EDITORIAL: Colorado Springs police shooting chaos highlights need for state-mandated independent investigations

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No one has more to gain from an independent investigation of two Colorado Springs cops shooting a black teenager in the back than the officers and the police department they work for.

Obstinacy, however, may cheat everyone from a meaningful review of the killing.

The push for an independent investigation, backed Friday by Gov. Jared Polis, has far-reaching implications. It could also result in critically needed oversight in officer-involved deaths in Aurora and across the state.

Colorado Springs city and police officials, and the local district attorney office, refuse to agree to a state review of the Aug. 3 shooting death of De’Von Bailey.

Bailey, 19, was shot three times in the back and once in the right elbow after darting away from two Colorado Springs police officers. Police body-camera footage shows two officers talking to Bailey and another man about a nearby armed robbery. Both of the black men are told to keep their hands up while being searched, according to a story by the Associated Press.

Bailey suddenly bolts and an officer barks, “hands up,” three times, before firing multiple shots as Bailey runs from the cops. The footage shows Bailey falling to the ground and the officers running up to cuff his hands behind his back.

The video immediately raises the question why police shot the teenager in the back. Initial police response has been unclear and sometimes unconvincing.

Bailey’s family and the community demand answers, and they deserve them.

But those answers must come from outside of the police department, the sheriff’s agency that works hand-in-hand with the police department, and the district attorney who also works closely with department.

It doesn’t mean that the El Paso sheriff department and district attorney couldn’t provide a thorough and objective criminal investigation into the shooting. It means that in the eyes of the public, any decision reached by these agencies would be suspect and incomplete.

The officers involved, whose actions may or may not have been in error, deserve to be cleared or impugned by an agency and process that is beyond the cloud of doubt hanging over this process as it stands.  

What Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a former state attorney general, fails to appreciate is the critical appearance of impropriety.

He lashed out at Polis and others who insist on an independent inquiry, saying Polis is too ignorant to understand that a push for an indifferent investigator is “undermining the will of the people.”

The people, in Colorado Springs and across Colorado, are interested in ensuring that justice is carried out in the shooting death of a teenager, not petty personality conflicts.

The Colorado Springs dilemma is important to Aurora and Denver residents because black men and boys dying at the hands of local police is an issue here as well.

In Aurora, there is no independent mechanism to provide oversight of police issues.

The problem is so dire that even the chief of police has been able to fire an officer convicted last year of making abhorrent racial slurs. A rogue civil service commission reinstated the officer.

Local district attorneys are capable of reviewing incidents to determine whether police break laws when wounding or killing civilians during interactions. But none of these police and quasi-judicial entities can authoritatively weigh in on whether a shooting was justified.

That judgment should lie in the hands of veteran police officers, psychologists, police experts, crime scene experts and — most importantly — civilian members of the community, and all out of reach of the agency they are investigating.

A new state law forces police agencies to open their own internal investigations, but it’s no substitute for real, needed police-agency-review reform. Since local jurisdictions are loath to provide independent review of officer involved shootings, state legislators must move forward in correcting the problem.