Even the most recent development in the story of a cop hunted down and killed by an armed man in Arvada, who was then killed by an armed bystander, who was then killed by a responding officer, reveals how complicated and dangerous our gun obsession has become.
This week, Jefferson County prosecutors announced they would not file charges against Arvada Police officer Kraig Brownlow for shooting dead John Hurley during a gunfire melee on June 21 in Olde Town Arvada.
So far, most of the TV and other coverage has glossed over the excruciating complications of the tragedy and lit up headlines with the usual clickbait about heroes, fallen officers and, yes, another mass shooting.
The Associated Press and other media outlets described Brownlow shooting Hurley as “accidental.”
It was no such thing.
Brownlow, like just about every other cop, had trained extensively to deal with catastrophes that have added a whole new lexicon to life in America. The Arvada cop had learned how to “take out” people who are deemed an “active shooter.”
Brownlow purposely and accurately shot Hurley down because he thought Hurley was the active shooter who had just murdered another Arvada Police officer in the popular town square.
What Brownlow didn’t know at the time is that Hurley had been shopping at an Army surplus store when he heard gunfire outside. Those shots came from a man later identified as Ronald Troyke.
Troyke was a 59-year-old Arvada man who had become deeply disturbed, collected serious firepower and one day decided he was going to use it to kill as many cops as he could, according to police and Troyke’s own family. In the unnerving recent shadow of the March 22 Boulder King Soopers massacre, Troyke’s family called Arvada police to warn them that he was going to do something “crazy.”
In less than an hour, he did.
Police acted on the tip and sent Arvada Police Officer Gordon Beesley to check out Troyke’s Arvada apartment. About 20 minutes after the warning was phoned in, Troyke had left. Police later said Beesley had just missed him.
An investigation and street video showed Troyke get first a semi-automatic shotgun from his truck parked in Olde Town, then an AK-15 rifle as he stalked Beesley, who was alerted to Troyke’s actions in the town square.
Troyke, armed and dressed to kill in black did just that, shooting Beesley dead. Hurley hears the shots, sees Troyke and assesses the situation, pulls out his own handgun and shoots Troyke dead.
Hurley then runs over to Troyke to grab the rifle. Brownlow, who with other cops have now rushed to the town square on the active shooter call, sees Hurley holding both a handgun and a rifle, and shoots him dead, thinking Hurley was the active shooter.
While he may have made an avoidable mistake, it wasn’t a criminal one, according to Jefferson County District Attorney Alexis King.
And so, no charges against Brownlow for not accidentally shooting Hurley, but for making a lethal mistake about what was happening.
Cops shooting the wrong person, or wrongly shooting someone, aren’t new. In Aurora, a cop wrongly shot dead a man protecting his grandson and family from a drug-crazed intruder because of similar confusing circumstances. No charges against police.
An Aurora man who thought police sneaking around his house late at night was a man he’d fought with earlier in the day was wrongly shot by police from outside his living room window because he was retrieving a gun to protect himself. No charges against police.
While the Arvada story is impossibly sad, it’s a perfect picture of how prolific guns, conspiracy theories, apathy, unaccountable police departments and the constant threat of “active shooters” and mass shootings are destroying our nation faster than climate change can.
Not a lot has been released about Troyke, other than he was described as a “disturbed” loner who was compelled to collect astonishingly deadly firearms and ammo with no resistance from anyone. He makes it clear that Colorado’s nascent red flag laws — allowing police and courts to get guns away from disturbed people like Troyke — are useless if people don’t bother to call police to invoke them.
And even then, police are loath to act on such information. As a society, too many believe in the absolute right to absolutely own any kind of firepower that makes you feel excited and secure, no matter how disturbed you might be.
It begs the question, how disturbed is too disturbed, and what are the red flags that should lead to red flag cases?
Maybe a good red flag is belonging to and interacting with extremist conspiracy groups that actively promote extremist or dangerous ideas. While police say Troyke was among the fringy fringe who threw around the dog whistle “we the people” moniker, so was Hurley, described as a selfless hero and good Samaritan.
He’s become the poster boy for the trope that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Hurley has been painted by family, friends, the media, and even the Arvada Police as nothing but a hero.
But the T-shirt he’s wearing from his Facebook picture, which has become ubiquitous with his story, blurts right out the conspiracy-theory group he belonged to: We Are Change Colorado.
The group uses that photo prominently on its own Facebook page and claims Hurley to be a patron saint of their cause.
