Officers and deputies in Clear Creek County failed to de-escalate an interaction with a 22-year-old Boulder man who called for help after crashing his car and they needlessly rushed the incident that ended with a deputy fatally shooting the driver as he sat in his car, experts in mental health and police tactics told The Denver Post.
The law enforcement officers made mistakes and missed opportunities to create a better outcome at nearly every stage of their deadly encounter with Christian Glass, according to experts who reviewed video footage of the June incident.
The first Clear Creek County sheriff’s deputies on scene acted with needless aggression, the group failed to pursue alternative communication options when they couldn’t get Glass to step out of his car, and they created a violent encounter when they broke one of the car’s windows while failing to maintain a safe distance, they said.
“He’s not breaking the law — he’s sitting in his car,” said Shamus Smith, a former New York City police officer and trainer who now studies policing at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Sit and wait and make it turn into a waiting game.”
Attorneys for Glass’ parents last week released body camera footage of the killing early June 11 of Glass, which prompted questions from local and state authorities. The Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners in a statement said “the circumstances around his death are deeply troubling.”
Gov. Jared Polis spoke with Glass’ parents and in a statement called for the expansion of teams that pair officers with mental health professionals. There’s no such program in Clear Creek County.
“This tragedy should never have happened,” Polis said in the statement.
Seven officers and deputies from five law enforcement agencies responded on the night of June 10 to Silver Plume after Glass called 911 for help because he’d crashed his car into an embankment. Glass, who told a dispatcher that he had two knives, was experiencing delusions and paranoia and said he was afraid to step out of his car. He offered to throw the knives out the window, but the deputies told him not to.
For an hour, deputies and officers tried to convince Glass to step out of the car. When he refused, they decided to break a window, which prompted Glass to pick up a knife. Clear Creek County sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Buen shot and killed Glass when the 22-year-old twisted in his seat and thrust the knife at an officer who was standing near the broken-out backseat window on the driver’s side.
After he was shot, Glass stabbed himself multiple times with the knife.
“A situation that should not have escalated”
Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office policy, obtained by The Denver Post through a records request, specifically outlines how deputies should work with people with mental illness.
“It is the policy of the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office that people with mental illness be treated with dignity and with due regard for their mental health needs, to the extent possible given the circumstances of contact,” the policy states.
All deputies are required to complete training on recognizing mental illness and verbal de-escalation techniques, according to the manual. De-escalation strategies listed in the manual include: maintaining a physical gap with the person, modeling calm behavior, making reassurances that deputies are there to help and choosing one deputy to communicate with the person.
Clear Creek County deputies and others on scene failed to uphold many of those best practices, mental health and police tactics experts told The Post.
“Everyone needs to have higher expectations for what it means to practice public safety,” said Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. “People should be able to call for help and not fear for their lives.”
The first two deputies on scene, Buen and Clear Creek County Deputy Tim Collins, failed from the beginning to set a calm tone, said Tamara Lynn, the executive council president for the National De-Escalation Training Center. Within two minutes, the deputies were shouting and using profanity in an attempt to get Glass out of the car.
She noted that they did not ask for his license and insurance, as officers normally do when responding to a crash and did not offer to call for a tow truck.
“That’s a situation that should not have escalated from that point, had it been approached as what it was,” she said.
The yelling only compounded whatever mental health crisis Glass was experiencing and he likely began to see the deputies as a threat, Lynn said.
“The officers’ immediate response of yelling at him and giving orders instead of speaking calmly and asking him to comply — that’s what kept Christian from complying,” she said.
Some of the officers who responded to the scene — the female officer from Idaho Springs and Georgetown Police Marshal Randy Williams — made good efforts at de-escalation, Lynn said. They attempted to build rapport with Glass and acted with compassion.
But ultimately the officers only focused on one goal: getting Glass to step out of the car, said Justin Ramsdell, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University who studies officer use of force and crisis de-escalation with individuals experiencing mental health crises.
The officers on scene failed to take Glass’ fear seriously, failed to try to understand why he was afraid and failed to consider what they could do about it.
“They needed one calm person reflecting (Glass’s) feelings and he would be alive,” Ramsdell said.
Instead, the officers kept trying the same thing over and over again and grew frustrated when nothing changed, he said. The officers’ attempts to bribe Glass to come out of the car with soda and beef jerky also represented a lack of understanding of mental illness, he said.
“They used manipulation techniques that you would use on a 3-year-old,” Ramsdell said. “They’re treating him like he has an intellectual disability, which to me suggests they put all mental illnesses in the same bucket.”
“Tragic in every conceivable way”
Ideally, one person would’ve been the primary communicator and many of the other people on scene would’ve kept their distance in an attempt to make Glass feel calmer, Ramsdell said. It also would’ve kept more people away from whatever threat they thought Glass posed.
“Once they decided to break the window, it was over,” Ramsdell said. “Once the windows break, I don’t know what (Glass) was thinking, but it was clearly his worst nightmare coming true. Because nobody is going to start stabbing themselves with a knife unless they feel like they’re in some sort of existential crisis.”
Smith said he doesn’t understand why the officers decided to breach Glass’ window. Glass committed no crime, he was contained inside his car and he presented no threat, Smith said.
“I got the sense that they just got tired of waiting,” Smith said. “But not everything in the profession is going to be fast, quick and easy. Utilize all the resources you can.”
Glass grabbed a knife after officers broke out his window, but Smith said the situation still could’ve been calmed down had officers walked away and created distance.
Instead, Buen shot and killed Glass after Glass twisted in his seat and thrust the knife toward Williams.
“The situation didn’t have to be that way,” Smith said.
Glass’s killing is one of many police encounters with people in crisis in Colorado that have spiraled into unnecessary violence, said Atchity with Mental Health Colorado. The continued occurrences point to a system of policing that continues to fail to properly train officers.
Better training not only saves the lives of people contacted by police, but also lessens injuries and trauma for officers, Ramsdell said.
“This is tragic in every conceivable way,” he said.
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