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Search underway for answers after 3 Colorado sheriff's deputies slain in 37 days

February 6, 2018 Updated: February 7, 2018 at 8:04 am
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Michael Smart and Eleah Benton of Colorado Springs place flowers on a memorial outside the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in Colorado Springs, Colo., Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, for deputy Micah Flick who was killed when an investigation of a motor vehicle theft turned into a deadly shooting Monday outside a Colorado Springs apartment complex. Three other law enforcement officers were shot. The suspect was killed and one citizen injured. Smart and Benton didn't know the 34-year-old deputy but wanted to pay their respects. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Five weeks ago, the widow of a slain sheriff's deputy was left to raise her two daughters alone.

Two weeks ago, another deputy's widow was left asking when those tragedies would end.

This week, the answer came all too quickly.

On Saturday, another sheriff's deputy will be buried, and another widow will stand before a casket as two more children prepare for a life without their dad.

All of it begged the question: Why so suddenly have so many sheriff's deputies been killed, and so many of their comrades wounded, in shootings across Colorado? And is their job - one known for its danger - getting even more perilous?

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Since Dec. 31, three sheriff's deputies have died, and seven other law enforcement officers have been wounded. Three civilians have been injured in the gunfire, too, reports The Denver Post. The three deputies are among seven law enforcement officers slain across the nation in that time, according to the nonprofit Office Down Memorial Page.

A makeshift memorial honoring El Paso County Dep. Micah Flick has been building at the Murray Hill Apartments where Flick was killed yesterday. The shootout that killed Flick and wounded two deputies, a Colorado Springs police officer and a civilian occurred as the law officers worked on a regional task force crackdown on auto theft. Tuesday, February 6, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

The latest casualty came Monday, when El Paso County sheriff's deputy Micah Flick died while trying to arrest a suspected car thief in an east Colorado Springs apartment complex parking lot. A gun battle erupted, wounding two other sheriff's deputies, a Colorado Springs police officer and a civilian.

Sheriff Bill Elder said he knew the reason for that violence all too well.

"Unfortunately, in the past few years, there has been a lack of respect for the men and women that are there to protect our communities," Elder said. "And frankly, it shocks me. It shocks my staff. It shocks the leadership of public safety throughout the country.

"It's got to end," he added. "This senseless violence has got to end."

The County Sheriffs of Colorado's executive director attributed much of that waning respect to the increased scrutiny of law enforcement agencies across the nation since the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

"If you look at what law enforcement's gone through with in the last couple of years... there has been a lot more - it seems like - overall a lot more vitriol," said Chris Johnson, a former Otero County sheriff. "But that doesn't represent most Americans. Most of Americans thoroughly support law enforcement."

After decades of decline, violent crime in Colorado began ticking upward a few years ago. And while it remains far below levels seen in the 1990s, the reveal posed a worrisome development for officers whose job it is to confront violence in their communities.

Still, Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics do not show a marked increase in the number of officers killed in the line of duty over the past two decades.

From 1996 to 2016, the number of officers feloniously killed swung wildly year to year between 40 and 70.

They hit a high in 2011 with 72 deaths, and a low in 2013 with 27. The killings rose once more to 66 in 2016, according to the most recent FBI data available.

"We're talking about too many of these cases," said Jon Caudill, associate professor and director of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' masters of criminal justice program. "But we're not talking about a lot of them from a statistical perspective."

Still, he saw a degree of truth in Elder's concerns.

"People see the police, a police officer as not an individual who's doing a job and wearing a badge," Caudill said. "But they see them as a badge - a representative of government, if you will.

"And so they don't process the idea that this person has a family to go home to, and that they're an individual just like somebody else. They've just chosen this noble profession as part of their life."

Just as law enforcement leaders talk of a loss of respect from the people they police, community advocates long have said law enforcement's heavy-handedness has eroded trust in the badge.

That delicate balancing act has tipped askew of late in communities across the nation, exposing a breakdown in communication between residents and the police officers whose job it is to protect them, said Lisa Holder, a UCLA lecturer on police accountability and civil rights, and an attorney based in Los Angeles.

As police voice concerns about a lack of respect for their profession, residents don't trust police to work to their benefit.

"From a national perspective, what we're seeing is that there is a trend toward hostility between residents and police officers," Holder said. "And that's a two-sided trend.

"So when you have that breakdown in communication - that breakdown in trust - it's basically a breakdown of a social contract between residents and officers."

For many cops assigned to the streets, it's a simple case of a public that has steeled itself against law enforcement, with suspected criminals more likely to run, talk back or take a shot at officers.

A few of Sheriff Elder's top lieutenants pondered that same one-word question about all the recent violence: Why?

"If we had the answer to that, we'd be a lot safer," said Lt. Michael St. Charles, of the sheriff's office professional standards division. "Back when we were growing up, you respected the police. It seems to be different now, unfortunately."

Whether the recent spate of killings indicates a darkening trend percolating across the state is difficult to tell, said Colleen Fitzpatrick, criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Northern Colorado.

"We can't say it is a trend," Fitzpatrick said. "And we can only speculate as to why."

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