What was Denver Safety Manager Al LaCabe thinking? He announced Friday that Denver Police Officer Rajan Ford, who shot and killed Frank Lobato, Jr. , an ill, unarmed man laying in his bed, would receive a 90 day suspension without pay for the killing. Ford says he mistook a soda can in Lobato’s hand for a gun.
On July 11, 2004, the day Lobato was shot, Denver police responded to a report of domestic violence at 1234 W. 10th Ave, the apartment belonging to Lobato’s nephew, Vincent Martinez, 43. Martinez had repeatedly assaulted his girlfriend that day, police said, beating her, ripping out a phone line and not allowing her to leave. As police approached, Martinez fled out an upstairs window. Officers, unaware he had left, used a ladder to enter a different second-story bedroom window, where Ford encountered Lobato, who was in ill health, in bed. Ford shot Lobato once in the chest after apparently mistaking the glint of the soda can he was holding for a gun, and Lobato died at the scene. Martinez was later caught and sentenced in June to 10 years in prison.
The punishment makes no sense. It certainly does not fit the officer’s actions.
LaCabe considered numerous factors, including Ford’s employment history. In his ruling, LaCabe wrote: “It is apparent to me that Officer Ford did subjectively believe that his life was in danger at that time, and either fired unintentionally or failed to properly assess the nature of the threat prior to firing.” LaCabe added that while Ford’s actions clearly constituted “a mistake,” they were “neither reckless nor deliberate.”
There is a big difference between unintentionally firing a gun and failing to properly assess a threat, particularly when an innocent life is taken as a result of the negligent assessment. The fact that the grand jury refused to indict Officer Ford should not be the determining factor. The issue is whether this officer has the necessary skills required of a police officer who is called upon to make split-second decisons that could take or save a human life. Officer Ford didn’t have them when he killed Frank Lobato, Jr. It is unlikely he will acquire them in 90 days. Al LaCabe should have removed Ford from active duty indefinitely, pending re-training and psychological assessment. The family has a $10 million lawsuit pending against Denver Police Chief Whitman, Officer Ford and others, in which it claims that the Denver Police Department failed to properly train and supervise its officers. Until that lawsuit is resolved, Officer Ford does not belong on active duty. Frank Lobato, Jr. isn’t going to get a second chance at life. Why should Officer Ford get a second chance after Lobato’s wrongful death? How do we know Ford hasn’t been traumatized by his killing of Lobato? Maybe he will be gun-shy in the future, when decisive action is called for to take or save a life. Until these issues are resolved, LaCabe’s announcement sounds like nothing more than a declaration that the acts of an honest but mistaken police officer count for more than the irreversible loss of life caused by the officer’s mistake. This is not only the wrong decision, it is the wrong message to send to our community.