Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Pueblo could become "Colorado's clean energy hub" with coal plant closures

Posted By on Wed, Sep 5, 2018 at 1:00 AM

JEFFREY BEALL
  • Jeffrey Beall

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission gave Xcel Energy unanimous verbal approval Aug. 27 to close two of the three coal-fired units at Pueblo's Comanche Generating Station, 10 years ahead of schedule.

Xcel will also invest $2.5 billion in renewable energy, including wind and solar generation and battery storage, as part of its Colorado Energy Plan. The plan was approved Aug. 27 by a 2-to-1 vote, says Utilities Commission spokesperson Terry Bote.

Currently, about 80 people work at Comanche Generating Station's two coal-fired units, Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo says. Some current employees will be retiring when the units close in 2022 and 2025, she adds, and the rest will be trained to work in other jobs with the company.

One future project would include a new solar facility to power Pueblo's EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel, though that project needs to secure approval from the Utilities Commission separately. Xcel and EVRAZ recently agreed to a 22-year contract that clears the way for a potential $500 million expansion at the steel plant, the Pueblo Chieftain reports.

Xcel estimates that its new energy plan will mean Colorado could get 53 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2026 — an increase from 28 percent last year. The company also predicts the plan will save ratepayers $213 million, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions 60 percent from 2005 levels (though Bote says some Utilities Commission staff members thought those figures were overstated).

In 2017, 44 percent of Colorado's energy came from coal. The new plan would reduce coal dependence to just 24 percent by 2026, Xcel claims.

“By making this step change now, we reduce future fuel costs for the long term – and we can pass those savings directly along to our customers,” Alice Jackson, president of Xcel Energy—Colorado, is quoted in a company statement from the plan's June unveiling. “Our plan takes a significant step forward in transitioning our supply mix to cleaner and more diverse resources, benefiting our customers and the environment.”

Xcel's Colorado Energy Plan also includes solar and wind projects in Adams, Baca, Boulder, Kit Carson/Cheyenne, Morgan, Park and Weld counties. Pueblo County would be a leader, with 525 megawatts of solar power and 225 megawatts of battery storage.

“With approval of this plan, Pueblo is poised to become Colorado’s clean energy hub," David Cockrell, chair of the Colorado Sierra Club's Conservation Committee, is quoted in an Aug. 27 statement from the Sierra Club.

A new partnership between Pueblo Community College and NextEra Energy Resources would also push the city closer to that goal. NextEra plans to install 52 solar panels on Pueblo’s campus, and “provide training and curriculum to help the college create a pipeline of skilled workers for the rapidly evolving industry,” according to an Aug. 24 statement from the school.

The number of solar-panel installer jobs in the U.S. was expected to more than double between 2016 and 2026, according to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, Colorado Springs Utilities has two solar projects coming online in 2020, after which 15 percent of its energy portfolio will come from renewable sources, says Utilities spokesperson Amy Trinidad. Currently, 11 percent of Utilities’ portfolio comes from renewables.

Colorado Springs’ controversial Martin Drake Power Plant, built in 1925, is slated to close no later than 2035 — though the Utilities Board, which is made up of City Council members, has toyed with the idea of accelerating the deadline.

Trinidad says the earliest the utility could have the infrastructure in place to allow for the closure would be 2023.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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Friday, August 31, 2018

Colorado Springs gains 300 acres of open space in time for fall

Posted By on Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 6:23 PM

Looking northeast from Blodgett Open Space. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • City of Colorado Springs
  • Looking northeast from Blodgett Open Space.

September is looking good for Colorado Springs outdoors enthusiasts.

On Aug. 28, City Council voted unanimously to purchase about 300 acres of open space for almost $1.8 million.

The first parcel, which expands the Corral Bluffs Open Space on the east side of the city by up to 246 acres, will cost $1.1 million, says Britt Haley, the Trails, Open Space and Parks Program manager.

(City staff will move forward with that purchase though Council still needs to vote on a supplemental appropriation next month, since the total cost came to slightly more than anticipated.)
Bill Koerner, of the Corral Bluffs Alliance, highlighted the area’s value for scientific research as well as its beauty. He said expanding "the Big Kahuna on the east side" would allow for guided hikes and other recreation opportunities that "are, we hope, going to come around the corner fairly soon."

Council also voted to expand the Blodgett Peak Open Space on the west side of town by 64 acres, for a cost of $778,500. That land, just east of the Pike National Forest, is famous for its sweeping views of the city.

Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) sales tax money will fund the two purchases.

“This is what TOPS was created for, and it’s so exciting to have this opportunity,” says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

Here's what the two expansions will look like:

The Corral Bluffs Open Space will expand by 246 acres, for a cost of $1.1. million. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • City of Colorado Springs
  • The Corral Bluffs Open Space will expand by 246 acres, for a cost of $1.1. million.
The Blodgett Open Space will gain 64 acres, for a cost of $778,500. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • City of Colorado Springs
  • The Blodgett Open Space will gain 64 acres, for a cost of $778,500.
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Lamborn targeting Civil Rights Commission over Masterpiece cake cases

Posted By on Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 1:18 PM

Lamborn: going to bat for a baker. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Lamborn: going to bat for a baker.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, wants business people to be able to refuse service to anyone who don't conform to their religious beliefs.

Lamborn says he's sticking up for Christianity, which he and others erroneously have labeled as the founding religion of this country. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Lamborn calls for the Justice Department to investigate the "anti-religious bias" of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

The commission is under fire for its ruling against the Masterpiece Cakeshop for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the baker, drawing this comment from the commission. However, it was a narrow ruling. Basically, the court did not like how the commission handled the case, noting:
• two members spoke in inappropriately hostile tones about Phillips' religious exemption claim;
• the commission had allowed other cake shops to refuse to make cakes for people with messages that opposed same-sex marriage showing inconsistency;
• same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado at the time of the refusal which could have led to some confusion.

However, the court did strongly suggest that a state has a right to compel business owners like Phillips to provide goods and services regardless of a customer's status as part of a protected class, such as being gay.

More recently, the Civil Rights Commission again ruled against the cake shop owner in a case in which baker Jack Phillips refused to make a cake for a transgender woman who wanted to celebrate her transition and birthday. Phillips then sued the commission.

