Kemp’s death continues to provoke questions

The decision to dismiss criminal charges against Colorado State Patrol Cpl. Kirk Firko, who was involved in the 2010 shooting death of Jason Kemp, is understandable even if it is troubling.

One can understand District Attorney Pete Hautzinger’s thinking on the Firko case. Just last month, a Mesa County jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the major charges against CSP Trooper Ivan “Gene” Lawyer, the man who actually shot Kemp. Hautzinger was undoubtedly correct when he said, “There’s virtually no likelihood another jury will convict the person who opened the door.”

But it is troubling, nonetheless. The fact remains that Kemp, an unarmed man who was suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, was shot to death in his own home by police officers. And, according to expert testomony at Lawyer’s trial, those police officers didn’t have legitimate probable cause to attempt to force their way into Kemp’s home based on the crime for which they suspected him.

Although Firko will not face trial in state criminal court for Kemp’s death, other questions remain.

Hautzinger prompted some of them when he turned transcripts from the grand jury that indicted Lawyer and Firko over to federal authorites. Will the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice decide there was a criminal civil rights violation in Kemp’s death? And therefore, will they pursue federal prosecution of either Lawyer or Firko?

Regardless of what federal officials decide to do, what are Colorado State Patrol authorities doing with respect to training for their officers? Testimony during Lawyer’s trial, including statements by Lawyer himself, suggested CSP officers were given little training in the Fourth Amendment’s protections against illegal searches and seizures and the right of people to be secure in their homes. Lawyer even said he was criticized for being too easy on a previous DUI suspect. Is the CSP planning to change its training and operational procedures? To date, the organization has been silent on that question.

Additionally, we wonder if there should be better boundaries and less overlap between state and local law enforcement, especially when it comes to traffic incidents. The Kemp case, after all, took place entirely in a quiet residential neighborhood in unincorporated Mesa County on the Redlands. Was it really necessary to have state police officers in what they apparently deemed was hot pursuit of a DUI suspect trying to force the issue with someone who had simply gone into his house and closed his doors?

As we have argued before, officers with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department and the Grand Junction Police Department have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to handle, with patience and avoidance of violence, incidents in which suspects are barricaded inside buildings. Shouldn’t CSP officers pull back in such cases, and allow others better trained in handling such incidents to deal with them?


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