‘It becomes deeply personal’: Summit County cops mourn spate of Front Range deputy killings
In the early hours of Dec. 31 last year, metro Denver police converged on a Highlands Ranch apartment where an armed man had barricaded himself in a bathroom.
Douglas County deputy sheriffs were trying to speak to the man when he opened fire, emptying more than 100 rounds from a rifle and hitting five of them. One of them, deputy sheriff Zackari Parrish, was killed.
The tragic episode set off the deadliest 36 days for Colorado peace officers in more than three decades. On Jan. 24, Adams County deputy sheriff Heath Gumm was fatally shot while pursuing a suspect near Thornton. Less than two weeks later, on the 11th anniversary of his start with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, deputy Micah Flick was killed by a suspect in Colorado Springs.
“It’s a devastatingly sad time, especially with three in such quick succession,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “It reminds us all of just how dangerous the job is, but it reaffirms our commitment to service.”
The sheriff’s office sent representatives to the funerals of all three slain deputies, part of an outpouring of solidarity from law enforcement and citizens that’s been a beam of light in an otherwise grim two months for those sworn to protect and serve, whether they patrol the streets of Denver or the mountain roads of Summit County.
“I’m just thankful we have a town government and a community that supports us,” Silverthorne police Chief John Minor said. “I’ve been getting emails of encouragement from our elected officials and people in the community, and that support means a lot.”
After the Highlands Ranch shooting, Minor sent his own message of support in a text to personal friend and Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, whose son was among the injured deputies.
“I said, ‘I’m thinking about you. Don’t call me back — you have more important things to do right now,’” Minor said.
In the wake of the killings, thousands packed into churches and lined the streets for funeral processions. Two Summit County deputy sheriffs served as honor guards during Gumm’s funeral, standing at attention by his coffin from midnight until 4 a.m., part of a rotation of deputies from across the state. The collective grieving is gut wrenching, but it can also be cathartic.
“The show of solidarity is absolutely a silver lining,” FitzSimons said. “It gives us something to be a part of to help us heal, and it helps the deputies and officers get through this.”
In the aftermath of police shootings, law enforcement leaders have to look out for their own rank and file and make sure they’re staying safe.
“We’re always touching base with them, seeing how they’re doing, encouraging them, talking about how they can be safer,” Frisco police Chief Tom Wickman said. “We remind them that they have the shield, and they have a lot of tools at their disposal.”
Just as important, though, is the emotional state of officers and deputies. That means watching carefully for signs that someone is taking the tragedy especially hard and encouraging them to seek professional help if they need it.
“It becomes deeply personal,” Minor said. “My wife probably looks at me while I’m putting on my bulletproof vest every morning and wonders why the heck I’m still doing this after 28 years, and I’m sure the loved ones of my staff are questioning their career choices too.”
Last week, while presenting police Sergeant Tina White with a Law Enforcement Purple Heart for a serious line-of-duty injury, Dillon police Chief Mark Heminghous left his usual tactical vest on the rack, reaching instead for his formal uniform.
“It’s been a hard couple of months for us in Colorado,” he told the crowd assembled in the town council chambers. “I’ve put this black tie on way too many times in the past couple of weeks. I just want to take a minute and thank our wives, husbands, spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends — the force behind the police force. You guys are awesome.”
Line of duty deaths can be especially hard on younger members of the force, some of whom are just beginning to start their own families.
“These funerals are horrible to go to,” FitzSimons said. “I watch these young cops with their young families, some of them with pregnant wives, and I think, ‘My god. These young people are committing their lives to this, and not just their lives but the lives of their families.’”
Cops are all part of an extended family of sorts, and each brings their own sons, daughters, husbands or wives into that family. The grief ripples outward to each of them after a line-of-duty death.
“My heart broke for each of those guys,” Minor said. “It’s having a profound effect on the greater law enforcement community, and it goes to show that Colorado is not immune to such sudden violence.”
The rapid succession of killings in the past two months compounds the sorrow of each death. When the investigations into each are finished, police chiefs and sheriffs will pore over their findings, looking for ways to make each traffic stop or disturbance call a little bit safer. The grim reality, however, is that policing is and likely always will be a very dangerous job.
“We sit and wait for these tragic events,” FitzSimons said. “It’s humbling and heartwarming to see the streets filled with people for these processions, but this community is too small — let’s not wait for a tragedy to let our cops know we care about them.”
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