(CO) "The Animals" - Denver police shootings


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Mark Tyson
September 21, 2003, 06:55 PM
Denver Post

Article Published: Sunday, September 21, 2003

'The Animals'

To fight skyrocketing crime, the Denver Police Department in1986 started a unique recruitment and training program - one that has not been used since - to help return order to the streets.

By David Migoya
Denver Post Staff Writer
It was 1986, and Denver was in trouble.

The crime rate was soaring. Homicides were occuring at a record pace.

The Police Department needed help.

"We were in bad economic times, the oil patch went south, the budget went to hell and we were having to make do with fewer cops," remembered J.D. MacFarlane, the city's manager of safety at the time. "The community wanted aggressive police officers."

What they got were "The Animals."

The 40 recruits who filled the Denver Police Academy that fall earned the nickname from veteran officers because of their collective size, strength and attitude.

And over the years, the group galvanized their reputation for toughness through heroism and sacrifice - but also by amassing an unmatched record of shootings and killings.

Fourteen officers from the class have been involved in the wounding or deaths of 14 people, 13 of them by gunfire, according to an analysis of police records by The Denver Post.

That number would be even higher had some of the officers not fired and missed, or chosen not to shoot because their line of fire was blocked, according to records and interviews.

The group with the next highest number of shooting incidents - eight - is a 1995 academy class. Tied for third highest, with six, is a 1982 class, some of whom either helped train members of 1986-2, as "The Animals" were officially called, or fired their weapons alongside them years later, records show.

"To have one particular class with an unusually high number of shootings can't just be an anomaly or aberration," said Ken Cooper, director of Tactical Handgun Training, a firearms training academy in Kingston, N.Y. "Maybe it's a combination of things. Were they oversensitized to the dangers of the streets, or saw so many get hurt on the job that suddenly everyone looked like a potential killer of cops to them?"

Theories vary on why one class could have so many more shootings than others, but Cooper and other experts said they are not aware of any study that correlates gunfire to academy classes.

"One possibility is that this is just an ill-fated class," said Hans Toch, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Albany who has studied Denver police shootings and testified at several trials that resulted from them. "Or, they merely ran into a disproportionate number of incidents."

The Post looked at all police shootings since 1980 following the death of Paul Childs, a 15-year-old mentally handicapped youth who was killed in July by officer Jim Turney when Childs did not drop a knife.

Turney is a 1998 graduate of the academy and only the third of his class to draw his weapon and fire. It was his second fatal shooting in as many years, and officials haven't yet determined whether it was justified.

Members of the class of '86, their trainers and police brass were not aware of the group's record of gunfire until told by The Post. The department doesn't track police shootings that way.

"I don't have any explanation for it," said Chief Gerry Whitman, who helped train some of the officers from 1986-2. "We've never tracked class patterns before."

That's changing, though. An academy class from last year is part of a long-term study to monitor their experiences, Whitman said.

The department ultimately said that each of the shootings by the class of '86 was justified. And while insisting that the members of the class were far from trigger-happy, several people who were involved with the class - from administrators who tested and selected them to the officers themselves - offered possible explanations for the number of incidents, including:

It was the first - and only - group in nearly two decades to be chosen from a battery of entrance exams that included a graded physical agility test. Doing well likely meant a job.

It was the first of two classes to divide training between the classroom and the streets, part of what class trainers now say was an ill-conceived effort to get officers on the job quickly. The group received 11 weeks of field training, dubbed "street survival," after just 11 weeks at the academy.

The recruits became more aware than most of the dangers they faced. Five law enforcement officers were killed in Colorado during the group's first year - two of them Denver officers - the most to die during the training of any academy class in more than a half-century, The Post found.

Some in the class say the experiences and training galvanized them to be assertive but careful cops at a time when crack cocaine and street gangs were emerging in Denver. Others described it as a thrill ride.

"When we came on, it was a particularly violent time in Denver, very much the Wild West with shots fired all over the place," said Jeffrey Rawson, a class of '86 graduate and now a police officer in Clearwater, Fla. He left Denver 13 years ago without shooting anyone during his time here.

"It was exciting as hell. Violent, but we were out there to take care of that."

Said MacFarlane, the manager of safety who hired the recruits: "They were there to move the crud off the streets."

'Big, BIG guys'

As the newly minted Denver police recruit stepped from the cruiser, the woman who had called for the police peered upward at him.

He was tall, muscular, imposing - precisely what Denver wanted its new police officers to look like.

"Where did you find this one?" the astonished woman is said to have asked the recruit's training officer, who had driven the car.

The senior officer smiled.

"We made him," was the semi-serious reply.