Now, Lamborn is stepping into the fray, saying Phillips was justified in rejecting the customer's request because, as Lamborn puts it, "the cake's artistic message conflicted with his deeply held Christian beliefs."

Specifically, Lamborn wants the Justice Department to investigate "the actions of Ms. Aubrey Elenis, Director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division, as well as the Civil Rights Commission for their continued anti-religious bias."

Lamborn said in a release, "The Department of Justice cannot continue to allow a biased arbiter, who holds a near monopoly on anti-discrimination cases within the state, to continue to wage a personal campaign against individuals they disagree with." Clarification: Lamborn was referring to the Civil Rights Commission with the term "biased arbiter," not himself or Phillips.
Phillips has ended up in hot water with the Commission because of public accommodation laws — you may recognize the term from the Civil Rights Movement. The laws protect classes of citizens that are often discriminated against, such as LGBTQ people or, say, African-Americans, by requiring that businesses not discriminate against them based on their protected status. In other words, no one is forcing Phillips to make wedding cakes or birthday cakes. But the law says that if he will make a wedding cake for, say a white heterosexual couple, he must also be willing to make one for a black, gay couple.

In case you're wondering, these are the same laws that African-Americans fought for at lunch counters decades ago.

We asked the Civil Rights Commission for a comment on Lamborn's move and a spokesperson declined.

In a statement, Lamborn said those with religious convictions like Phillips "are under assault," adding, "Mr. Phillips' shop serves any and every customer, but he reserves the right to use his artistic talents how he chooses... I am calling on the Department of Justice to protect the rights of religious Coloradans by ensuring that the Civil Rights Commission cannot continue its harassment of people of faith in my home state and its attempts to violate their first amendment freedoms."

Given Sessions' proclivity to side with evangelical Christians, and given who he works for, it might be a fair bet that Sessions will take Lamborn up on his request.

Lamborn is seeking his seventh term in office after a bruising primary election in which his petitions were challenged all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court.

His Democratic opponent is Stephany Rose Spaulding, a professor of women's studies.
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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Environment Colorado, the Arc and others rally for multiple causes

Posted By on Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 6:32 PM

Advocates from the Arc Pikes Peak Region display facts about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Advocates from the Arc Pikes Peak Region display facts about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Wednesday, Aug. 29 seemed like the perfect day to exercise First Amendment rights, as groups gathered in front of City Hall and ACE Cash Express to drum up support for their respective causes.

A handful of representatives from the Arc Pikes Peak Region, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said they were rallying in front of City Hall to stress the importance of benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, as well as accessible buildings and infrastructure.

"We want people with disabilities to get out and have their voices heard, so that starts with registering to vote and then getting to the polls in November," says Christina Butero, guardianship coordinator for the Arc Pikes Peak Region. "Far too often people with disabilities feel like their voice won’t be heard if they vote, and that’s just not true."

Charlotte McClanahan, a community facilitator in the Arc's guardianship program, cares for a woman who uses a wheelchair. They stopped by the Arc's event to push for a city that's easier to navigate.

"Downtown, the immediate downtown, is very accessible, but you get very far and you’ve got broken sidewalks and issues along those lines," McClanahan says.

(The Independence Center, a local nonprofit serving people with disabilities, recently organized a survey of parking lots in the region. Surveyors found more than 100 parking lots that weren't fully compliant with ADA standards. That may be because neither the city nor the Regional Building Department enforces them.)

Supporters of the Campaign to Stop Predatory Payday Loans protest in front of ACE Cash Express. - ANA TEMU
  • Ana Temu
  • Supporters of the Campaign to Stop Predatory Payday Loans protest in front of ACE Cash Express.

A similarly sized group stood in front of ACE Cash Express at Academy Boulevard and Galley Road, representing the Campaign to Stop Predatory Payday Loans. That campaign's Proposition 111 will be on the ballot this November.

Proposition 111 would lower maximum charges for payday loans to an annual percentage rate of 36 percent. Currently, the maximum charges are $20 for the first $300 loaned, 7.5 percent of any amount over $300, and a 45 percent interest rate.

Proponents of the measure argue that payday lenders take advantage of vulnerable communities.

“We’ve seen many families fall prey to this never ending debt trap due to unscrupulous fees and ridiculously high interest rates and believe they deserve a better chance to rise out of financial pitfalls and live a dignified life,” Meghan Carrier, lead organizer for Together Colorado, is quoted in an Aug. 28 statement from the campaign.

Clean-air advocates rally in support of low-emissions vehicle standards. - ENVIRONMENT COLORADO
  • Environment Colorado
  • Clean-air advocates rally in support of low-emissions vehicle standards.

And last week, another group flexed its First Amendment muscle in support of low-emissions vehicles.

Environment Colorado's event Aug. 23 in Acacia Park encouraged the public to support Gov. Hickenlooper's plan for stricter emissions standards. The governor announced June 19 that Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment would develop an LEV program in line with California's. That executive order came in response to the federal government's rollback of  vehicle greenhouse gas and fuel efficiency standards for model years 2022 and beyond.

Environment Colorado collected nearly 1,500 petitions and more than 200 sign-ons from businesses supporting clean-car standards in the 72 hours leading up to its event in Acacia Park, says director Garrett Garner-Wells. The group will continue to push people to voice their support for low-emissions vehicle standards for the duration of the public comment period, which ends in November.

"Coloradans are really excited about this with the summer that we’ve had when it comes to wildfires," Garner-Wells says. "It’s wild what we’re doing to our air here in this state, and this is something we can do that’s a concrete step to begin cleaning that up and addressing climate change as an underlying factor in things like wildfires as well."
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Showered with Love takes homeless hygiene mobile

Posted By on Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 4:29 PM

The Showered with Love trailer has three stalls with showers, sinks and toilets. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • The Showered with Love trailer has three stalls with showers, sinks and toilets.

Kelly Terrien, a local business owner and veteran, created Showered with Love when she "wanted to do something to give back to the community — something that was needed."

The result: a three-stall trailer with showers, sinks and toilets, where people experiencing homelessness can have access to "the basics for self-care."

For now, Terrien will park the trailer outside the Salvation Army's R.J. Montgomery Center shelter, where it will serve guests as the shelter remodels its bathrooms to make them more family-friendly. The Salvation Army will also partner with Showered with Love to bring its services to different areas of the community that may be far from downtown's shelters and nonprofits.

