Two weeks after a suspect was killed by officer gunfire in Centennial, the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office had not yet confirmed whether the suspect was armed with a weapon or whether he fired a gun at deputies, only saying in a news release that he refused to obey deputies' orders and "presented a deadly threat to the deputy and was subsequently shot.”
Steven Edward Ferguson, 31, pointed a CO2 pistol, or “air” gun, toward Deputy James Stiltner before Stiltner shot him at a Days Inn on May 28 when deputies surrounded a stolen vehicle Ferguson was driving, according to a review of the incident dated June 12.
Ferguson's gun was capable of firing BBs and .177 caliber pellets, and the gun was loaded with .177 caliber pellets, according to the review by the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office. It concluded that the use of deadly force was justified.
Authorities choosing not to specify the deadly threat in the days after the shooting differed from how the sheriff's office had handled information on officer-involved shootings in recent years. For example, after a June 2018 shooting in the 6300 block of South Olive Street in west Centennial, and after a November 2018 shooting at East Arapahoe Road and South Dayton Street, the office confirmed within days that the suspect fired a gun or that a gun was near the suspect at the time.
When a deputy shot a car-theft suspect near South Parker Road and East Fremont Avenue in the east Centennial area Jan. 22 this year, the office released that the suspect — driving a vehicle — rammed nearby cars as deputies approached and that a deputy became pinned between the vehicle and another car. That information also came out within days.
George Brauchler, district attorney of the 18th Judicial District, “has asked (Arapahoe County) Sheriff (Tyler) Brown and his team not to release additional information while the investigation into the legality of the shooting is underway by an independent agency as outlined” in the protocol for such investigations, said Vikki Migoya, spokeswoman for the DA's office.
In an interview with Colorado Community Media, Brauchler said his office's instructions likely weren't in regard to the nature of the deadly threat specifically.
“I can't imagine we would drill down into a specific fact, like don't release this fact or this fact,” he said.
The only aspect of the May 28 incident that might make it different from other officer-involved shooting cases is that the suspect was armed but with an “air” gun, Brauchler said. The gun appeared designed to be unmistakable from a functioning firearm, according to the review.
It's typical for the DA's office to advise the sheriff's office to wait until the formal review of the shooting is released before putting out certain information, Brauchler said. But he added that he's never been specific enough in his guidance to say not to release the nature of the deadly threat, he said. The DA's office doesn't directly control what information the sheriff's office releases, Brauchler said.
The sheriff’s office’s policy says certain information can be withheld from the news media “in order to protect the constitutional rights of the accused, to avoid interfering with an investigation or because it is legally privileged.”
“In this case, we were protecting the integrity of the investigation, which is why we didn’t release the exact information about the weapon,” said Ginger Delgado, sheriff’s office spokeswoman.
The release of reviews into officer-involved shootings in recent years usually has taken several months in the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. It has been known to take a month or more in nearby judicial districts as well.
In the past two years, the release of most of the reviews in the 18th Judicial District has taken roughly between four and seven months.
In this case, it took just a few weeks. The quick release followed questions from Colorado Community Media to the sheriff's and DA's offices about why the deadly threat was not yet public knowledge.
Brauchler chalked up the fast release to different factors specific to the incident, including that it occurred during policies fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, which have changed work flows in the judicial district.
“Whatever the good version of a perfect storm is, it happened to happen here due to COVID,” Brauchler said, adding that some staff are more accessible due to the slowdown or halt of certain proceedings such as jury trials. Investigators assigned to the incident likely also had more time to devote to putting out the review — in other circumstances, they might be tied up with more work on other cases, Brauchler said.
Other factors that can lengthen the time a review takes: If the person who was shot is alive and needs to be interviewed, the wait time for forensic evidence, and the availability of witnesses, Brauchler said. Toxicology and ballistics didn't play as big a role in this case, and having body-camera footage was “a difference maker,” he said.
“If this were February, I don't think we could have gotten it done this quickly,” Brauchler said.
Brauchler pointed out that the DA's office was posting the reviews its website before state law began requiring it in recent years.
“If I had my druthers, I want them all to be this straightforward and this efficient, but there are just realities, especially when we're firing on all cylinders, that there are delays,” Brauchler said.
The 18th Judicial District Critical Incident Response Team — a group of law enforcement officials from nearby agencies other than the sheriff's office, such as from Parker and Greenwood Village — were at the scene May 28 investigating the incident, as is usual policy for officer-involved shootings in the judicial district.
The role of the Critical Incident Response Team is to investigate the use of force by deputies and present its findings to the district attorney.
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