LITTLETON, Colo. - After refusing multiple requests for interviews by Denver7 Investigates about the police response in the hours before a murder-suicide, the police chief of Littleton has now agreed to answer questions about the incident.
Littleton police chief Doug Stephens agreed to an on-camera interview with Denver7 chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski nearly a month after a Denver7 investigation aired, raising questions about his department’s handling of domestic abuse allegations involving David Fallon and Christa Benton.
Stephens said his officers did nothing wrong but he does believe there are lessons to be learned from the incident.
“When we have a situation like this that results in a horrible tragedy, and rightfully so it draws media attention … we’re not perfect,” Stephens told Denver7 Investigates. “When we were placed under this type of scrutiny, it does identify weaknesses, specifically report-writing and documentation for us.”
On Jan. 6, 2016, police said Fallon shot Benton then killed himself. Twelve hours before the gunfire, Benton’s 18-year-old son, Tyler Jewkes, called 911 asking for an ambulance, and told a dispatcher his mother was “screaming about her neck” being injured during a loud physical argument with her boyfriend. Police responded but left less than 30 minutes later without arresting Fallon.
Tyler and his 14-year-old brother both told Denver7 Investigates they told responding officers their mother was hurt and they heard Fallon attacking her. Jonathan Fallon said he asked responding officers to arrest his father. But police left without arresting anyone, writing in a report simply: “Allegations of physical contact but no evidence."
“He and his department made a mistake that day by not doing their job and you know it cost me my mom,” Tyler told Denver7 Investigates.
“I'm 14 and I just lost both of my parents and that could've been prevented from them arresting him,” Jonathan added.
“We feel for the family. I can't even imagine how horrible it would be to go through a loss like that. And I don't blame the family for looking for someone to blame in this tragedy. I totally understand that,” Stephens said. “They're not informed or educated or trained on police procedures … so that makes sense to me that they would feel that way. I am confident that our officers did everything they could that night, everything they were legally authorized to do to resolve that situation.”
Littleton city officials said they have received notice Christa Benton’s family intends to sue the city, and Stephens said he was unable to address specifics about the case because of possible pending litigation. But he said his department conducted a review of the events of Jan. 6 and he believes the officers who responded to the couple’s apartment did not have probable cause to arrest David Fallon.
“Our officers have to interview the witnesses, based on the witnesses -- what they tell us -- based on the physical evidence or lack of physical evidence, based on the allegations that are made to us, we have to make a determination based on the facts and circumstances that are there right in front of us at that time to establish probable cause,” Stephens said.
The Police Chief admits he asked to have the one-sentence police report rewritten after the murder-suicide.
“It was listed as a verbal domestic report. It had a one line narrative that said what it said. So I looked at that,” Stephens said.
“Did that meet your expectations?” Kovaleski asked.
“Well, I didn't know what we actually did on that call. So … I asked for additional information from that officer, 'can you please be more specific, give more detail on what we did on that call?'” Stephens said.
“Would it be fair for us to report that the officer responding that night should have done a better job on the report?” Kovaleski asked.
“Yes,” Stephens responded.
The responding officer then wrote a six-paragraph report detailing why he did not believe there was probable cause to arrest Fallon.
The original report was then deleted from Littleton’s computer system, and the city’s records custodians did not turn it over when Denver7 Investigates filed a public records request for "all reports and records created or written referencing any and all police activity" at the apartment building where Benton and Fallon lived between Jan. 4 and Jan. 31.” Denver7 Investigates followed up with three separate emails asking whether the city had turned over every version of the reports and city officials did not respond.
When Denver7 filed a follow-up records request for the entire Benton-Fallon case file, the city responded with an invoice for $120 to produce the records. Upon receiving payment, the city turned over the 130-page case file which included the one-sentence report.
“Have you been able to figure out why multiple requests asking for all reports were not provided for us? Do you see why we felt that maybe there was some attempt to mislead us?” Kovaleski asked Stephens.
“I totally understand the confusion on your part, as well as ours,” Stephens responded. “The open records requests, when you're talking about the kind of documentation that we can generate on a case of this nature, a homicide suicide case … it's a lot of documentation. We have to be very careful that we release what we can release, what we're legally authorized to release, and there's a lot of people in our city that are involved in that decision.”
Denver7’s investigation also raised questions about the Littleton police department’s overall response to domestic violence calls. Data provided by the city of Littleton showed the city has made less than 300 arrests on domestic reports dating back to the start of 2014. The department wrote close to 1,100 domestic reports in that time, for an arrest rate of about 27 percent. Stephens said those numbers don’t tell the real story because many of those reports did not involve allegations of criminal activity.
“I can tell you I'm confident after talking with our city attorneys, with our judges, with the district attorney [George] Brauchler, that our officers are arresting at same rate on domestic violence as other agencies in the metropolitan area,” Stephens said.
Denver7 Investigates sought Littleton’s domestic data along with several other agencies. The Denver Police Department provided a database of calls designated to be related to domestic violence, showing arrests in about 71 percent of the incidents. Lakewood police provided data of incidents given an optional domestic violence flag by responding officers showing arrests on about 41 percent of calls.
All three agencies said the data was likely not a comprehensive collection of every domestic violence-related call its officers responded to in that time period, and there does not appear to be a statewide standard for tracking such data.
“I think it all comes down to each agency, and how they capture how they're handling these types of calls, whether it's on a case that gets a specific case number like ours all do, or other agencies that don't capture every single one,” Stephens said.
Littleton’s City Council discussed the possibility of holding a study session to look closer at the department’s handling of domestic violence incidents.
“We believe that we have a responsibility to represent the people in this and the tool that we have is to find out what is occurring today and take a look at it, and see if there's a need for some policy decisions at the highest level. And we'll be looking at that,” Littleton Mayor Bruce Beckman told Denver7 in an interview. “I think that's just the obligation that we have when you have a serious, serious event like this occur.”
Chief Stephens said he feels his officers did everything right when they responded to Benton and Fallon’s apartment in the early morning hours of Jan. 6. But he said Denver7’s reporting of the incident did show the department can make improvement when it comes to its documentation of such incidents. Littleton police are now asked to write detailed reports of every call they respond to, whether they make an arrest or not, according to Chief Stephens.
“We have identified areas where we can make improvement and we will make improvement because we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our community and we owe it to this family, so we will do it,” Stephens said.