Our view: Deputies in I-70 shooting had no choice
First, condolences to the family and friends of Brian Fritze, the man shot to death by Garfield County deputies late Tuesday afternoon on Interstate 70.
Few among us haven’t had a loved one whose substance abuse and/or other issues made us worry that they would harm themselves or someone else. These relationships mean years of riding a roller coaster of pain amid flickers of hope, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
Those thoughts go hand-in-hand with empathy for the deputies who had to make a split-second decision on whether to use deadly force in an extraordinarily dangerous situation, and for their families, who live with a different type of worry every day.
In a nation that is rightfully grappling with the circumstances of police shootings, a few of which appear to be unnecessary and driven by prejudice — a concern raised last week by the FBI director — the issue came home for us Tuesday.
As taxpayers, we pay law officers to walk among us armed. We expect them to both protect us and to use their guns only in situations that present a clear life-and-death threat. We expect them to be right every time. That is a demanding standard, but it is the only appropriate one.
While the Colorado Bureau of Investigation is the expert on this and is reviewing Tuesday’s incident, every angle we’ve been able to find at the Post Independent says this was a tragedy in which law enforcement was left with no real choices.
On Tuesday afternoon, Garfield County deputies were called to a Parachute-area home where a woman said she been threatened with a gun and beaten by Fritze.
The Sheriff’s Office gave this account of her report: “The suspect approached her with a gun, grabbed her by the throat and slammed her head into a door frame and a wall. He then pinned her down and struck her repeatedly with his fists, causing lacerations to her head and face. She also stated that he pulled out some of her hair.
“Fortunately another person arrived at the scene, pulled Mr. Fritze from the victim and instructed the victim to call 911. Mr. Fritze fled.”
The woman’s face was covered with blood.
Fritze had been charged with domestic violence and violating a no-contact order in December. His father said in an email that Fritze had turned violent a few months ago after marital troubles emerged and he chose to end a long period of sobriety.
About an hour after taking the woman’s report, deputies spotted Fritze in his red pickup truck. When they tried to pull him over, he sped onto I-70.
Was the chase that followed necessary? Sometimes chases aren’t or go too far — another area of police conduct under scrutiny nationally.
The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office was laudably transparent in this case, providing the account of the original call above. It showed that in this instance, officers had many reasons to need to get Fritze off the streets.
They knew he was armed, they knew he was violent, they knew he had a history of violence and drunken driving. They had to believe that his victim was in grave danger, particularly now that Fritze would assume she had contacted authorities. He wasn’t a yayhoo with a gun; he was a combat veteran trained in the use of firearms.
This would be a very different editorial if the deputies had let him go, planning to knock on his door later, and he had found the victim again before that happened.
What followed was the well-documented 28-mile chase, with the State Patrol deploying spikes to flatten Fritze’s tires and his pulling off of I-70 3 miles later at Canyon Creek, just west of Glenwood Springs.
Reports of the police radio traffic indicate that had the spikes failed to get Fritze to stop, deputies were not going to continue the chase through town and into Glenwood Canyon at 5 p.m. as they balanced the need to arrest Fritze with broad public safety concerns.
He did stop. He got out of the truck, held a gun to his head and then ran down an embankment toward traffic on I-70.
He crossed a very clear, very bright line that made him an imminent danger to public safety. He might have tried to stop a motorist and steal the car. He might have opened fire at officers across traffic.
While holding the gun to his head suggested to some people that he intended to harm only himself, starting to run after that suggests other intentions. We will never know if he wanted to kill himself, wanted officers to do it for him or still hoped to escape.
Put yourself and your family in a car on I-70 at that moment. What do you want the deputies to do?
The idea, expressed in some online comments, that deputies should have shot Fritze in the leg or arm rather than shooting to kill is an unworkable notion put in our heads by years of watching TV and movies. It’s both impractical and dangerous. First, it’s really hard to hit a moving person’s extremity; second, if you do, you have merely injured an armed person who has demonstrated desperation.
If an officer determines that a threat calls for deadly force, training calls for shooting for center mass. It is the biggest, least mobile target and presents the best chance to stop an imminent threat, which is the only reason — ever — for a law officer to fire a gun at a person. We don’t want cops trying to wing people.
Tuesday’s incident was a tragedy. Every indication is that the deputies conducted themselves as they had to.
This doesn’t mean that every police shooting is righteous, nor does it diminish the importance of scrutiny of each case.
It is an abysmal gap in U.S. recordkeeping that law enforcement homicides are not tracked and systematically analyzed. We don’t even know how many occur each year in the United States.
Each such incident is a collective responsibility. The officers are in our employ, acting in our name. We all pay for the guns and bullets. We must hold ourselves accountable.
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