"There are homeless neighbors throughout the entire city," says Salvation Army spokesperson Jeane Turner. "If you can show them that they're loved and help them clean up," she says, that could be a first step on the path out of homelessness.

David Kauffman, the Salvation Army county coordinator, mentions Powers Boulevard as one area where homelessness is less visible than in downtown, but where services like Showered with Love's are of use. "This is one of the ways we can make a touchpoint with them."

Terrien also hopes her trailer can help the working homeless. Perhaps that looks like someone with a minimum-wage job, living in a car — someone who might not be as noticeable as a chronically homeless individual, but still needs a place to shower.

She says the nonprofit is looking for donations and volunteers. Currently, Terrien has just one other person on staff, but wants to hire a full-time operations manager. Showered with Love also needs a truck to pull the trailer, and items such as shampoo, conditioner and feminine hygiene products.

You can donate online here.
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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

UPDATE: Micah Flick's fatal shooting: law enforcement experts comment on DA's report

Posted By on Wed, Aug 29, 2018 at 12:08 PM

The scene of a deadly shooting on Feb. 5. Were too many cops there that day? - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • The scene of a deadly shooting on Feb. 5. Were too many cops there that day?
UPDATE:
While local law enforcement didn't previously respond to the Independent's questions regarding internal reviews of the Feb. 5 shooting, we finally heard back after asking again.

Both the Colorado Springs Police Department and El Paso County Sheriff's Office conduct critical incident reviews of major incidents. The results of the sheriff's review will not be made public. The CSPD's review's eligibility for release to the public wasn't immediately available.

Sheriff's spokesperson Jackie Kirby said the multi-agency task force involved in the shooting was briefed last week clearing the way for a critical incident review to begin.

————-ORIGINAL POST 12:08 P.M. WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 29, 2018—————————- 

While the innocent bystander seriously wounded in a Feb. 5 shootout that claimed a deputy's life might not prevail in a civil lawsuit, as we report in this week's issue, that doesn't mean the tactics used that day were without flaws.

To recap, Deputy Micah Flick was killed and three other officers were injured by gunfire, which also claimed the auto theft suspect's life and left Thomas Villanueva paralyzed from the chest down from a gunshot through his spine.

The Independent previously reported the 10-member auto theft task force weren't wearing police insignia, didn't have guns drawn and didn't announce their presence before the attempted arrest of Manuel Zetina, 19.

On Aug. 21, District Attorney Dan May confirmed all that when he released his report that found the shooting justified and not subject to criminal charges.

That apparently ends the saga of the deadly Feb. 5 shooting, because the Indy can find no agency that's pursuing a deeper investigation of what led to the bloodbath that day. The Colorado Springs Police Department, El Paso County Sheriff's Office and State Patrol comprised the task force. The latter two agencies didn't comment on a subsequent investigation, and the CSPD didn't respond to that question.

But two law enforcement experts who reviewed the DA's report at the Indy's behest say standard practices, had they been followed, might have brought about a different result.

For example, it's always important even for undercover officers to identify themselves visibly and verbally when they "swoop" in for an arrest, says Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain and use-of-force expert who conducted investigations and reviewed complaints in force incidents for the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties from 2015 to 2017.
Thomas Villanueva: caught in the crossfire. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Thomas Villanueva: caught in the crossfire.

"On occasion," Meyer says in an email, "suspects have successfully claimed self-defense when they did not know it was the police."

There's some doubt as to whether Zetina knew it was the police who grabbed him.

"Proper practice," Meyer adds, "is to assume the suspect is armed until proven otherwise. A suspect with their hand on a handgun whether openly or secreted [can] point and shoot in ¼ second, as proven by research by the Force Science Institute. That is faster than anyone can react when surprised that the suspect is armed."

In the Zetina arrest, none of the officers had guns drawn, and Zetina fired at least six rounds before police or deputies returned fire.

"It’s good when the takedown (“swoop”) occurs to have a couple of designated shooter officers, properly armed, positioned and ready to shoot if needed, when others move in to go hands-on to make the arrest," Meyer says. "Of course, if the suspect is known to be armed, officers should tactically position to avoid cross-fire and then announce their presence while designated officers point guns at the suspect, another officer attempts to talk the suspect to the ground, followed by designated arrest-team officers to move in and control and handcuff the suspect."

He also noted that the "low 'hit' ratio" of the officers, who fired eight shots but struck Zetina only three times, could be due to many factors, among them being "they were surprised when the suspect started shooting, thus they did not have the time to position themselves and aim more effectively."

Meyer says dynamic, stress-inoculation training could change the outcomes.
Detective Micah Flick lost his life in the gun battle with a suspect. - COURTESY EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office
  • Detective Micah Flick lost his life in the gun battle with a suspect.
The Indy could find no evidence the task force had trained together.

Another expert, Steve Ijames, former assistant police chief in Springfield, Missouri, who worked as an officer for 29 years and now serves as a consultant on issues of use of force and SWAT across the United States, agrees with Meyer's assessment.

Ijames says via email he doesn't have enough information about the Feb. 5 incident to conclude whether or not the incident was over-staffed, but notes that "the more cops on scene when gunfire starts, the greater the risk of 'blue on blue' shooting."

When officers worry their gunfire might strike another officer, he says, "That can dramatically increase deadly force reaction time, and reduce accuracy with fire directed towards the suspect."

Secondly, Ijames says, "Shooting suspects have no aversion to kill. Cops almost always have an aversion to kill ..., which is magnified today with all of the fears of what happens after the shooting (media, agency, rights groups, etc) running through their minds in milliseconds. All of this effects their accuracy under stress."

The Feb. 5 police report by the CSPD is expected to be released on Aug. 31. Autopsy reports of Flick and Zetina are being withheld by El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux pending a decision on his petition to keep them sealed from the public.

The Independent and Gazette filed suit to compel the county to release the reports, and other local media entities have since joined in the call. 
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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A deputy-caused crash, baby born in jail toilet, inmate's lost leg, and a brain injury among claims that could cost the county millions

Posted By on Tue, Aug 28, 2018 at 6:58 PM

SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office is keeping the county's legal department busy with a raft of claims that, together, seek millions of dollars in damages.