At the time the class of '86 was being recruited, many Denver police officers were a little pudgier than commanders liked, and not as aggressive about crime as the community thought they needed to be, several former police administrators said.

"With the crime rate and everything going on, and the pressures to do something about it, the city actively went out ... and selected officers that fit the need of the times," said Lt. Vincent Gavito, a member of the academy class that began its training in November 1986. "They wanted people who could go out there and fit the profile of doing police work."

What they got were 39 men and one woman who were faster, more agile and smarter than many police recruits who preceded them. The class included bodybuilders, football players, karate experts, gymnasts, competitive firearms experts, and civilian and military police officers, according to records and interviews.

From their ranks have come some headline-grabbing names noted for their heroics or escapades: VanderJagt, Blake, Gavito, Murawski, O'Shea.

"Our nickname became 'The Animals' from the other cops," said Michael Lohr, who resigned from the group before graduation and took a job with the Denver Water Department. "There were some really big physical specimens. The way they scored the physical agility exam, the bigger guys figured in there."

For the first time in 20 years, the Civil Service Commission, the agency that tests police applicants, administered a physical agility exam. The idea was to find the most physically fit applicants.

"There were many, many people in the department at that time who were overweight, smoked or were on disability constantly," remembered Maria Valdes, former executive director of the commission. "We were interested in moving from a paper-and-pencil thing to a more comprehensive review of applicants."

Those who passed the written exam went on to the physical. It measured grip strength, "explosive" leg strength in squats, aerobic fitness and upper-body strength.

"One way to manage stress was to be physically fit," said Tina Rowe, the former U.S. marshal in Colorado who was a lieutenant at the academy. "We weren't thinking of muscles or buff for fighting crime as we were for their health. We had been graduating officers we knew would have fitness or weight issues later in their career."

All test results were averaged together, something that hasn't happened since. The top names on the hiring list included just one woman.

When Gavito entered the small, cramped academy building in Harvard Square Park in south Denver, nicknamed "the little red schoolhouse" by the instruction staff and torn down long ago, his first impression was the daunting size of his classmates.

"I've always been athletic, so I wasn't easily intimidated, but I remember sitting there and looking around thinking, 'Wow,"' said the 5-foot-10 former Englewood police officer. "Out of the 40, 35 of them looked like a recruitment poster of the commando squad or the SWAT team. I knew I had to be on my toes to compete."

One recruit, James "Jamie" Smith, had been the starting center for the 1984 Montana State University football team that captured the I-AA national championship. Another, Daniel O'Shea, had long been a champion powerlifter.

Kenneth Padgett was a competitive arm wrestler, and Bruce VanderJagt was a bodybuilder.

"Big, BIG guys," said classmate Benigno "Benny" Rucobo Jr., pointing to faces in a class picture, giving names and puffing his chest. Rucobo has been in a wheelchair since a 1992 off-duty motorcycle accident left his body paralyzed and his memories in a fractured mosaic.

There were brains in all the brawn, too. VanderJagt was completing a doctoral degree at the University of Denver, three others had master's degrees and more than half were college graduates, unusual even in today's academy classes, Civil Service Commission officials said.

To ensure the class remained physically fit, the city had the members agree to pass an annual agility exam or risk their badges.

"Officers need to be fit to avoid using excessive force or a weapon because they are not physically able to respond," former police chief Ari Zavaras testified in a 1990 police union lawsuit that successfully challenged the annual exam.

'Stupid' training regimen

Six weeks into their schooling, the class of '86 got a close-up view into how deadly their job could be. Officer Patrick Pollock, 30, was killed while trying to stop an armed robber on East Colfax Avenue on Dec. 12, 1986.

The class members donated blood. They placed black tape on their newly pinned-on badges.

"We were bright-eyed, ready to make a difference, thinking we were invincible," Gavito remembered of Pollock's death. "To see that I might not make it or survive was a cold, cold reality."

The shooting cemented the group's resolve to do well, several of them said.

"It made us realize how much we really needed each other," said Bohdan "Dan" Makolondra.

Study groups were held late at night, weightlifting sessions turned into friendly competitions - they even ran out of weights once - and pistol practice was a constant.

Five weeks after Pollock's death, the recruits of the class of '86-2 faced a unique training regimen that gave them a taste of real police work sooner than most.

Instead of the normal 22-week academy course, the new cops spent just 11 weeks at the cramped schoolhouse. After that, they spent 11 weeks on the street, learning the job from cops doubling as training officers.

The calls would be real. So would the bullets.

The idea was born of necessity. A spate of pending retirements meant the city needed police officers quickly. The academy building was too small to accommodate one large class, so administrators opted to overlap two classes.

As 1986-2 left the classroom for street training, a new group took its place. When "The Animals" finished their street training to return for an eight-week academy refresher, the other group began its street training.

