Honor for veteran Sebastopol officer

From : http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20120309/ARTICLES/203091021/0/FRONTPAGE



Two weeks before his Thanksgiving Day encounter with an armed and angry man in an apartment building stairwell, Sebastopol Police Officer Dennis Colthurst thought he might get through his career without ever having to fire his sidearm.

As youngsters often do, an inquisitive sixth-grader at Brook Haven Elementary School had just asked the veteran police officer how many people he had shot or killed in the line of duty.

“I walked out of the school, and I took a minute: Thirty-five years, full-time, sworn time, and I’m probably going to get to retire without having anything like that happen,” Colthurst, 60, recalled recently.

“And then, two weeks later, the entire world changed on a totally inappropriate day, on a day where we rarely have any kind of violence. If there’s a day to stand down and sort of relax, it’s Thanksgiving,” he said.

Last month, Colthurst was recognized as Sonoma County Peace Officer of the Year for his handling of the Nov. 24 incident, in which he shot and killed a man who tried to break into an ex-girlfriend’s home, then aimed a gun at the officer, police said.

Colthurst called the award an honor but said it was “bittersweet, as you can imagine.”

Colthurst has become a fixture in the community through 31 years of police service to the city, where he also serves on the local hospital foundation board and has sort of adopted Brook Haven school.

He said the community support since the shooting “has been overwhelming.”

“I’ve had nothing but positive support,” he said.

Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver nominated Colthurst for the recent award, which is given annually by the 70-year-old Exchange Club after the Sonoma County Police Chiefs’ Association makes a selection.

Members of the chiefs’ selection committee were unanimous in their choice.

Though he faced a situation no one in law enforcement hopes to confront, Weaver said, Colthurst saved his own life and likely that of the young woman whose former boyfriend was pounding on her door in an apparent effort to break in.

The 20-year-old woman had previously been the victim of domestic violence before breaking off her relationship with the man, Pablo Perez Ramirez, 25, Weaver said. She had moved and changed her phone number to try to get away from him, he said.

But on Thanksgiving, “he was going to her home with a loaded handgun,” Weaver said. “I don’t know what was in his head. Maybe he was just going to go to try to make up. . . . But I think it’s not an unreasonable belief that she was in grave danger.”

It was clear, however, that Colthurst was in peril, Weaver said. Ramirez initially complied with orders to descend the stairs from her door, then reversed course, began climbing up and twisted as he drew a firearm from his waistband and turned its muzzle toward the officer, Weaver said.

Colthurst ordered Ramirez to drop his weapon, but he did not comply, prompting Colthurst to fire his own gun, police said.

“Thanksgiving morning, with no warning, in the city of Sebastopol, within 90 seconds of receiving the call, he’s asked to do something that he’s never done before, and he did it exactly right,” Weaver said. “His tactics in terms of maintaining his own safety couldn’t have been better. His decision about when to fire couldn’t have been more appropriate. And the outcome — as unfortunate as it was for the young man — he stopped the threat. And that’s what he’s supposed to do.”

For his part, Colthurst said he shares the award with police dispatcher Loree Camden, who anticipated his every need that day and was his link to the rest of the world during 22 tense minutes in which the fallen man was out of view and it was unclear whether he still posed a threat.

Colthurst, who is unmarried and has a grown daughter, lived in the apartment complex where the shooting occurred — just four doors away. He has since moved.

Colthurst started his 42-year law enforcement career in Marin County and served 11 years there as a cadet, dispatcher, reserve and full-time officer.

He’s worked for 31 years in Sebastopol, winning department officer of the year in 1989 and 2006, as well as earning recognition from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for a high volume of DUI arrests in 2007. That same year, the local Red Cross honored Colthurst for his effort to bring nine children he encountered in deplorable living conditions without food into protective custody.

His relationship with Brook Haven school includes “Lunch With the Law,” through which he takes three eighth-graders to lunch each Thursday. He and a sergeant also give topical presentations to sixth-graders periodically, and Colthurst works on a variety of school projects.

“This community knows Dennis Colthurst,” Weaver said, “and it respects Dennis Colthurst, and it likes Dennis Colthurst.”

There often are questions about the use of force by police, particularly in incidents that end in death, Weaver said.

“And there should be,” he said. “But I think there was less of that with us — in fact it was almost nonexistent — because of the trust people have in Dennis.”

Returned to work about three weeks ago after a standard administrative leave imposed in the wake of the shooting, Colthurst said he appreciates the sensitivity and support of colleagues, friends and those with the Santa Rosa Police Department who investigated the case, which is currently under review by the District Attorney’s Office.

Now, he said, he’s ready to “get back on the bike.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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