The claims include a baby born in a jail toilet, a man losing a leg for lack of proper medical care and a deputy allegedly causing a traffic crash that killed two people.

The Sheriff's Office declined to comment citing pending litigation. The Colorado Springs Police Department also declined to comment on matters in which it might have been involved.

Here's a rundown, in chronological order of the claims filed:

Andrew Townsend - COURTESY EPSO
  • Courtesy EPSO
  • Andrew Townsend
Andrew Townsend submitted a claim May 2 regarding his May 18 arrest on a domestic violence charge that didn't pertain to him. He was arrested after being stopped for a traffic infraction in Colorado Springs and booked into the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center (CJC). Townsend was not allowed to post bond due to it being a domestic violence charge until he made a court appearance, which never happened. When his father engaged an attorney, Steve Cornetta of Pueblo, Cornetta contacted the Pueblo County District Attorney's Office about the mistaken identity issue, providing evidence Townsend wasn't even in Colorado at the time of the domestic violence incident. The DA filed a motion to dismiss the charges on May 23, which was granted the following day. The claim alleges Townsend was "wrongly detained without probable cause and denied due process" in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Townsend was held for six days without being given access to a judge or legal counsel. Damages sought: No specified dollar figure.

Thomas Dole - COURTESY EPSO
  • Courtesy EPSO
  • Thomas Dole
Thomas Ryan Dole submitted a claim May 25, alleging excessive force. On Sept. 21, 2017, Dole, who was being held on charges of second degree burglary and violation of a restraining order, was involved in a physical altercation with other inmates at CJC. As a result, he suffered a broken back and broken jaw. He was placed in a segregated cell and given a liquid diet due to his jaw being wired shut. On Sept. 24, he was given a meal that wasn't a liquid diet and might have contained food he is allergic to. After he argued with a deputy, several deputies applied "unnecessary physical force despite knowing" about Dole's injuries. At one point, the claim letter says, "a deputy intentionally and purposefully placed his hands directly on Mr. Dole's broke jaw and shoved it against the wall in the cell." His mother later sought a video of the incident but a county attorney told her the video could only be released to an attorney. The video ultimately was released to an attorney on March 27, 2018. Damages sought: $75,000.
 
Madelyn Taylor - COURTESY EPSO
  • Courtesy EPSO
  • Madelyn Taylor
Alynne and Vance Hemphill submitted a claim on June 29 on behalf of an infant for whom they serve as guardians, called W.L.H. in the claim, who was born in CJC to Madelyn Taylor Hemphill on Oct. 11, 2017. This claim was first reported by the Gazette. Hemphill was being held on a drug possession charge in an isolation cell. Although she called for assistance from jailers when she went into labor, she got no help and "was forced into the position of giving birth on her own." The child was born in a toilet where she inhaled the water, resulting in a urine-based e-coli infection. As a result, the claims says, the child suffers from developmental delays, the full extent of which are not yet known. Damages sought: $387,000.

Don Woodson - COURTESY EPSO
  • Courtesy EPSO
  • Don Woodson
Don Woodson submitted a claim on Aug. 8 alleging CJC deputies "negligently, wantonly and intentionally failed to administer the proper medical procedures and take [Woodson] to get the proper medical care." Woodson was treated at a local hospital for injured the claim says were caused by CSPD officers and for medical problems caused by CJC employees, including an intracranial hemorrhage, dog bite, broken ribs, multiple lacerations and bruises and the loss of his leg. Woodson had been booked into jail on second degree kidnapping and second degree assault charges. Damages sought: $15 million.

Survivors of Kenneth and Dorothy Wuerfele submitted a claim Aug. 20, alleging their parents were killed on July 24 on Highway 24 in a crash caused by Deputy Quinlan Linebaugh, who was driving a marked patrol car. When he attempted to pass, he struck another vehicle, which then collided with the Wuerfeles' vehicle. (Linebaugh was placed on unpaid administrative leave before he was later fired; he's since been charged with two misdemeanors in connection with the crash.) Damages sought: "To be determined at a future date."

Vincent Motley - COURTESY EPSO
  • Courtesy EPSO
  • Vincent Motley
Vincent Motley submitted a claim on Aug. 24, alleging he was not given the proper care after the jail staff acknowledged that he was disabled. Due to the disability, he was placed on a lower level bunk restriction, which lasted from Oct. 1, 2017, to March 4, 2018, when he was assigned a top bunk. He then fell from the bunk and suffered symptoms similar to a concussion. He was being held on a charge of crimes against at-risk adults and juveniles — unlawful sexual contact. Since the fall, he's suffered from symptoms consistent with a traumatic brain injury. "Put simply, the jail owed Mr. Motley a duty, which was breached, and the breach was the direct and proximate cause of Mr. Motley's injuries," the claim letter says. Damages sought: $125,000.

All of the claimants are represented by attorneys.
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Cog Railway tax break should get voter scrutiny, Manitou Springs residents say

Posted By on Tue, Aug 28, 2018 at 3:46 PM

Editor's Note: This blog has been updated to correct the names of plaintiffs.

Two Manitou Springs residents have filed a lawsuit, contending the voters should be given a chance to approve or reject a plan to provide a tax break to the PIkes Peak Cog Railway.

John Shada and Brenda Gillen BobSchaeffer filed the suit, which hasn't yet been scheduled for a hearing.

For background on the City Council's deal with the Cog, check this out.

The PIkes Peak Cog Railway is out of service pending an overhaul. - COURTESY VISIT COS
  • Courtesy Visit COS
  • The PIkes Peak Cog Railway is out of service pending an overhaul.
Mayor Ken Jaray says he believes Council followed the city Charter and Colorado state law in rejecting a bid to circulate petitions to bring a measure to the ballot.

But he's also concerned about the implications of any maneuver that might make the Cog's owners rethink the deal. The Cog is owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who also owns the Broadmoor.

Jaray tells the Independent any delay could make it more difficult for the Cog to decide whether to proceed with repairing and refurbishing the 9-mile train from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak, which they've estimated at up to $95 million.

The Independent's founder, John Weiss, who lives in Manitou, has been involved in raising questions of whether the deal might be tested with a vote of the people.

