Night of mayhem raises question: Is city shortchanging cops?

August 2, 2011
photo - Police investigate the scene of a triple homicide near the 5200 block of Montebello near Mira Loma Circle, in central Colorado Springs Wednesday, July 27, 2011. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE
Police investigate the scene of a triple homicide near the 5200 block of Montebello near Mira Loma Circle, in central Colorado Springs Wednesday, July 27, 2011. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE 

The first call came in at 8:09 p.m. on the night of July 27 — two men had been shot at the AutoZone off Palmer Park and Powers Boulevard. The suspect escaped after taking a hostage in a carjacking.

At 8:28 p.m., more 911 calls came in  — a disturbance at a southeast Colorado Springs apartment complex. Minutes later, officers shot a man armed with a handgun after police said he pointed the weapon at them.

Less than two hours later, at 10:21 p.m., with at least a dozen  supervisors, patrol officers and detectives tied up at each of the earlier shootings, more emergency calls came in — a shooting at Mira Loma Circle and Montebello Drive. Two teenagers were found dead in an SUV; a third, clinging to life, later died of his wounds.

By 11:45 p.m., police asked residents not to call for assistance or to report a crime unless it was an emergency.

It wasn’t the deadliest night in Colorado Springs history — five people were killed in one night in September 1986 at a bar and convenience store, and six died at the hands of an ax murderer in the early 1900s.

But the three shootings in a little more than two hours in which four people were killed and two others wounded threatened to overwhelm a department stretched thin by attrition and budget cuts.

Off-duty detectives were called in and patrol officers whose shifts were over stayed on the job, said police spokesman Sgt. Steve Noblitt.

“We planned for this,” Noblitt said of simultaneous emergencies.

The massive manhunt over the next five days had SWAT officers racing from one neighborhood to another, chasing reported sightings of the suspects — a career thief accused of killing a man in what may have been a botched stickup outside the AutoZone and a troubled 24-year-old who police said killed two 16-year-olds and a 19-year-old after a road-rage incident.

Tipped off Saturday by the parents of Michael Arangio, the suspect in the triple homicide, SWAT officers surrounded a north Colorado Springs apartment. After a five-hour standoff, Arangio killed himself.

 Two days later, police caught Ernest Schmidt, 60, the suspect in the killing outside AutoZone, after a brief foot chase across Valley Hi Golf Course in southeast Colorado Springs. His wife, Dawn Morgan, 35, also was arrested for allegedly helping him elude capture.

Wednesday’s mayhem, according to City Council members Lisa Czelatdko and Angela Dougan, exposed a problem the city needs to address — the police force is understaffed and underfunded.

“We just didn’t have the boots on the street,” said Dougan, whose husband is a Springs police officer. “They were stretched thin. We can’t always staff these horrible things.”

Czelatdko said she frequently hears appeals by neighborhood associations for more policing and better code enforcement.

Both want more resources put into public safety when the city takes up next year’s budget in October..

In 2008, the police force had 688 officers; now there are 643.

The U.S. Department of Justice recommends two police officers per 1,000 residents, a ratio Dougan said Colorado Springs, with a population of about 416,000, has never had.

Dougan said being able to handle emergencies isn’t the only issue. Police should have enough officers to handle burglaries and code violations, too, Dougan said.

“How many times do people get burglarized and they fill out a form online? Is that really what we want?” Dougan said.

Colorado Springs ranks last among the state’s 10 largest cities in benefits it provides to police officers, and is falling further behind, said Colorado Springs Police Protective Association President Pete Tomitch.

Tomitch, a 15-year veteran of the department, said Wednesday night should send a message to residents and city leaders.

 “It’s stretched our ability as a police department to provide the basic services that were needed,” he said. “It’s time that the city needs to educate themselves about what kind of police department they want.”



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