Outrage in Denver after police shoot a disabled teen

Police are no strangers to the people who live on the five short blocks of East Thrill Place. Prostitution, drugs, and gang fights have drawn patrol cars to this northeast Denver neighborhood for decades.

While some appreciate the police attention to the predominantly black area - crediting the officers with closing crack houses and even contributing to a climb in property values - others fiercely resent their presence. They tell stories of cops who swoop in any time a group congregates on a corner or outside a convenience store.

"They always want to stop you and harass you for no reason," says Margo Richardson, a 30-year resident.

Now those tensions are escalating dangerously in the wake of a controversial police shooting of a 15-year-old mentally disabled boy who was holding a kitchen knife.

The death of Paul Childs - the fifth killing by Denver police this year - is raising new questions about the use of excessive force and highlights a long-troubled relationship between the police and minority neighborhoods in this normally quiescent city.

Across the country, controversial police tactics are often the tripwire for neighborhood disaffection - and worse. It has led to rioting in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Fla., and most recently Benton Harbor, Mich., among other places. Now Denver faces a major test of whether it can work through an unusual and particularly sensitive case without triggering unrest.

"Unless we get a proper response from the mayor, police, and the DA's office, it's going to be a very long summer," says the Rev. Reginald Holmes, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, which represents about 35 African-American churches. "You've got some very, very angry people in this community. It won't take much for this community to blow."

The depth of the concern here was evident from a memorial service held for the 15-year-old youth over the weekend. It drew more than 500 people, including the city's top political leaders, who are vowing a quick and open investigation into the shooting.

The exact details of the incident remain somewhat in dispute. Nine days ago, on a Saturday afternoon, Childs was standing in the living room of his mother's house holding a kitchen knife. His 16-year-old sister called 911 and told the dispatcher, "He's trying to stab my mother with it." (The family has since denied they felt threatened.)

Police responded. According to a family account, four officers pulled their guns. One of them, James Turney, shot and killed the youth after Childs failed to respond to repeated orders to drop the knife. It was the second time Mr. Turney has killed a citizen in the line of duty in the past 18 months.

Neither police nor the family were unfamiliar with each other. In the past four years, the family had summoned police to the house 47 times, often for incidents involving the behavior of Childs.

The killing has put the Denver Police Department on the defensive. By one estimate, the city is already ranked among the worst in the nation for fatal police shootings.

Record of past shootings

Now police are being forced to explain why four adults with guns couldn't disarm a boy with a knife. Citizens want answers to why officers couldn't talk him down, shoot him in the leg, or spray him with Mace. Police are left struggling to prove they're not trigger-happy, but are doing everything they can to curb unnecessary killings.

"It's very easy to say there's more numbers," says Denver police Lt. Steven Carter, an aide to the chief of police. "But read each case letter [from the district attorney] and then decide: Are the numbers important or are the circumstances important?"

Since 1990, Denver police have shot an average of seven people a year, killing an average of three. A 2001 study by The Washington Post found that in the past 10 years, Denver ranked 17th in average fatal police shootings per year among the nation's 51 largest police departments. The same study ranked Denver among the top 10 in fatal shootings per capita.

When it comes to investigations, most officers are exonerated. Of 129 Denver officers who have killed or wounded someone since 1990, three were disciplined or reprimanded, according to department numbers.

Turney was immediately placed on administrative leave after the killing, a common practice while an investigation is conducted. He was later suspended with pay for reasons police won't discuss other than to say they are unrelated to the killing.

The past shootings, coupled with the unusual circumstances surrounding the Childs's case, have turned the latest incident into a cause célèbre for civil rights and other groups. Clergy and religious leaders from across the city attended the memorial service on Saturday. So, too, did prominent lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who is taking up the family's case.

"The Denver Police Department historically has a disturbingly high number of these kinds of shootings of people without guns," says US Rep. Diana Degette (D) of Colorado, who is keeping an eye on the case. "It's cause for concern."

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, says the public doesn't believe the police department is able to police itself. "This is one more in a series of incidents that suggests the Denver police shoot first and ask questions later," he says.

Some are calling for a change in state laws. They want to tighten the language that gives police considerable discretion in using deadly force when they feel threatened.

"Here you have a 15-year-old-boy with a knife that is broken, with no tip, with no edge, and an officer with a gun and a security door standing between them, who shoots him at point blank range," says the Rev. Mr. Holmes. "And all the officer has to say is he believed his life was at risk. Unless you're dealing with Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, I don't think so."

Denver police, for their part, say the department has gone through a "massive revision" of policies in recent years to help reduce the incidents involving excessive force. Lieutenant Carter notes that the department has added dozens of Advanced Taser M-26 guns to their arsenal. The so-called stun guns cause muscle contractions that typically cause a person to crumple. An officer on the scene of the Childs' shooting called for a Taser moments before the boy was fatally shot. It's unclear why officers didn't use the less lethal option.

Changes already under way

Department officials won't discuss details of the case while it's under investigation. Carter did say, however, the Taser had been used seven times when it "would have been clearly justified" to use deadly force.

In addition, more and more local police officers are going through "crisis intervention training," which teaches them how to deal with mentally disabled and other troubled people. So far about 127 of the 800 patrol officers have graduated from the 40-hour training. Police say one responded to the call to the Childs' residence, though it's unclear what role the officer played.

Police also caution against underestimating the danger involved when someone has has a weapon - no matter what it is. Carter notes that 13 officers nationwide have been killed with knives since 1988.

Childs's mother, Helen Childs, sees things differently. She is convinced her son wasn't going to hurt anybody with the knife he was following her with that Saturday night. The family called the police only because the youth looked up to them and respected them. Police might help calm him down as they had done in the past, she says.

Police had returned Paul to his home many times after he had wandered off as he often did. "Paul was a very loving individual," she says. "He loved everyone. He would go up to strangers and hug them."

Helen Childs taught her son hugging strangers wasn't appropriate but that didn't deter him. Instead he would stand a couple of feet back and put his arms out allowing the other person to approach if they felt comfortable. "He would never hurt a flea," she says.

Postal carrier Allen Early remembers Paul as a nice boy. Walking his route up and down Thrill Place last week as he's done for more than a year, Mr. Early recalls frequent chats with both Paul and his mom.

Like many in the Park Hill neighborhood, he says he was shocked to hear Paul Childs had been killed by police. Yet at the same time, not everyone is automatically pointing fingers at police. "People don't think all the same around here," he says. "I'm outraged by what happened. But I'm not willing to paint the entire Denver Police Department as a racist-filled institution."

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