The lawsuit states that the city clerk's rejection of the ballot measure was incorrect, because it didn't propose municipal legislation; rather, the referendum would ask Council to reconsider the ordinance granting the Cog Railway the excise tax break and if Council didn't repeal the ordinance in its entirety, Council would have to refer it to a vote of the people.

The lawsuit, disputing the clerk's contention that the ordinance wasn't legislative, noted, "When a previous City Council initially passed the Amusement Tax in 1971, it was exercising its legislative or governmental function. Any amendment or change to that is also legislative or governmental. The City cannot make it administrative or proprietary by simply saying it’s so."

Here's a news release from those who filed the lawsuit:
Two local residents sued the City of Manitou Springs today claiming that their petition for a referendum on a recently adopted ordinance to provide subsidies to the Cog Railway for the next 50 years was illegally rejected. In their lawsuit, John Shada and Brenda Kay Gillen challenge the claim by the Manitou Springs City Clerk that the agreement is not subject to voter repeal because it is an “administrative” issue rather than “legislative.”

Shada, a former two-term Manitou City Councilor, helped lead the successful campaign to save Waldo Canyon. Gillen is a writer and editor active in environmental and affordable housing causes. They are represented by local attorney Howard Morrison, a 52-year resident of Manitou.

Shada explained, “The Cog Railway agreement will be the biggest issue to impact Manitou Springs in our lifetime. Any decision of this magnitude needs to be made by the voters of Manitou Springs.”

Shada and Gillen are seeking a Declaratory Judgement requiring the Manitou City Clerk to allow them to collect the 223 petition signatures from registered voters to force City Council to either void the ordinance or to put the ordinance on the ballot for a binding up-or-down vote.

The Court filing explains that the ordinance in question is indeed “legislative” because it amends the City’s Amusement Tax legislation enacted in 1971.

“We are in favor of the Cog Railway resuming operations,” Shada continued. “but we just believe that six people, in 2 weeks of public process, should not be making such a large financial concession. The ordinance is an unprecedented deal — it’s an enormous tax give-back to the Cog Railway spanning 50 years. We’ve seen estimates that this will cost our tax base upwards of $61.5 million.”

“This unprecedented deal provides an enormous long-term tax break to a private corporation owned by Phillip Anchutz, the richest man in Colorado. No financial need was ever documented,” said Shada. Mr. Anchutz, also owns the Broadmoor Hotel and the local daily newspaper the Gazette, was reported have a financial worth of $14 billion by Forbes in May 2018.
Here's a copy of the lawsuit, filed by Howard Morrison, husband of former Manitou Mayor Marcy Morrison, as provided by the plaintiffs:
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Monday, August 27, 2018

John McCain was a hero, but no angel

Posted By on Mon, Aug 27, 2018 at 5:23 PM

Sen. John McCain was 81 when he died. - ALAN FREED / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Alan Freed / Shutterstock.com
  • Sen. John McCain was 81 when he died.
The country lost a true patriot over the weekend, whose death seems to be uniting partisans unlike any living person has been able to do in the age of Trump.

But lest we canonize the departed Sen. John McCain, Vietnam War hero, prisoner of war, statesman and presidential candidate, perhaps a true look at the life of McCain can help us understand the quagmire into which national politics has sunk.

Take this Guardian piece, which reports, in part:
But as the Arizona senator, like Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, spent his twilight years raging against the coarsening of civic life, he must have been aware that his legacy would include a decision that helped unleash the very forces he came to despise.

Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of McCain unveiling Sarah Palin, a say-anything, gun-toting political neophyte, as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. It was an act of political desperation that left Washington aghast. It delivered a short-term boost in the polls. But it also opened the Pandora’s box of populism.
That populism led to the presidency of a man who avoided serving his country by claiming to have bone spurs on his feet. (The New York Times reports "[That] deferment was one of five Mr. Trump received during Vietnam. The others were for education."] Trump also still seems to have only a surface understanding of the U.S. Constitution, if he understands it at all.

But back in the day, in 2008, when McCain was launching his second presidential bid, the Independent gave an unvarnished look at McCain, whose coarseness has now been forgotten.

And then, HuffingtonPost issued this "remembrance," which serves as a reminder that not everything about McCain was saintly:
McCain’s victims ― the millions who have suffered and died in accordance with his war hawk policies and positions ― who are already invisible in popular discourse in the U.S., are now deemed wholly unmentionable. Because McCain was a “great American.”
We're not disrespecting the senator, but rather trying to illuminate the man so that rather than being made into a god, he's celebrated for his contribution without losing sight of the fact that  nobody's perfect. McCain will be forever applauded for his sheer bravery, surviving the POW camp. He'll also be lauded for defying his party with his thumbs down vote on Trump's plan to dismantle Obamacare.

But he should also be remembered for less stellar moments, which might serve to give everyone the inspiration to push ahead with their ideals, moving past those boneheaded moves or unjustifiable positions that the passage of time can lead us to be ashamed of.

For now, however, we're still in the adoration stage — except for the nation's leader, who has failed to honor McCain after his Aug. 25 death and refused to keep the Capitol's flag at half-staff more than a day, until the afternoon of Aug. 27 when it was lowered again.

But Rep. Doug Lamborn, who's so closely aligned with Trump that he used video of him during his Republican primary election race, has decided to have the decency to honor McCain for his service:
I'm saddened to hear of the passing of Senator John McCain. He was a true American patriot and hero. His work paints a picture of an entire life lived in service to our country. He fought for freedom and defended the constitution. He was also a loving family man. This country will never forget him. My heart and prayers are with his wife, children, and grandchildren.
Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, chose to emphasize McCain's personal touch:
Susan and I extend our deepest condolences to the McCain family. We also express our gratitude to Senator McCain for his never-ending kindness to our daughters when they visited Washington,” Bennet said. “His example tells us that we need not accept dysfunctional politics and empty partisanship as inevitable. His absence will require much more of the rest of us.
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Thursday, August 23, 2018

El Paso County coroner reconsiders sealing autopsy reports in deputy's death

Posted By on Thu, Aug 23, 2018 at 3:16 PM

COURTESY EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office
El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux might back off from his effort to keep secret autopsy reports of Sheriff's Deputy Micah Flick and auto theft suspect Manuel Zetina, both killed in the Feb. 5 shootout that also wounded three officers and a passerby.

