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Law enforcement may have left Deputy Micah Flick and others exposed fearing a bad optic for cop aggression 

Officer (let) down

click to enlarge A patrol car served as a memorial to Micah Flick the day after he died. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • A patrol car served as a memorial to Micah Flick the day after he died.

On Feb. 5, El Paso County Sheriff's Deputy Micah Flick was killed in the line of duty as he tried to arrest a suspect at the Murray Hill Apartments on Galley Road. Flick was part of an auto theft task force operation gone awry. That day, bullets also killed the suspect, and injured three other officers and an innocent bystander who was left paralyzed from the chest down.

Authorities describe suspect Manuel Zetina, 19, as a bad guy, who was under surveillance as a repeat car thief — the likes of which are known to be armed and use vehicles to commit serious crimes.

The official version of the events of the day, stated by Colorado Springs Police Department Lt. Howard Black and Sheriff Bill Elder following the shooting, is that a group of plainclothes officers wore police vests and identified themselves as they approached Zetina, attempting to arrest him in the apartment parking lot.

Beyond that, officials have said little about the failed operation by the Pikes Peak region's multi-agency team known as the Beat Auto Theft Through Law Enforcement (BATTLE) unit, part of a statewide multi-agency program formed years ago to reduce auto theft. Neither Elder nor Police Chief Pete Carey will discuss the shooting, citing the pending investigation; the report by CSPD's Deadly Force Investigation Team hasn't been released (and may not be for months), and autopsy reports for Flick and Zetina also are being withheld. The State Patrol declined a request to interview a member of the task force, with Sgt. Rob Madden saying via email, "Due to the unit's visibility in the clandestine law enforcement community, they do not put themselves out for public comment or interviews."

More than four months after the shooting, the public still doesn't know who killed Zetina, who officials say was known to be a serious threat prior to the shooting, though his only conviction was on a minor drug charge. Nor has it been revealed who fired the shot that severed the spine of passerby Thomas Villanueva, or whose bullets injured three officers.

But officers and witnesses to the shooting are raising questions about what happened that day — and what could have been done differently. Local law officers who responded to the scene that day, but asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs, tell the Independent things went horribly wrong because traditional protocols weren't followed, putting the officers, and the public, at risk.

They say that the task force's members advanced on Zetina, a possible gang member or wannabe, with their guns holstered. Why, the officers ask, did they not display police insignia and not bark out commands to the suspect? Instead, officers and eyewitnesses to the shooting say — in accounts that differ from Elder's and Black's press statements — that the cops didn't look like cops, or take charge like cops. Asked to describe the scene that day, officer sources say Deputy Flick grabbed Zetina from behind, attempting to pin his arms to his side, and was struck with the first of seven unanswered gunshots fired by Zetina.

Officers say the apparent break with protocol — guns holstered, no commands, no insignia showing — runs contrary to officer and public safety. "We went to a gunfight with a bear hug," one officer says. "We sent a unit in with one hand tied behind their back. That was a huge breach of officer safety."

Officers and experts wonder if top officials' desire for an optic of cops without guns betrayed the task force that day by denying them the proper tools and procedure that could have spared Flick's life and prevented a citizen from being gravely injured. Experts also say task forces should train together, and there's little or no evidence that the BATTLE unit — which operates only on a part-time basis, with almost half its Sheriff's Office members serving as "occasional" members — did so.

The rank and file tell the Indy that personnel have been warned not to discuss the shooting investigation, and they worry if the truth about what happened that day is hidden, nothing will be learned from Flick's death that could protect officers in the future.

Because, as one officer puts it, "This never should have happened."

click to enlarge One witness saw the shooting unfold through a doorway. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • One witness saw the shooting unfold through a doorway.

On Jan. 23, 2016, when Zetina was still a juvenile, he was cited for possessing "less than 1 oz. of marijuana." The stop took place at 565 N. Log Road near Calhan, a mile from a mobile home on Highway 94 that Zetina gave as his address. Seven weeks later, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia and paid a fine of $100 and $43.50 in costs, records show.

His next brush with the law came on Jan. 8, 2018, when he was stopped in a red 2001 Ford Explorer at 11:55 p.m. on West Colorado Avenue at 16th Street. A city police officer, who didn't have backup on the call, according to the citation, cited him for three offenses: displaying or possessing a title or license plate that was fictitious, stolen, canceled, revoked, suspended or altered (the vehicle bore a 2017 plate), driving without a license, and no insurance. The citation gives an April 10 court date for Zetina.