“We Are Change is a nonpartisan independent media organization comprised (sic) of patriot journalists working to hold (sic) those engaging in activities that do not represent the wishes of “We the People.”
I get it. They were quick to respond after the June 21 shooting.
“Johnny was one of We Are Changes longest members and a foundational part of WAC,” the group’s Facebook page said in a post.
Its Facebook page is mostly rife with inflammatory anti-vax memes and disinformation, some of it stamped as false by Facebook bots. They describe themselves as “patriot journalists,” doing the job of exposing all the Orwellian government attempts to limit freedoms, like gun freedoms, that mainstream media is too corrupt to handle.
The posts and shares dabble in QAnon stuff, Trump’s Big Lie and a bevy of how The Man is trying hold freedom lovers down.
The only real reference to the Jan. 6 insurrection comes as a repost from Texas conspiracy guru Derrick Broze, who has strong ties to the group.
“One interesting thing I see from today’s events is Trump supporters fighting back against the police,” Broze wrote about the attack on Capitol police. “Perhaps they will see the truth that the police are the backbone of the Police State and it is the police (aka order followers) who will enforce unjust, unconstitutional laws, vaccine mandates, IRS tax mandates, and other illegal actions. No, cops are not automatically the enemy, but they also are not heroes. They are individuals who need to make up their mind about whose side they are on.”
There’s no way of knowing now how much or any of this Hurley agreed with. But no one balks at his insistence he was righteous in carrying a loaded gun, even when he went shopping.
There’s no arguing that Hurley was astonishingly brave to intercede in what could have become another Colorado mass shooting.
But there’s also no denying that the same, adrenaline-charged bravado that prompted Hurley to “take out” a man he assessed as the active shooter was a moment of luck that Officer Brownlow didn’t enjoy.
What if Troyke had also been a “Good Samaritan” with an AK-15 in his truck, which he ran and retrieved to take out the “real” active shooter? Hurley could easily have made the same mistake about Troyke as Brownlow made about him.
While it’s so tempting to see some wisdom in having “good guys with guns” in public because cops can’t be everywhere, it’s a false conclusion.
Police critics, rightfully, argue that Brownlow shouldn’t get a bye on charges because he didn’t work to de-escalate what he saw rather than fire his weapon to stop it. Criminal negligence? Maybe.
Anyone from Aurora can tell you what that’s all about. And police, and prosecutors, too, in this case argue that you can’t hold people to that high of a standard under this kind of chaos and duress.
“This incident illustrates the nearly unfathomable decisions society asks our police officers to make as they go about their everyday work,” the City of Aurora said in a statement.
Those who criticize Hurley for not making it clear he wasn’t the gunman to anyone watching don’t allow him the same benefit of the doubt. He’d just witnessed a cop shooting and thought fast enough to shoot dead an active shooter. In those moments, how could he be expected to ensure he didn’t mistakenly become a police target by simply picking up the gunman’s weapon?
The entire calamity mostly makes you want to avoid all public places, which is a tragedy in itself. But for those of us who still want to go shopping, out to dinner or a concert without worrying about active shooters and trying to signal police or Good Samaritans not to shoot us, there are real answers to the impossible quagmire.
It’s about getting rid of so many guns and especially getting them out of the hands of “disturbed” people. We need to use “Red Flag” laws instead of just passing them.
It’s not impossible to see any clear takeaways from a tortuous disaster that claimed three lives, two of them belonging to innocent, wondrous men.
As the haze clears, it’s apparent that Troyke was disturbed and wrongfully armed.
Beesley was a passionate cop, who never had a chance to defend himself against an over-armed society and disturbed gunman on a mission.
Hurley was foolishly brave and paid for his courage with his life.
Brownlow was equally brave and solely to blame for acting too fast in hindsight and just like he was trained at the time.
The rest of us? Waiting for elected leaders courageous enough to take on “we the people” and their lobbies who conflate guns with liberty. We’re waiting for police everywhere to explain how better training and accountability have made everyone safer.
With incredible grace, Hurley’s mother, through a statement, pointed to her loss and everyone else’s, especially after news from prosecutors about possible criminal action by police. She said it was expected and understandable that people would be angry about some or all parts of the debacle.
“I would ask that instead of acting out on your anger, that you use that energy to be the change you wish to see in the world,” Kathleen Boleyn said. “Engage in meaningful conversations that might make a difference in how we all may move forward together.”
Now would be a good time.
Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]