Bux had said he was asking to stop the release of the public records due to an ongoing investigation and due to Flick's widow's grief. Neither of those are legal reasons for withholding the reports, but Bux was trying to argue that together they represented "a substantial injury to the public interest.

That excuse seems odd now given that an investigation into the shooting has been released that details both deaths.

In response to the Independent's question of whether Bux would proceed, in light of the District Attorney's report spelling out the injuries to both, Assistant County Attorney Diana May says in an email:
Based on a change of circumstances with the conclusion of the investigation, the Coroner's Office is reassessing whether a substantial injury to the public interest still exists. I hope to have an answer by the end of the day tomorrow [Aug. 24].
The comments come after DA Dan May released his finding on Aug. 21 that the shooting was justified and no officers would be charged with any crimes. It also comes a week after an innocent bystander, Thomas Villanueva, who was paralyzed from the chest down by a bullet fired by Zetina, and his family protested Bux's attempt to keep the autopsies secret.

Thomas Villanueva, his parents and friends protested outside the El Paso County Coroner's Office on Aug. 15, demanding the autopsy reports and police reports be released. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Thomas Villanueva, his parents and friends protested outside the El Paso County Coroner's Office on Aug. 15, demanding the autopsy reports and police reports be released.
The issue arose when Bux filed a petition asking the court to seal the reports to protect the Flick family from grief. Read the petition here:

Here's our report on the petition.

The Independent and Gazette have since asserted they will fight Bux's petition, for which a hearing is to take place Aug. 24 for setting a future hearing.

There are lots of good reasons to oppose sealing the records, which are articulated in an Indy editorial by News Editor J. Adrian Stanley.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

To end gerrymandering, bipartisan group asks voters to approve reforms

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2018 at 4:38 PM

Heidi Ganahl, Joe Zimlich, Kent Thiry and Sen. Bob Gardner at an event for Fair Maps Colorado. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Heidi Ganahl, Joe Zimlich, Kent Thiry and Sen. Bob Gardner at an event for Fair Maps Colorado.

An unlikely group of allies has banded together to support a pair of ballot initiatives that could have a lasting impact on Colorado's political scene.

Amendments Y and Z, supported by Fair Maps Colorado, would transform the redistricting process for congressional and state legislative districts in order to prevent gerrymandering. That's the practice by which the majority party is allowed to redraw districts. No surprises here: That party usually draws districts that favor its candidates.

The term gerrymander dates to 1812 — so this has been going on for quite a while, though courts do sometimes decide a party has gone too far and order the districts redrawn in a more fair manner. What these Colorado initiatives aim to do, however, is radical: Take the power of redrawing districts away from the ruling party and ensure those districts are drawn fairly (which means in a way that leads to more competitive races).
The change in process for drawing congressional districts would be especially relevant by 2020, when Colorado is projected to gain a House seat, according to Election Data Services.

Kent Thiry, the CEO of DaVita Inc. and co-chair of Fair Maps Colorado, was joined by Toni Larson, president of the League of Women Voters of Colorado; Heidi Ganahl, University of Colorado Regent; Joe Zimlich, CEO of the Bohemian Group; and state Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, for a brief, but enthusiastic campaign stop outside the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum supporting the two ballot initiatives.

"This is about fairness, it’s about our future, it’s about holding our elected officials accountable, and it’s about proportional representation, the sacred principle of democracy," Thiry said. (Thiry, a centrist political donor, is known for his eclectic management style at DaVita — which has included such antics as somersaulting across a stage in medieval garb at company meetings. He also considered a gubernatorial run this year, but decided against it.)

Amendments Y and Z, which were approved for the ballot unanimously in both chambers of the state legislature, would create two independent commissions in charge of redistricting. They would be composed of 12 members each: four Republicans, four Democrats, and four unaffiliated.

"Over the last decade, we have seen congressional deadlock and have watched as other states struggle with gamesmanship and courtroom battles, all due to gerrymandering," Larson said. "With Y and Z, we can clear out the smoke-filled back rooms with a little bit of Colorado sunshine."
"The Gerry-Mander" is a classic political cartoon drawn in 1812 depicting the bizarre districts drawn to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry. - ELKANAH TISDALE
  • Elkanah Tisdale
  • "The Gerry-Mander" is a classic political cartoon drawn in 1812 depicting the bizarre districts drawn to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry.

Republicans Ganahl and Gardner took turns at the podium with Democrat Zimlich and independents Thiry and Larson. They used similar language to describe the ballot measures, implying support across the political spectrum is for shared reasons: The need to "hold politicians accountable" and end gerrymandering.

Because they are constitutional amendments, the twin initiatives need 55 percent of the vote to pass. They have no formal opposition, and Thiry thinks the prospects are bright.

"Gerrymandering has always existed, but it’s grown in intensity," he said, when an attendee mentioned the ongoing fight in Pennsylvania over whether Republicans drew districts to unfairly benefit their party. "[The amendments have] really been prompted by the fact that the cancer has grown."
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Police bust 156 violent offenders in recent sweeps

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2018 at 4:01 PM

COURTESY U.S. MARSHAL SERVICE OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
  • Courtesy U.S. Marshal Service Office of Public Affairs
A multi-agency effort, called Operation Triple Beam, in the past 90 days went after the most violent offenders involved in gang activity, and has swept 156 offenders off the streets of southern Colorado.

The results:
• 156 arrests
• 26 firearms seized, including 10 fully automatic rifles
• 1.3 kilograms of methamphetamine seized
• 739 grams of cocaine seized
• Six stolen vehicles recovered
• $89,087 in illicit funds recovered
COURTESY U.S. MARSHAL SERVICE OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
  • Courtesy U.S. Marshal Service Office of Public Affairs
That makes communities safer, said Pueblo Police Chief Troy Davenport. "I can tell you that from 2015 forward, we have seen less gang specific homicides," he said.

Davenport was among officials from an array of local, state and federal agencies who appeared at a news conference Aug. 22 at the Colorado Springs Police Operations Center to highlight the 90-day sweep.

