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Colorado officer-involved shootings top 6-year high

DENVER -- A FOX31 Problem Solvers investigation shows police in Colorado have been shooting suspects at an abnormally high rate this year.

In addition, attempts by lawmakers to get a handle on who police kill and why isn’t going as planned.

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice started tracking officer-involved shootings under orders from the state legislature last year, but legislators said as the number of shootings keeps rising, some local police departments are resisting the orders for greater transparency.

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There have been 245 officer-involved shootings in Colorado since 2010. Forty-nine shootings have happened this year compared to 25 five years ago.

In the first half of 2016, 28 shootings were reported. That’s on pace to surpass the previous six years.

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Teresa Avila

“They’re killing too many of our kids like that and they are getting away with it,” said Teresa Avila, whose son was shot and killed by a Denver police officer on April 12.

Video from the shooting scene shows police boxed in Dion Avila’s Dodge Charger on a busy downtown street. Records show a fugitive task force had been following Avila, also known as Dion Damon, on a 3-week-old armed bank robbery charge.

Witnesses said Avila was surrounded with nowhere to go, when after 47 seconds of police commands to “show your hands,” Avila raised them inside the car.

That’s when an undercover detective shot him seven times through the windshield, killing him instantly.bullets-in-windshield

When the SWAT team pulled open the door, they found Avila unarmed. No gun was found in the vehicle.

“People say put your hands up, don’t shoot,” Teresa Avila said. “They’re not able to do that. It’s not fair for people to say that they’re not be able to do it.”

"This was all wrong. The way it was handled was all wrong," Dion Avila's stepfather Jonnie Miles said. "This guy did not have to die. You could have brought him to justice. If you really wanted to, you could have done it. It was a choice of the cop to just go in and solve the problem.”

Although Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey did an investigation that cleared the detective of criminal charges, the narrative of the fatal shooting Denver police turned into the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, as mandated by a new “transparency law,” was blank.

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“They’re doing what they want to do," Teresa Avila said. "Like this. It’s nothing. Just a piece of paper and they don’t care who gets hurt or how they get hurt.”

Rep. and soon-to-be-State Sen. Angela Williams said when the mandated reporting-transparency law went into effect in the summer, police agencies promised during legislative hearings “cooperation.”

“I’m very very disappointed,” Williams said. "This is why we need all of the data to be submitted, so we can analyze it. If it’s not analyzed, then we don’t know what’s causing that curve to go up.”

Analysis of the police shooting database found the “shots fired” reports full of holes and misinformation.

For example, Aurora police killed four suspects and didn’t send one report to the state by the cutoff date.

"Race of suspect” discrepancies were in some reports. The Colorado State Patrol and the Larimer County Sheriff's Office marked suspects they killed as “white -- ethnicity unknown."

But it didn’t take a lot of work to discover the person shot and killed in Larimer County was Phillip Salazar. His previous criminal records show his ethnicity as Hispanic.

Williams said the findings are going to force lawmakers to consider “punitive” measures against police departments for failure to fully report.

“It’s eye-opening to me that we can’t get the cooperation of the agencies,” Williams said. “So, I feel like we need some enforcement to be able to have some accountability there.”

She said when legislative sessions begin in 2017, lawmakers will consider the “stick” approach because some police agencies do not believe they need to fully comply with the new transparency law.

The Denver Police Department didn't believe punitive measures are necessary.

Spokesman Sonny Jackson said lawmakers need to understand that certain details of fatal shootings, such as the Avila case, can’t be made public until all internal investigations are completed.

"Chief (Robert) White has always believed in transparency since he got here," Jackson said. "He believes we should be as transparent as possible. Give out as much information as we can. As long as it doesn’t impede an investigation or challenge the integrity of an investigation we’re going to get out as much as we can.”

Denver police said it does not believe the transparency law requires all the fields of the shooting reports to be completed before being turned into the state for review.

The Avila family dismisses that explanation, saying they still feel left in the dark about their son’s death months after the fatal shooting. Miles wants to encourage police to provide more information on shootings so certain communities in Denver can start rebuilding trust.

“We all want to be trusted,” Miles said. “We all want the truth. Of course it would be ... it’s a great idea if they would just use it.”

The shooting analysis also found 25 of the last 53 suspects shot by police in Colorado were persons of color. All were men.

That’s the kind of information lawmakers are trying to get a hold of.

The Justice Committee is currently reviewing the findings and discrepancies, and expects to hold hearings on this matter, according to Williams.