Teens with pellet guns to get lesson | AspenTimes.com

Teens with pellet guns to get lesson

Three teenagers who were detained by police at gunpoint as they played with realistic-looking pellet guns in downtown Aspen Saturday will not face criminal charges.

Instead, they will attend an educational diversion program, the assistant district attorney said Wednesday.

The young men, all around the age of 16, were apprehended after a bystander reported seeing a man with a gun at the corner of Hunter Street and Hyman Avenue, near the Aspen Saturday Market. Police confiscated three pellet guns from the teens, who said they were playing among themselves and didn’t notice any reaction from bystanders.

Assistant District Attorney Lawson Wills said yesterday the boys need to learn about the problem they caused.

“It will have more of an educational tone to it than a punitive one,” he said of the punishment. “If they complete it successfully, no charges will be filed.”

The program run by YouthZone will be tailored to this specific incident for the young men, all of whom are first offenders. Wills said the teenagers’ parents have been receptive to the educational program.

Police Chief Loren Ryerson said the department is researching what responses other communities have for similar situations, to prevent this from happening in the future.

Assistant Police Chief Glenn Schaffer said markings on the pellet guns that make them distinguishable to police had been removed, in violation of federal law.

“The problem is, we don’t know if it’s a toy gun. With as real as these guns look, we can’t discern if they’re real or not, even from up close,” Schaffer said.

Three of the armed robberies by teenagers in Aspen during the summer of 1999 were committed with BB guns, and Schaffer said the victims didn’t know that the toys pointed at them weren’t real guns.

“Our goal is to get the message through about what happened out there and why we took it as seriously as we did,” Schaffer said. “Citizens were genuinely alarmed about the things that they saw. We know now their intention wasn’t to hurt anyone and they were just playing, but we didn’t know that at the time.”

The department has received some phone calls from citizens concerned with the photo in Monday’s Aspen Times, which showed one of the teenagers being handcuffed on the ground as a police officer stood over him with an assault rifle. Ryerson and Shaffer said they’ve explained that police followed proper procedure, having weapons ready until a suspect is handcuffed and searched.

“That’s the way we have to respond until we know that it wasn’t as dangerous as it was reported,” Schaffer said. “We can’t take a call of a man with a gun and assume it’s a toy – that would just be negligent on our part.”

He cited an incident seven years ago when police reaction was similar. According to a police report from September 1996, officers responded to the Popcorn Wagon in downtown Aspen for a report of a man with a gun.

Officers were told the man had a black pistol beneath his shirt, tucked into the waist band of his pants. According to the police report, the suspect was found in front of the Popcorn Wagon, and when he said “It’s only a BB gun” while reaching for the gun, a police officer told him quickly that if he touched the gun he would die.

Police had the suspect shift his hips so that the gun fell out of his pants, had him lay prone on the ground and covered him while he was searched and handcuffed.

“If you look at 1996, we responded the same way,” Shaffer said. “It was called in as a man with a gun, not a kid with a toy gun.

“We’re not trying to tell people to not have BB guns or toy guns, but we want to make sure they’re not used or fired in public, where people might mistake them for real guns or where they might hurt someone with a projectile.”

Ryerson said some officers went to Aspen High School on Tuesday to speak with students both in the Street Law class and informally during lunch and class breaks about the incident. Mostly, he said, the students wanted to know what situations lead to guns being drawn, and what happens when juveniles are apprehended.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]

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