Agencies involved included the U.S. Attorney, U.S. Marshal, Colorado Springs Police Department, El Paso County Sheriff's Office, Pueblo Police Department, Pueblo County Sheriff's Office, State Department of Corrections, Colorado Bureau of Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.
COURTESY U.S. MARSHAL SERVICE OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
  • Courtesy U.S. Marshal Service Office of Public Affairs
The southern Colorado operation was part of a nationwide effort that led to the arrest of more than 8,000 people, U.S. Marshal David Weaver said.

In Colorado Springs, 63 offenders were arrested and face charges of 88 felonies and 24 misdemeanors; five guns were seized and a small amount of drugs were confiscated.

U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said while the numbers don't seem large compared to some law enforcement busts that snag hundreds of guns or millions of dollars worth of drugs and cash, the operation made a big difference in getting the bad guys off the streets.

Troyer noted the operation's goal was to arrest individuals, not catch them with large amounts of drugs or money or guns, which is usually the goal in long-term drug investigations.

"All of these seizures were ancillary to the focus of the operation — to get the people," he said.

That meant all the agencies cooperating in connecting the dots on which violent offenders were known to authorities based on outstanding warrants or parole violations, and then finding and arresting them, he said.

Troyer couldn't say how many remain behind bars but noted prosecutors are sorting through how the offenders will be handled. His office, he said, decided to prosecute three offenders in federal court.

COURTESY U.S. MARSHAL SERVICE OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
  • Courtesy U.S. Marshal Service Office of Public Affairs
"There are our most violent guys," he added.

Here's a news release:
A large-scale gang enforcement operation, dubbed “Operation Triple Beam Colorado,” in which a number of Colorado law enforcement agencies partnered with the U.S. Marshals Service from May 15 through August 10, led to the arrest of 156 people. OTB Colorado saw the participation of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado Springs Police Department, Colorado Department of Corrections, Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office, Pueblo Police Department, Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Attorney’s Office, all working on the U.S. Marshals Service-led operation aimed at providing communities with immediate relief from gang-related violence by targeting fugitive gang members and the organizations responsible for committing violent crimes. The District of Colorado’s U.S. Marshals Violent Offender Task Force (COVOTF) specifically targets violent offenders with active local, state and federal arrest warrants. The task force is composed of law enforcement agencies located in Colorado that choose to participate in apprehending violent offenders in our communities. “This joint operation had the added effect of strengthening the relationship among our local, state and federal law enforcement counterparts,” said David Weaver, U.S. Marshal for the District of Colorado. “The U.S. Marshals provided multiple resources to include manpower, funds and essential equipment to assist local, state and federal partners in this operation.” Since its inception in 2010, Operation Triple Beam has been conducted 50 times nationwide, resulting in more than 8,000 arrests and the seizure of more than 1,800 illegal firearms.

Notable arrests:

• Lester Bell, Gangster Disciple, homicide: Arrested by U.S. Marshals Colorado Violent Offender Task Force on May 15, in Boulder County. Bell was wanted for a cold case gang related murder that occurred in the summer of 2000 during a robbery where the victim was beaten to death with a baseball bat.

• Joshua Pacheco, East Side Dukes/ dangerous drugs: U.S. Marshals Colorado Violent Offender Task Force on May 17 in Pueblo County. Pacheco is an East Side Dukes member wanted for distribution of controlled substances in Pueblo County. Pacheco was armed with a handgun at time of arrest. Arrest led to search warrant and seizure of five firearms, 23.6 grams of methamphetamine, 30.7 grams of black tar heroin, and the recovery of one stolen vehicle. Pacheco was subsequently charged federally for Felon in Possession of a Firearm.

• Christopher Bynum, capital murder: Arrested by U.S. Marshals Colorado Violent Offender Task Force in Denver on June 1. Wanted for capital murder out of Arkansas for murder related to drug trafficking, Bynum was armed at time of arrest in Colorado, which led to an additional search warrant resulting in the seizure of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and three firearms. 
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Swastika found on Briargate Trail in area with previous neo-Nazi activity

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2018 at 2:28 PM

Found on Briargate Trail on Mon., Aug. 20. - COURTESY BRAD SHERMAN
  • Courtesy Brad Sherman
  • Found on Briargate Trail on Mon., Aug. 20.
UPDATE:

Sergeant Craig Simpson of the Colorado Springs Police Department returned the Indy's questions about the swastika found on Briargate Trail, as well as the white supremacist stickers previously posted in the area.

While Simpson says he could not find record of the police report allegedly filed by Brad Sherman on Aug. 21 (the day after Sherman discovered the swastika), Simpson says he is aware of the Identity Evropa stickers, and that CSPD is currently working to identify the individuals responsible.

In general, Simpson says Colorado Springs has low  white supremacist/neo-Nazi activity, but these incidents represent an "uptick."

"This is something we don’t typically see," he says, adding that it's important to CSPD to get a handle on these incidents so the community feels safe.

"We are trying to work to make sure this kind of stuff doesn’t happen, that the message gets sent that this is not tolerated in our community," he says.

——-ORIGINAL POST: AUG. 22, 2:28 P.M.——-

On the evening of Mon., Aug. 20, while walking his dogs along Briargate Trail, Brad Sherman made a disturbing discovery.

“I have no idea how long it’s been there,” Sherman says of the large black swastika, spray-painted in the middle of the sidewalk.

This isn’t the first white supremacist/neo-Nazi activity in the area. In July, Colorado Springs Antifascists posted on their Facebook page that “Identity Evropa” stickers had been posted to light poles around the 80920 area code, specifically on Research Parkway between Powers Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway. Identity Evropa is a confirmed white supremacist organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center says that the group, formed in 2016 by Iraq war veteran Nathan Damigo, typically targets young people on college campuses with their “self-aware and eminently meme-able aesthetics.”

White supremacist propaganda has also shown up in the Denver Metro area, as recently as July.

Though the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Washington, D.C., drew only a handful of attendees (in contrast to hundreds of protestors who showed up to counter the white supremacists’ message), it is clear from activity around the country that neo-Nazis may be scared, but they are not entirely silent.

Sherman reported the Briargate Trail graffiti to public works, which turned the matter over to the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department for cleanup. Sherman says they “seemed to take it pretty seriously.”

He also filed a report with the Colorado Springs Police Department, “on the off chance that it might mean something to them. I didn’t have anything to give them in terms of a suspect or anything,” he says.