Just over two days later, on Jan. 11 at 1:30 a.m., Zetina was stopped in the red Explorer at Main Street and Hallam Avenue in Widefield for driving a vehicle with "fictitious number plates," driving without a license and a defective headlamp. He was ordered to appear in court on March 9.

There's no indication Zetina attempted to flee or resisted the officers during any of the three encounters. Yet, a month later, Black described him as a threat, telling The Denver Post, "We definitely had information that he was doing auto theft" and noting police were "actively doing surveillance" on him. "A lot of these thieves are taking these cars to use in other violent crimes," he said, "so you always have that at the back of your mind."

According to several officers who spoke with the Indy on condition they not be named, up to 11 task force members were involved in the attempted arrest of Zetina on Feb. 5, arriving that Monday at the Murray Hill Apartments in unmarked vehicles at about 4 p.m., an hour after Mitchell High had dismissed for the day right across the street. Though they were wearing protective vests marked with police insignia, the vests were covered by coats, shirts and hoodies on that winter day, the officers say.

As they approached Zetina, task force members had their guns holstered and didn't call out to Zetina to identify themselves as police. They didn't give verbal commands for him to put his hands up or get on the ground, the officers say.

All of which would explain why Villanueva, who was coming home to his apartment in the complex, continued walking across the parking lot and didn't seek cover. Villanueva wouldn't comment to the Indy on advice of counsel; nor would his attorneys comment on the case.

When Flick grabbed Zetina from behind, the 19-year-old pulled out a semiautomatic handgun that could discharge multiple shots per second. He first fired over his shoulder, striking Flick in the neck, officers who spoke to the Indy say; he then fired six more shots before police returned fire.

But if officers and witnesses are recounting the events correctly — and more information isn't missing — it's possible that Zetina didn't know he was shooting at officers, and may have simply thought he was being attacked.

click to enlarge The shooting took place at a corner in the complex parking lot. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The shooting took place at a corner in the complex parking lot.

Michael DeRossett, who lives in an apartment that overlooks the shooting scene, backs up many of the officers' details. He says the cops "bum rushed" Zetina, with one officer grabbing him from behind. "There was no badges, no lanyards," says DeRossett. "Within seconds of them grabbing him, I heard pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. I heard, 'Get on the ground' after he [Zetina] was shot seven or eight times."

DeRossett also says that Villanueva, with whom he's friends, told him he saw men positioned behind buildings but didn't know they were cops. "When they ran towards him, he made one step and fell" because he'd been shot, DeRossett says.During all of that mayhem, DeRossett says he saw no patrol vehicles anywhere, and that Villanueva reports he heard no warning given by police. He also reports that when Zetina fell from a gunshot, officers formed a semicircle around him, which DeRossett says worried him that it would create crossfire injuries. "They were all standing around him in a barrage of gunfire," he says.

Another apartment complex resident, a mother of three who refused to give her name because she didn't want to get involved, says she was starting to exit an apartment building adjacent to the shooting scene and called 911 after the shooting started. When the dispatcher asked her if there were any police officers on the scene, she told her "no," but then saw officers shedding their coats to reveal the police vests and told the dispatcher, "Wait, they're pulling their badges out." But when the shooting started, she says, there were no badges visible.

The woman was critical of the police for attempting the arrest an hour after school let out on a weekday. "How they did it was completely wrong," she says, "because that could have been my kid [caught in the crossfire]."

DeRossett and other residents gave similar accounts to media in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, but at a news conference the day after the shooting, Sheriff Elder told reporters, "These are plainclothes detectives but they were wearing clearly visible placards that identified them, front and back, as police officers. They all had badges around their necks."

Black also told reporters that all task force members wore insignia "that clearly identified them as police officers or sheriff's deputies." In his description of the operation, Black told reporters, "We were with him, we were moving with him, we were able to get him into a location in the 4200 block of Galley Road, where he pulls into a parking lot."

That makes it sound as if the stop and attempted arrest were made on the fly. But given that Zetina listed his home as the Murray complex on both traffic citations issued a month earlier, could the officers have anticipated the complex as a possible destination?

Black also said Zetina "actually gets out of the car. Our officers and deputies make a decision to contact him outside of the car. We don't want to become involved in a [vehicle] pursuit."

