Unarmed Man in Moving Vehicle Shot & Killed by Aurora Police in Denver Chase, Violating Policy

Update (December 24, 2015) – The Denver Post has identified the deceased as Chan Lieth, a 25-year-old black man who graduated from Cherry Creek High School in 2010.


Denver, CO – As a year marked by controversial high-profile police shootings draws to a close, yet another unarmed civilian has been killed by regional law enforcement in Denver.

On the night of Monday, December 21st, police officers in Aurora, Colorado followed an allegedly stolen Jeep to a 7-Eleven on East 11th Avenue and Yosemite Street in Denver, crossing over the border between Denver and Aurora in the course of the pursuit. Around 11:36 PM several shots were fired by Aurora police officers into the Jeep vehicle, striking the adult male driver who was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The deceased has not yet been identified, and no information is yet available to the public outside of limited and unverified information offered by the Aurora and Denver police departments.

The Jeep parked outside 7-Eleven, into which Aurora police fired shots striking a man who later died
The Jeep parked outside 7-Eleven, into which Aurora police fired shots striking a man who later died. Source: thedenverchannel.com

Officers were said to use “a patrol car to try to pin the Jeep against the front of the store” and police claim the fatal shots were fired because the “ramming” activity of the vehicle (done in an apparent attempt to evade police contact after being boxed in) allegedly led officers to fear for their lives and the safety of the public.

When asked during a press conference held with Aurora PD whether the man shot & killed by police was armed, Denver Police Department Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe answered “The weapon is the vehicle.” Reiterating the same point, Denver Police Cmdr. Ron Saunier also stated “The weapon is the vehicle itself.”

O’Keefe and Saunier’s statements would seem to directly contradict a Denver Police Department policy enacted this year which prohibits officers from firing into moving vehicles.

According to the Denver Post, “the revised policy specifies that the moving vehicle cannot be considered a weapon.” The Aurora Police Department, whose officers fired the fatal shots last night, has had a policy forbidding shooting into vehicles on the books since 2006 – lethal force is only allowed against vehicles if shots are being fired from the vehicle, which they were not in this case.

Chief White of the Denver Police explains the policy against firing on moving vehicles very clearly in this video interview conducted earlier this year: “The essence of the policy is that the officers are prohibited from shooting at a motor vehicle unless their life or someone else’s life is in danger and the danger is other than the motor vehicle.”

The circumstances of Monday night’s fatal police shooting bear similarities to the 2014 incident in which Denver Police officers shot & killed Ryan Ronquillo outside a funeral home after a police ambush trapped Ryan in his car between several police vehicles before officers fired into his vehicle, killing him. Friends and family of Ryan Ronquillo continue to dispute the circumstances of his death and do not believe his killing was justified.

The scene at which Denver Police fired into Ryan Ronquillo's car, killing him.
July 2014: The scene at which Denver Police fired into Ryan Ronquillo’s car, killing him Source: Denver District Attorney’s Office

Also very similar to Monday night’s shooting was the January 2015 death of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez after she was shot by Denver police inside a car that officers claimed she drove towards them (a claim disputed by witnesses). The death of Jessie Hernandez at the hands of Denver Police is widely considered to be the impetus for Denver’s new policy prohibiting police from firing shots into vehicles.

In a statement regarding this policy, the Hernandez family said, “Had this policy been in place in January 2015, Jessie would still be alive. This policy change in the wake of Jessie’s death clearly demonstrates that her death was entirely unnecessary and unlawful.” (Source: Denver Post)

January 2015: The scene at which Denver Police officers fired into a car, killing 17-year-old Jessie Hernandez. Source: Denver Post
January 2015: The scene at which Denver Police officers fired into a car, killing 17-year-old Jessie Hernandez. Source: Denver Post

The Aurora and Denver police departments seem to be colluding to justify the violation of department policy by the officers who fired shots into the Jeep outside the 7-Eleven. They say “the vehicle was the weapon”, yet this logic does not stand up to the policy of either department as both cities’ policies forbid shooting into moving vehicles.

They say the ramming activity of the vehicle created a public safety issue which justified the shooting, yet they also acknowledge that they had previously avoided pulling over the vehicle in order to avoid endangering public safety.

Local corporate media affiliates have been uncritically passing on police accounts of events and no eyewitness accounts have yet been published in local Denver media to our knowledge.

The Aurora police officers involved in the shooting have been placed on paid administrative leave while the shooting is being investigated by the Denver Police major crimes unit. The officers involved in the shooting are not expected to be charged with any crime, since the case would end up on the desk of Denver District Attorney Mitch Morissey, who in his entire career has never prosecuted any law enforcement official for incidents involving brutality or killing despite a string of high-profile scandals.

In another recent incident on December 17, an Aurora police officer in North Denver “accidentally” shot an alleged car thief after the officer supposedly “slipped on ice” causing him to pull the trigger. The man shot by the officer is expected to survive.

Last night’s shooting marks a total of (at least) 15 shootings involving police in Colorado since Halloween.

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