We reached out to the parks department for comment and will update this post when/if we hear from them.

This story was reported with tips from ProPublica’s Documenting Hate Project, which is collecting reports on hate crimes and bias incidents. If you've been a victim or a witness of a hate incident, share your story here.

An otherwise beautiful view marred by neo-Nazi symbolism. - COURTESY BRAD SHERMAN
  • Courtesy Brad Sherman
  • An otherwise beautiful view marred by neo-Nazi symbolism.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

DA: Deadly force justified in shootout that killed Flick

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2018 at 6:12 PM

District Attorney Dan May briefed reporters Aug. 21 about his findings of whether officers were justified in the Feb. 5 shooting. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • District Attorney Dan May briefed reporters Aug. 21 about his findings of whether officers were justified in the Feb. 5 shooting.
Auto theft suspect Manuel Zetina got off at least six shots, striking five people, before officers  returned fire, according to a report issued Aug. 21, by District Attorney Dan May regarding the Feb. 5 shootout that claimed the life of El Paso County Deputy Micah Flick, injured three officers and paralyzed an innocent bystander.

The purpose of May's report was to determine whether the three officers who fired their weapons that day were justified in using deadly force, and he found that they were. His objective was not to determine whether the officers used reasonable tactics to effect the arrest of 19-year-old Zetina, who May said had been smoking methamphetamine prior to the shooting.

Much of May's report mirrors the Independent's June 20 account of what happened at the Murray Hill Apartments about 4 p.m. on Feb. 5 when 10 members of a multi-agency auto theft task force followed Zetina into the parking lot of the complex where Zetina lives. However, May reports that Deputy Scott Stone was the first to grab Zetina in a "bear hug" and was the first to be shot by Zetina (whereas the Indy's sources had said it was Flick who bear-hugged the suspect and was the first shot). Flick then wrestled with Zetina for his gun and was fatally shot in the struggle, the report said.

Meanwhile, none of the officers identified Thomas Villanueva, 28, as endangered by the imminent take-down as he walked across the parking lot from getting a meal just east of the complex. Villanueva was shot through the spine by Zetina, as proven by ballistics and DNA evidence, the report said.

All the officers injured that day were shot by Zetina, May reported, and officers returned eight rounds, three of which struck Zetina.

May also acknowledged that none of the task force members, from the Colorado Springs Police Department, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and the State Patrol, were wearing visible police insignia, directly contradicting accounts provided a day after the shooting by Sheriff Bill Elder and CSPD spokesperson Lt. Howard Black. They said officers did have police insignia showing.

May also acknowledged, as the Indy reported, that none of the officers announced their presence until the instant Stone grabbed Zetina, which has led to some speculation about whether Zetina knew he was being grabbed by police officers.

Prosecutor Margaret Vellar, however, who reviewed the CSPD investigative report, told reporters investigators aren't sure Zetina knew he was being tracked by officers, but added, "It appears he did know."

May said the report concludes his investigation and that he knows of no other agency that is investigating the case.

Villanueva, who's paralyzed from the chest down, has filed a notice of claim, a preface to a lawsuit, and lives with his parents in Pueblo. He and his family and friends staged a protest on Aug. 15, demanding information about what happened that day.

There was no mention during the press conference whether the autopsy reports of Flick and Zetina would now be released. Coroner Robert Bux has asked a District Court judge to keep them sealed to assuage the grief of the Flick family. The Indy and Gazette have joined to seek the release of the reports.

Here's the DA's report, following by a map of the shooting scene at the time the shooting took place:
COURTESY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy District Attorney's Office
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Mental Health Colorado helps kids handle back-to-school stress

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2018 at 3:30 PM

SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com
When it comes to youth mental health, Colorado doesn't score well. Mental Health in America ranks it 48th in the country, in fact, according to a set of factors that include rates of youth depression, substance use and available services.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (Nationally, it's the third leading cause).

And Colorado ranks ninth in the nation for overall suicides, with El Paso County among the hotspots. In 2016, there were 15 completed youth suicides, a jump from seven in 2014 and 14 in 2015, according to El Paso County Public Health.

These statistics are a dismal way to start the conversation about how to treat mental health in schools, but represent both a crisis and an opportunity, says Andrew Romanoff, CEO of Mental Health Colorado.

"The crisis is that kids are struggling and suffering and too often dying on account of untreated mental illness," Romanoff says. "And the opportunity I think here is to become a national leader. I mean Colorado is growing fast, but we’re still a relatively small state, and we could turn this state around. We could become a national leader in mental health."

Mental Health Colorado hopes to help the state edge closer to that goal through its School Mental Health Toolkit, a free online resource released in June meant for schools, districts, teachers and parents across the state. It outlines steps schools can take — such as screenings, suicide prevention and wellness plans — to combat mental illness and keep their students safe.

Romanoff, a former state House speaker, wants to make the toolkit available in every district around the state. With 178 districts and 1,800 schools, that's no small task. Mental Health Colorado is working with local allies to launch the toolkits in schools, and seeking grant money to make the strategies easier to implement.

There's a crucial difference between mental health challenges students face now, versus just a generation ago, Romanoff points out.

"In the era of social media where your life is often online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that can add to the stress," he says. "It used to be that your chances of being bullied might have gone down dramatically once you got out of school, and now that threat can follow you home and keep you up all night and drive you to some pretty bad consequences."

To help parents and kids understand and deal with that reality, Mental Health Colorado also provides free five-minute, doctor-approved online screenings. The informal questionnaires test for a range of disorders, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD and more.

There's also a questionnaire for parents, which helps them identify whether their child may be showing signs of mental illness.

Romanoff says he's heard from some districts that they've met with resistance from parents when trying to implement new strategies. For that reason, he says it's important to educate parents in particular about mental health.

"Parents don’t want their kids to be labeled or diagnosed or branded," he says. "Some parents feel like it’s a reflection on their skills as parents. What we’re trying to help people understand is that mental illness is not a character flaw. It’s a medical condition. And it doesn’t have to be a death sentence: It’s treatable."

Anyone — teens, parents, teachers, readers — experiencing a mental health crisis can call Colorado Crisis Service's free, confidential number at 844/493-8255, or text “TALK” to 38255.
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