Theoretically, it should have worked. It didn't. Some now say splitting the classroom time over two periods might have shortchanged the recruits.

"It was a total mess, just chaotic," said retired academy director Thomas Lahey. "With just one class of 30 you were pretty jammed. It was minor bedlam with 40. I think training suffered as a result."

One recruit, VanderJagt, accidentally shot himself in the abdomen and, Lahey said, was nearly dismissed over it.

Retired Sgt. Richard Castricone thinks the department was lucky.

"None of us thought it was a good idea to put them onto the street after only a few weeks," said Castricone, the academy's firing-range instructor. "With a badge and gun, that's dangerous. Was it a mistake? No, it was stupid."

When graduation day arrived on May 29, 1987, 37 of them had made it. Three had resigned, one for cheating.

Nine days after graduation they were wearing black tape on their badges again.

Officer James Wier, a 25-year-old recruit from the overlapping academy class, was felled by a shotgun blast to the face during the end of his field training. Wier and his training officer-partner, who was also shot but survived, were called to the home of a suicidal man who opened fire on them.

Wier's death ended concurrent academy classes and field training in the middle of classroom instruction at the old building. A new academy was opened in a former airplane hangar in 1994 and, because of its space, overlapping classes began anew in 2000, officials said, but classroom time hasn't been split with field training.

Despite Wier's death, "The Animals" were undaunted.

"Most of the individuals in this class were assertive and street smart and able to place themselves where they would do the most good rather than show up five minutes after someone called for the police," retired officer Michael Blake said.

(continued below)

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Mark Tyson
September 21, 2003, 06:56 PM
The first shooting

Seven months after Wier's death, two members of the class of '86 - Paul Berdahl and Charles Cordova - became the first of their group to shoot someone.

During surveillance of a known drug house in January 1988, a senior officer who was with them opted to leave undisturbed a box containing drugs and a loaded pistol. It had been found under an outdoor staircase, and the senior cop, Michael Frazzini, wanted to lure its owners, records show.

Wallace Smith Jr. tried to retrieve the box, then ran as Berdahl, Cordova and a third officer moved in to arrest him. Smith was shot five times, but survived. Frazzini said he thought Smith had grabbed the gun from the box, and he warned the others. Smith hadn't.

Although prosecutors and department brass deemed the shooting justified, Cordova, now a member of the Denver Fire Department, expressed disgust at the internal investigation.

"It's normal for officers like myself and Berdahl to be enthusiastic about police work enough to stand outside for 30 minutes in winter weather hoping to catch this guy," Cordova wrote in a statement to investigators. "I think it's a shame that the department would put out such effort to look for fault in this matter.

"The department should be commending any officers that take the extra step in police work. Instead, there's a general feeling that the harder you work, the greater the chance there is to (have charges) filed (against you)."

Two months later, in March 1988, classmate Darryl Rose was exonerated in the death of 29-year-old Charles Mills.

Rose applied a controversial chokehold he learned at the academy on the combative Mills, who was having a cocaine-induced seizure. The choke-hold was meant to make Mills pass out, but his heart stopped too.

Records show a coroner said Mills died from cocaine toxicity but was undecided on whether the chokehold contributed to his death.

"We were very big into self-defense, in taking control of a situation," said Sgt. Michael Hughes, who would face down a man with a gun with two other officers, including classmate Gavito, and kill him in 1995. "It was vocalized to us about how important it was not to lose, how not to give up."

Lt. David Fisher Jr., now a spokesman for Whitman, nearly became the class' first fatality. Shortly after graduation, an arrest turned violent when the suspect grabbed Fisher's gun and pointed it at the young officer.

"He was pulling on the trigger, but my partner had grabbed the gun and squeezed so hard the cylinder wouldn't turn," Fisher remembered. "That was life-changing."

Time after time over the next 17 years, officers from the class of '86 found themselves confronted with danger so serious they fired their weapons.

Members of the class, including Gavito, whose three shootings are the most in the group, say they're not rogue cops. Simply put, they say, they are good, hard-working individuals who thrive on doing what citizens have expected since the day their badges were pinned on: catching criminals.

"To portray the class as wild-man cowboys is not right," said Makolondra, a tattoo artist-turned-cop who now helps design the department's websites. "We were aggressive and assertive, into our job and got into more stuff than the average officer did."

Of James Wier's classmates who were hired just after "The Animals" in 1987 and underwent the same split academy training, only one of them other than Wier has fired his weapon at someone, records show.

Some experts wonder whether the assertiveness of the group was enough to explain how many in 1986-2 often found danger. Toch, the criminal justice professor, suggests it's a personality trait that can easily rub off on other like-minded officers.