That is consistent with the 2017 interagency agreement between the Colorado Automobile Theft Prevention Authority (CATPA), which funds the BATTLE program, and the State Patrol, which says, "Operationally we have adjusted our tactics to enhance officer and public safety by taking a more methodical and safe approach to contact offenders after they have exited their vehicles as opposed to contacting them while behind the steering wheel. This has proven to be both very successful and safe. This technique also reduces the likelihood of a vehicle pursuit, furthering public safety."

The agreement also states that the statewide BATTLE program requires operational plans be completed and approved before each field operation "to ensure success of the operation." And BATTLE's operational guidelines say all undercover operations "should be thoroughly and thoughtfully planned out," that a "briefing sheet," including surveillance reports, is to be completed prior to any undercover or tactical operation, and that the first priority should always be "safety of ALL persons."

It's not known publicly whether such an operational plan, along with a briefing sheet, was drafted and approved prior to Zetina's attempted arrest.

Overall, however, it would appear that the statewide BATTLE program has proven to be an effective crime-fighter. In its most recent report, dated Feb. 15, 2018, 10 days after Flick died, project director State Patrol Capt. Mark Mason reported that in the prior six months, 115 vehicles were recovered across Colorado and 57 people arrested. Authorities also seized 6.7 grams of methamphetamine, "an undisclosed amount of black tar heroin," $25,000 in cash and two handguns.

From 2016 to 2017, the report said, the Pikes Peak region saw a decline in auto theft. "It is hard to say that the decrease is solely due to the task force," Mason wrote, "but I believe the reduction in motorcycle and passenger car thefts can be attributed to the excellent working relationships we have developed with the CSPD and EPSO."

Mason's report, which doesn't mention Flick's death, states, "BATTLE continues to have success developing felony auto theft cases by using intelligence to direct enforcement and investigations. GPS trackers improve officers' ability to conduct investigations on occupied stolen vehicles in the safest manner possible."

click to enlarge Villanueva was walking through this lot when he was shot. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Villanueva was walking through this lot when he was shot.

One former local officer who spoke to the Indy on condition of anonymity suggested Zetina's takedown was a job for a tactical unit, or SWAT, which would have taken time to plan the operation based on a risk assessment. A possible counter argument that the task force saw the situation as dynamic and didn't have time to call SWAT serves to support the notion that it might be a good idea to train and equip the unit's members in tactical strategies, the former officer points out.

If tactically trained, the unit might have anticipated Zetina would have reacted the way he did, the officer suggested, adding, "This is about officer safety. The agency let officers down, and it went tragic."

Another officer with knowledge of the Feb. 5 operation questions whether it was a tactically sound decision to try to bust Zetina on his home turf. "Was the [apartment] complex the right place to take a person down?" the officer asks. "I'm not going to go into his home apartment complex and try to arrest him with dozens of people coming out. You run the risk of additional family coming out, friends, and they want to help him. I'm taking him down at a gas station. Who has the advantage? A show of force with multiple officers would have the advantage." That officer also says a takedown in a crowd without officers making their identities clear could prompt a good Samaritan to try to aid the suspect, not recognizing the police.

It's not publicly known if the task force trained as a unit and what led to an apparent new guideline to keep guns holstered, but the officer who was skeptical of a home turf takedown notes that word has circulated that the newly assigned State Patrol supervisors thought the task force had been too aggressive in the past.

"That's when they decided to go in without guns [drawn]. They really frown on officers drawing weapons," the officer says. But cops are taught to have the advantage, the officer adds, because without that edge, things can get out of control fast, and if a suspect has a history of violence, it's standard procedure to call the tactical unit to make the arrest.

"Our priority is life," the officer says. "With a felon, you start out with a show of force. Before you grab him, you're supposed to say, 'I'm the police, and you're under arrest.'" Would it have made a difference in this case had officers shown badges and issued verbal commands? "We will never know," the officer says, noting that dozens of earlier operations reportedly didn't use guns and nothing happened, because the suspects gave up.

"In my opinion, if you're going after a felon, you should have a gun drawn," the officer says. "Citizen safety comes along with officer safety."

Since the Feb. 5 shooting, the local BATTLE unit has made no arrests, State Patrol spokesman Madden says, and Springs police were told during the May 17 officer lineup that the task force would no longer make arrests. On June 7, however, the CSPD tactical unit was called upon to arrest an auto thief suspect.

