. And just a warning here - you're about to hear gunshots because Vigil doesn't drop the gun.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Hey, he's got a gun.


MARKUS: He was shot 20 times. He died later at a nearby hospital.

Vigil had just started using methamphetamine again after being clean for 15 years. Most meth users don't get in shootouts with cops. But Illinois State Professor Ralph Weisheit, an expert on drugs and crime, says some people will lose control. And it's not uncommon for them to also carry a gun.

RALPH WEISHEIT: If you're a meth user who has paranoia and you think people are out to get you and that there's danger at every turn, it shouldn't be too surprising that you might find the idea of carrying a gun with you a pretty good idea.

MARKUS: We found that the states with the lowest officer shooting rates were in the Northeast, where opioids are dominant and gun ownership is much lower. Out west, gun ownership is high and meth is much more widely available. We found that when police encounter someone who's been using meth and has a gun, the suspect is killed almost 90% of the time.

Experts aren't agreed on how best to train officers to respond. Paul Taylor is a certified police trainer and professor at CU Denver. He says, right now many police academies may spend only a few hours on the topic and maybe watch a video of someone on meth.

PAUL TAYLOR: But boy, that's not the way they present on the street when police officers are dealing with them. And so are we truly preparing officers for what it is that they're going to see?

MARKUS: He argues for a fairly radical shift in law enforcement training, where officers get firsthand experience in a detox center or on suicide hotlines to learn to work with difficult populations before they hit the street. And we found that in some cases, officers close distance too quickly on meth users, so encounters without guns became deadly. Taylor says officers need more training than the 80 hours on defensive tactics they currently get.

TAYLOR: Well, that's not going to override somebody's, say, high school wrestling career or high school football career.

MARKUS: Where the instinct is to act now and engage. Taylor says cops learn a lot through experience on the beat.

TAYLOR: But what mistakes are happening along the way?

MARKUS: Dolores Martinez, whose son allegedly came at a cop with a pitchfork, doesn't believe the deputy's account. But she is certain about one thing.

DOLORES MARTINEZ: My son would still be alive if those officers had training.

MARKUS: The sheriff's office wouldn't comment, saying only that they stand by the prosecutor's determination that the shooting was legally justified. Meanwhile, the shootings continue. For the last six years, cops have shot, on average, a person a week in Colorado, a trend that shows no signs of ending.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver.


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