Protesters question Denver police killing of mentally ill Native American

Death of Paul Castaway reflects that American Indians are most likely racial group to be killed by law enforcement

DENVER — She knew her son was dead when she heard the gunshots. At least four staccato pops in a matter of seconds. Four bullets fired in the same amount of time needed to open a bottle of soda or to steal a kiss.

“I told [the police] that my son was mentally ill, I tell them that every time I call,” said Lynn Eagle Feather. “I just asked for help. Instead they killed my son.”

Her son, Paul Castaway, was a Rosebud Sioux tribal citizen who had battled mental illness, drugs and alcohol for years. He had a criminal record — including felony weapon possession, assault and DUI — and served time. In the past, Eagle Feather could talk him down when he was in crisis; before, when the police were called for help, he was peaceful. This time was different.

“He pulled out a knife and he tried to scare me. I know he was just trying to scare me with it,” she said. “He was hitting himself on the head and he was like in a psychotic mode. I had never saw him like that before and I was scared.”

Paul Castaway is seen to the right in this photo.
Tristan Ahtone

On the night Castaway died, police say that he stabbed his mother in the neck. Eagle Feather says her son held a knife to her throat, leaving a small nick. Regardless, that’s not up for debate. What is being questioned is why he was shot and killed.

Police contend that Castaway got “dangerously close” to officers with a knife, causing them to open fire. But according to eyewitnesses, Castaway was holding the blade to his own throat moments before he was gunned down. That version of events may actually have been recorded. Footage from nearby surveillance cameras is now in the hands of the Denver Police Department.

“I actually saw the surveillance video that shows the shooting,” reported Tammy Vigil, a local reporter for Fox 31 Denver who saw the video shortly after the shooting. “[You see Paul Castaway] with the knife to his own neck the whole time. Then police shoot him.”

According to a Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice analysis of Centers for Disease Control data, between 1999 and 2011 Native Americans were killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial group in the country. In other words, if the Seattle metro area — home to just over 4 million people — were made up entirely of American Indians, around 10 people would have been shot and killed by police every year between 1999 and 2011.

“The figures on who police are killing are not complete. We just are using the best that we have from the Centers for Disease Control,” said Mike Males of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). “If we can get more accurate information, I think we can understand whether it is a matter of police training, whether it is a matter of particular pattern of suspects that police in certain jurisdictions encounter, whether or not there is antagonism between police and certain communities in certain jurisdictions that lead to a high rate of injuries and killings involving law enforcement. There are a lot of questions here that need to be answered.”

Native people have had a traumatic relationship with Colorado since before it was a state. The Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 resulted in the murder and mutilation of 200 Native people, primarily women and children, at the hands of cavalry troops led by minister John Chivington.

“One of the disturbing things about the history of Colorado is that that legacy continues to be memorialized all the time,” said Glenn Morris, an associate professor at the University of Colorado and leader in the American Indian Movement. “If you take a stroll through downtown Denver, you’ll see monuments that continue to lionize and create heroes of Indian killers.”

In 2009, Native Americans made up nearly nine percent of Denver’s homeless population despite being just over one percent of the population. In 2013, Native students had the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in the city. That same year, Census data revealed that nearly 30 percent of American Indians living in Denver faced poverty.

“So the continuing legacy of anti-Indian sentiment — while it may not be as vicious and overt as it once was — the fact is, that American Indians remain at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator in the city,” said Morris. “Those are the ironies that lay the foundation for a disaster like Paul Castaway being unjustifiably killed by the Denver police.”

Al Jazeera reached out to the Denver Police Department for comment. No one was made available to comment, citing an ongoing investigation. Much will hinge on the interpretation of the surveillance footage of Castaway’s killing.

In Denver, police operate with the principle of a 21-foot zone within which they are justified to use deadly force if officers' lives are in danger.

Native Americans most likely to be killed by police

Law enforcement killings per million population by race and age, in 2012

Age Range All Races Native American Black Latino White Asian
15-24 2.7 6.8 6.5 3.4 1.4 1.7
25-34 3.4 10.9 7.1 4.2 2.4 1
35-44 2.8 6.1 4.2 3.3 2.4 1.1
45-54 1.8 2.8 2.7 1.9 1.7 0
55-64 1 0 1.4 1.9 0.9 0.5
65+ 0.3 0 0 1.1 0.3 0
All Ages 1.6 3.8 3.1 2.1 1.2 0.6

Source: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Note: Centers for Disease Control data includes all deaths by legal intervention, excluding legal execution

“We need the videotape,” said David Lane, Lynn Eagle Feather’s attorney. “We have spoken to a number of eyewitnesses on the scene. Unfortunately, most of these eyewitnesses are small children.”

According to Lane, this case is more than a question of police tactics: It’s about mindset.

“The police, they are like a colonial occupying force in these communities,” he said. “They are not there to serve and protect, they are there to occupy these communities, and that mentality is why people like Paul Castaway get killed.”

“I will never be able to hug my son, I’ll never be able to wake up and say ‘good morning’,” said Eagle Feather. “He was the closest one to me, of my children, because he had problems and I could understand him more than anybody.”

Vigils have been held every night in the mobile home park where Castaway was shot and killed, while Eagle Feather struggles to make sense of her loss. Castaway’s 3-year-old son, Manuel, still thinks his father has gone to the store, and Eagle Feather hasn’t figured out a way to tell him what’s going on. She also continues to deal with guilt; she says if she hadn’t called 911, her son would still be alive.

“What the police did was wrong, very, very wrong,” she said. “They need to be retrained to deal with mentally ill people. They could have made him put the knife down. Had he been a person of a different race, they might have calmed him down. They might have stopped him. But I think because he was a person of color, they didn’t care. The police department don’t care.”

Thomas Morado, a cousin of Paul Castaway, leads the march during a protest against the police Tuesday, July 14, 2015 along the 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colorado.
Brent Lewis / Denver Post / Getty Images

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