What little is known publicly about what happened that day raises troubling questions about whether the task force's methods coincided with standard protocols and whether the unit had the proper training to carry out the arrest, officers and experts in tactical law enforcement say.

Steve Ijames, former assistant police chief in Springfield, Missouri, 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 and in dozens of countries. He calls the issue of self-identification by officers "a critical aspect of what we do, day in and day out."

Even an officer in uniform who interacts with citizens who aren't expecting to face an officer should make it clear he or she is an officer, says Ijames. For example, he says, if an officer comes upon a car in a ditch at night, he might go to the nearest house to inquire. "When you knock at 2 a.m., they're not going to know who's knocking. They may very well come to the door with a gun," he says. "Everybody has an inherent right to defend themselves, even criminals."

That's why Ijames teaches that officers must do "everything to cause them [citizens] quickly to understand we're the police. Use these words: 'You're under arrest. Denver Police, you're under arrest.' You have to look like the cops and act like the cops or people may not treat you like the cops." If officers arrive with a significant show of force — multiple cops, insignia on their clothing and with guns drawn — there would be no confusion as to who they are.

"Generally," he adds, "it is imperative that officers who are making an arrest, especially in a plainclothes scenario, let there be no question that they are immediately identified by the suspect as the police."

click to enlarge Sheriff Bill Elder, at podium, briefs media about the shooting on Feb. 6. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Sheriff Bill Elder, at podium, briefs media about the shooting on Feb. 6.

A chief reason, he notes, is because suspects almost always resist other suspects, but they rarely resist the police. In fact, Ijames noted that one recent study found that less than 1 percent of suspects resist to the point of requiring police to use force. The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery reported in March about a study conducted by William P. Bozeman, professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The study reviewed more than 1 million calls for service at three mid-sized police departments in three states over a two-year period and concluded less than one in 1,100 calls for service and less than one in 120 arrests resulted in police using force, a finding researchers termed "remarkable."

Ijames notes that if suspects don't recognize an officer as police, "the chance of resistance is very, very high."

Ijames also says that part of a risk assessment is determining the trust people have for police in a given area. Mexican immigrants, for instance, are less likely to trust police due to bad experiences in their home country.

When carrying out an operation in a neighborhood where people distrust the police, officers have to plan for that — but it's not known if or how that factored into the Feb. 5 operation. "You have to have very effective communication processes, because they're predisposed to not being treated fairly," he says.

Ijames was skeptical of the strategy reportedly used to take down Zetina by grabbing him, especially given that he had no apparent history of running from cops. In all three documented incidents where Zetina interacted with police, there was no mention that he tried to flee.

"We don't usually lay hands on people in surprise, because it dramatically decreases others' ability to respond," Ijames says. "I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm saying I have to have one eyebrow raised. If, without warning, you're going to jump him and grab him, it dramatically reduces your friends' ability to help you if he comes up with a weapon."

Ijames' take is backed up by 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.

"When you have these types of undercover surveillance operations, it's important that when you are going to take somebody down, that now all of a sudden, you need to in some way identify yourself as police officers, whether it's your badge around your neck, your vests that say police on them, something like that," he says in an interview. "It's clearly important that you be identifiable as police officers. Clearly, when you're jamming somebody, which is the term of art used for these undercover operations when you're doing a takedown, you need to be identifiable because of your clothing and equipment, and it's important to have a very strong verbal presence there, announcing, 'We're the police, get your hands up, get on the ground, you're under arrest.' All these things need to be done in the moment, and should be part of the planning and, certainly, the training process."

Training could be at the root of missteps during the Feb. 5 mission, considering the Indy could find no evidence the task force trained together as a unit.

Because agencies could have different ways of doing business, any interagency task force should train as a unit, Meyer says. "They need to train together on the types of operations that are expected to come into play, so they can all get on the same page, tactically and operationally, in what they're doing out there," he says.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recommends multi-agency investigative teams have their own written policies and procedures, noting, "Training of unit personnel should include thorough coverage of this subject, both at the time of the units' formation and upon the later assignment of new personnel to the unit."

Those guidelines also provide a reminder that "failure to observe this principal [sic] vastly increases the exposure of the unit and its parent agencies to civil liability." Villanueva has filed a notice of claim regarding the shooting, a precursor to a lawsuit, but as of June 18, Flick's widow, Rachael, and the other officers who were shot during the attempted arrest have not. Mrs. Flick, reached through her pastor, didn't respond to a request for comment by the Indy's press time. (Claimants have 180 days, or until Aug. 4 in this case, after an incident to assert their right to file a lawsuit.)