"Sometimes officers just reinforce to each other the idea of assertive police work, of a hard-nosed, hotdog-ish approach to life that wasn't really there from the training but originated within the group," Toch said. "It's a contagion effect."

Prosecutors have deemed just one member of 1986-2 to have been unjustified in the use of deadly force. But even then, a jury, and later the department, thought otherwise.

Blake was acquitted of second-degree murder following the 1992 shooting of Steven Gant. It was the last time an on-duty shooting by a Denver cop resulted in criminal charges.

"Our class was not aggressive because we wanted to fight someone," said Blake, now retired.

"We were aggressive about law enforcement. When that happens, you can watch the crime rate in an area drop right into the toilet."

And it did. Records show the crime wave that scared Denverites in 1986 plummeted shortly after Blake and his colleagues hit the streets.

By July 1987, just two months after "The Animals" graduated, crime dipped by 15 percent, dropping by 20 percent at year's end. One captain quoted in newspaper accounts of the time said officers were "making arrests left and right."

The murder rate also dropped by 15 percent that year, and Denver was ranked 48th among the nation's biggest cities for murder.

"It's hard to take a person's life, but you can't be afraid to do what's got to be done," said Hughes, a competitive firearms expert, and now a field training supervisor for new Denver cops. "If you won't stop doing what you're doing, we'll stop it for you."

But while some members of the class of '86 actively sought criminals, others found disciplinary hearings or unwanted attention as well:

Paul Murawski lost his badge following his conviction in 1997 on felony menacing charges stemming from an off-duty scuffle the year before. Murawski, an accomplished artist, had been on his way home from the 10-year reunion of 1986-2.

Allen Hancock was disciplined in 2000 for sexually harassing a young female police cadet the year before. Records show he had been having a sexual relationship with another cadet at the time.

As a SWAT team member, O'Shea was one of the first to respond to Columbine High School during the shootings in April 1999. Later, he was accused by the family of Daniel Rohrbough of gunning down the student as he fled the school. He was cleared of the allegation.

Distinguished service

The class is much more than a collection of shooting statistics, several of its members say. Nearly all have been promoted - 27 of the 30 who remain on the force - and several have advanced college degrees. One officer, Sgt. Harold Chatman, has four master's degrees.

Several of them have been awarded some of the department's highest commendations for bravery.

The classmates also had their share of heroics.

Thomas McKibben and two other officers crawled into a burning building in September 1992 to rouse sleeping residents.

In February 1996, Det. H. Jay Knipple, one of the smallest in the class, helped capture an escapee from the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center by following a blood trail in the snow. Knipple had fired nine times at Alfredo Serna after he shot Knipple's partner.

John MacDonald helped nab a known pedophile in October 1997 after the man put a gun to MacDonald's head, then fled. He was given a medal for bravery.

But the award ceremony was bittersweet.

Classmate VanderJagt posthumously received his third Distinguished Service Cross, the department's highest honor. The tall, handsome, bodybuilding scholar was gunned down in November 1997 while turning a corner as police tracked a felon on the run. VanderJagt was 47.

Police chief David Michaud lamented his death, predicting VanderJagt wouldn't be "the last police officer who is going to be killed in the line of duty."

Save for officer Dennis Licata, who lost control of his motorcycle in a fatal crash in September 2000, he has been.

And since VanderJagt's death, only one member of 1986-2 has pulled the trigger.

It's not because they've been afraid to. It's because they haven't had to.

"You have to ask yourself what type of officer you want to show up when you're in trouble," Gavito said. "Someone with that spark to find the bad guy or someone who will fill out a report? They want 'Adam-12,' 'Starsky & Hutch,' 'Dragnet.' That's the image they have and what they want.

"In 1986, we had a class of officers that was 100 percent, we'll do the job, we'll solve the problem."

Said Hughes: "We're not bullies. We're the sheepdogs looking over the herd."

David Migoya can be reached at dmigoya@denverpost.com or 303-820-1506.

http://media.mnginteractive.com/media/paper36/CD21CLASSG1.jpg

Sven
September 22, 2003, 12:30 AM
:what:

boing
September 22, 2003, 01:25 AM
:scrutiny:

http://www.thehighroad.org/attachment.php?s=&postid=499149

Orthonym
September 22, 2003, 02:35 AM
"Respect my authori-tie!" - Officer Cartman

Morgan
September 22, 2003, 05:48 AM
Nevermind.

Dan Morris
September 22, 2003, 07:31 AM
The Denver bunch are darn good folks to watch your back. Tis a pitty that most of them are up for retirement.:(
Dan

Dave P
September 22, 2003, 08:12 AM
I was reminded of Magnum Force, just like Boing. Combine the attitude with steroids maybe ...

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