After a gunman ambushed Arvada police officer Gordon Beesley on June 21, investigators found a manifesto in the gunman’s apartment expressing hatred for police and his desire to kill as many officers as possible.

Three months earlier, the gunman who opened fire in Boulder’s south-end King Soopers fatally shot officer Eric Talley moments after Talley entered the store in response to the massacre that felled 10.

The slayings happened under widely different circumstances, but Talley and Beesley both died amid an apparent rise in attacks on law enforcement officers.

According to preliminary data from the FBI, 38 officers have been killed in 2021 as of July 8, compared with 29 in the same period last year. Fourteen of those victims this year fell to unprovoked attacks, the agency found.

According to Denver Police Department data, simple assaults on officers went up to 190 assaults in 2017, from 150 the year before.

In 2018, there were 126 aggravated assaults with weapons on police, and there were 110 in 2020.

“I think the important framing question is, how many of these are really happening during an arrest versus some of this behavior that seems pre-planned and pre-meditated in some way?" said Kami Chavis, a professor, vice provost and director of Wake Forest University School of Law’s criminal justice program.

“If there's anything that happens in the course of an arrest, like someone spits on an officer, that's an assault on a police officer. … But that is very different than someone who says (they’re) going to target police officers in some way.”

Data from the Denver District Attorney’s Office on prosecutions of police officer assaults was not immediately available.

Chavis, a former federal prosecutor, said it’s also important to keep in mind the difference between data reported by police and actual prosecutions of assaults on officers. Some actions that don’t harm an officer but could still be considered an assault, such as spitting at an officer, may factor into prosecutors’ charging decisions, Chavis said.

“You want a prosecutor to evaluate that” to determine whether they think they can charge the case as an assault on an officer, she said.

Beyond the data, it's difficult to say definitively why serious attacks on police have increased.

Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen, the immediate past president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said he believes rhetoric from elected officials and other people in positions of authority that “all cops are bad” gives the impression of support for people who disrespect "the legitimate authority of a law enforcement officer.”

Christensen said that in the past year, four officers from his force of 29 quit and left law enforcement altogether. Several of his officers were asked to quit by their spouses as because of a perceived increase in danger on the job, he said.

“In this last summer, when my police officers had to drive past 20 people standing in front of the police building saying ‘(Expletive) the police,’ ‘All cops are bad,’ … It’s kind of hard to drive into the police department and put on a happy face and go serve the community.”

Chavis cautioned against equating movements calling for policing reform with hatred for police and assaults on officers. The movements are about human rights and fair treatment, she said, not about hatred of police.

“People have said, until they're blue in the face, that this is not only civil rights, it’s a human rights issue, the way that some folks are being treated in this country. So asking to be treated with justice and fairness and dignity, and pointing out instances where that hasn't happened and asking for reforms that make it more likely that people will be treated in a fair manner, that's not anti-police.”

She said she believes the United States’ prominent gun culture and growing anti-establishment sentiment — she pointed to the U.S. Capitol riot in January -- could explain some incidents such as attacks on police.

Violent crime in Denver rose  over the past few years, and Police Chief Paul Pazen believes stress and anxiety from the COVID-19 pandemic fueled increased violence. But he said a breakdown in people’s civility toward each other predates last year, brought on by deep divides generally in the U.S. the past few years. It translates to a lack of respect for sanctity of life, he said – which includes emboldening people to attack officers.

“We need to have respect for one another, to be understanding and empathetic of the challenges that we all face, instead of looking at one another as others,” Pazen said.

“If they’re willing to do that to an officer, what are they willing to do to the community?”

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