Of particular concern, IACP says, are policies about use of deadly force, arrests, searches, interrogations and undercover operations. "The complex legal and operational requirements of these units demand that only the best-trained and most capable officers be assigned to it."

That's how the Metro Auto Theft Task Force, which grew out of the BATTLE and other programs, approaches its mission, according to Lakewood Police Commander Mike Greenwell, who reports that his unit includes only "seasoned officers who have good judgment and decision-making skills," and, unlike the part-time Pikes Peak region task force, his unit works full-time on auto theft.

Greenwell oversees a unit composed of 14 detectives, four sergeants and four analysts from nine agencies — Lakewood, Denver, Aurora, State Patrol, Wheat Ridge, the Attorney General's Office and Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties.

He reports there have been no concerns expressed by the State Patrol about his team being too aggressive in pointing guns at suspects and that there are no specific prohibitions against drawing weapons.

"It's up to the sergeant in charge," Greenwell says in an interview, "but if the officer feels he needs to be prepared, I would expect him to have his weapon out to present, or it is presented when ordering someone to stop or get on the ground. That's just standard police procedure when you're taking someone down who's violent or you suspect is violent into custody."

How arrests are effectuated, he says, is dictated by the protocols required by the jurisdiction in which an arrest takes place. For example, Aurora Police Department's SWAT team is on duty all the time, so all arrests by the unit in Aurora are handled by the SWAT team. "If we go to another town who doesn't have a full-time tactical team on duty, we're very careful how we decide to take them into custody at that time or if we take them into custody," Greenwell says. "We all work very well and in concert with each other. I see State Patrol guys with guns out in certain circumstances, and we have gone hands-on [without guns drawn] in certain circumstances. Safety is first."

Greenwell says his unit trains together on officer safety, tactics, rolling surveillance and investigating chop shops; it also meets weekly to share information, hot spots, trends and the like. "We try to do a lot of training," he says, "because we want to make sure we're doing the best job we can."

It's worth noting that the Metro unit works an area where 68 percent of the state's auto thefts occur. Last year, the unit made 233 arrests and recovered 406 vehicles valued at $3.5 million. In the first four months of 2018, it's made 89 arrests and recovered 170 vehicles worth $1.8 million.

It's anyone's guess when the report by the Deadly Force Investigations Team, composed of the CSPD and Sheriff's Office, will be released. It was sent to Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May's office in mid-April and is described by a DA's spokesperson as a "huge, voluminous report" for which there is no release date. So Villanueva will have to wait to find out who shot him, and the public will have to wait to learn details of why the operation went south.

While heartbreaking, the loss of an officer in the line of duty should serve as the basis for training so that officers can learn from it, retired LAPD Capt. Meyer says.

But several officers tell the Indy there were no training lessons derived from the deaths of three CSPD officers: Jared Jensen, who was trying to arrest a felon in February 2006 without pulling his gun when he was shot at close range; Ken Jordan, killed in December 2016 when he made a DUI stop, and motorcycle cop Matt Tyner, who died in July 2012 after a driver ran into him during a high-speed pursuit. (The last sheriff's deputy killed in the line of duty was Hugh Martin, shot during a no-knock search of a drug dealer's house in April 1992.)

Steve Biscaro, a 24-year veteran officer who retired from the CSPD in 2017 after being acquitted on charges arising from using force during a traffic stop, served as a training officer for years and to his knowledge, the department has never trained based on the loss of an officer.

"Every time an officer dies," says Biscaro, a 2014 Medal of Valor recipient for his part in a shootout with a suspect, "there should be something learned out of it — taught out of it. [CSPD] Command wants to put it out of sight and out of mind."

In an era in which cops are increasingly under the microscope due to phone recordings and body-worn cameras, one officer who responded to the shooting observes, top brass don't seem to be held to account for decisions that place officers in harm's way.

"It's disappointing to see police administrations hide behind the death of the officer and deny cops the tools they need to be successful," the officer says.

Meyer agrees that it's a mistake to not learn something from an officer's death.

"When tragedies such as this one occur," he says, "it is important for law enforcement leaders and tacticians to thoroughly review what happened, identify lessons learned, and improve policy and training and supervision in the hope of preventing the next tragedy."

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