Is There a Police Brutality Problem in Denver?

Does Denver have a problem with police misconduct and brutality? Is the police chief of Denver right in saying they have a better-behaved force than most cities or do the actual statistics have something else to say?

Image of a t-shirt that was sold by the Denver police union as a way to thank their member officers for what they did during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in a way that mocked allegations of excessive force during that event.

Denver Colorado has certainly been in the spotlight after a string of reports involving cases of excessive force came out in August. First there was the DeHerrera and Johnson case that was caught on a police “HALO” camera which oddly zoomed out just as the alleged beating occurred, which was followed by another videotaped instance of alleged brutality involving Mark Ashford who was walking his dog when officers appeared to attack him for taking pictures with his cell phone. This was then followed by the quiet settlement of an excessive force case involving James Watkins who accused police of beating him for saying “cops suck” in response to their flirting with a woman he was with.

All of this appeared to culminate with the resignation of Denver Manger of Safety Ron Perea due to public outcry over the apparent lax disciplinary response to these incidents including a 3-day unpaid vacation for the three officers involved in the DeHerrera/Johnson beating despite recommendations from the Office of the Independent Monitor that the officers be fired, not just for the use of excessive force, but for outright lying on their reports about the incident.

However, now the city council is trying to head off more criticism by promising to look into whether officers need more training based on how much the city has been paying out in police misconduct related legal battles, which is currently alleged to be just under $1,500,000 since 2008. Despite all these problems coming to the fore within just one month, Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman insists that there isn’t a problem within the Denver Police Department, in fact he insists that Denver police officers are better behaved than most cities based on an interesting “use of force per arrest” statistic he claims is lower than most cities.

Now, if you don’t remember, Police Chief Whitman’s spokesman used a similar “statistic” back in 2009 when the department was facing flack over another series of five excessive force lawsuits that were filed within a short span of one another. That time they claimed that the department didn’t have a problem because, out of 488,192 citizen contacts, only 149 resulted in complaints of excessive force and, of those, none were sustained.

Of course, this is the same as offering up that a murderer shouldn’t be convicted over that one time he killed someone because he had thousands of contacts with other people that ended great. However, there was another problem with that claim in that, according the the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor’s 2008 report, there were roughly 222 excessive force complaints filed against 154 officers within 2008, something that we called out back in July of 2009.

Since that statistic is suspect, let’s look at what the NPMSRP statistics show us about the recent disclosures in Denver and see if there might be a problem despite the police chief’s assurance that the Denver police are not out of control.

In our 2010 Semi-Annual Statistical Report Denver was the sixth worst city as ranked by Police Misconduct Rate for cities that had police departments with more than 1,000 sworn law enforcement officers out of about 63 such agencies that we tracked.

City State Officers Involved PMR
1 Atlanta GA 53 6547.25
2 New Orleans LA 36 4972.38
3 Fort Worth TX 23 3095.56
4 Louisville Metro KY 17 2816.90
5 Jacksonville FL 21 2480.80
6 Denver CO 19 2465.93
7 Newark NJ 16 2429.76
8 Nashville TN 14 2276.42
9 Detroit MI 33 2176.78
10 Seattle WA 14 2124.43
11 Orange County FL 13 2091.71
12 Dallas TX 33 1945.18
13 Orange County CA 16 1726.00
14 Prince George’s County MD 15 1724.14
15 Memphis TN 18 1715.92
16 Miami FL 9 1677.54
17 Baltimore MD 26 1671.49
18 Palm Beach County FL 10 1598.72
19 Milwaukee WI 16 1587.30
20 Jefferson Parish LA 7 1393.03

Beyond this, however, when we compiled our 2010 mid-year we also compiled a subset of our state-by-state Police Misconduct Rate (PMR) comparison which was a state-by-state comparison of excessive force reports and the corresponding per-police capita excessive force rates for each state. Within that subset of statistics we determined that the US average excessive force rate for the first half of 2010 was approximately 210 per 100,000 officers involved in excessive force cases, which is represented by the green vertical line in the following graph.

As you can see, the state of Colorado itself had a slightly above average rate of excessive force, but these numbers are only based on reports gathered between January 2010 and June 2010.

When we dive down and get more granular by comparing the publicized excessive force reports for law enforcement agencies with over 1,000 sworn officers over that same period of time, January through June for 2010, we see something different…

City/County State Officers EF Rate
1 Denver CO 17 2206.36
2 Jacksonville FL 12 1417.60
3 New Orleans LA 7 966.85
4 Orange County CA 8 863.00
5 Orange County FL 5 804.51
6 Milwaukee WI 8 793.65
7 Newark NJ 5 759.30
8 Baltimore MD 11 707.17
9 Prince George’s County MD 6 689.66
10 Seattle WA 4 606.98
11 Miami FL 3 559.18
12 Louisville Metro KY 3 497.10
13 Nashville TN 3 487.80
14 Palm Beach County FL 3 479.62
15 Los Angeles CA 17 348.97
16 Detroit MI 5 329.82
17 Memphis TN 3 285.99
18 Chicago IL 11 164.68
19 Fort Worth TX 1 134.59
20 New York NY 23 128.63

Denver appears to rank worst out of all 63 of those law enforcement agencies for credible excessive force reports with an estimated Excessive Force Rate of 2,206 officers involved in excessive force complaints per every 100,000 officers.

However, when we recalculate that rate based on reports issued up to August of this year, Denver looks even worse with an estimated Excessive Force Rate of 2,531 per 100,000, which is over 10x higher than the national average Excessive Force Rate of 210 per 100,000.

Clearly, Denver has a problem even if the police chief insists that there isn’t a problem, which is likely half of the reason why there is such a large problem in Denver since a problem ignored is a problem that is never fixed. This can be seen when we look at Denver’s 2009 numbers which, while better than the 2010 rate, is still an exceptionally high 1,071 per 100,000.

So, how can Denver lower their excessive force incident rate? The first step, of course, is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Once that’s done it’s clear that the city needs to re-examine how the department deals with allegations of misconduct, namely how earnestly they investigate such complaints and act upon sustained instances of misconduct. Report after report confirm that the problem in Denver is directly tied to an unwillingness to honestly investigate complaints and an unwillingness to effectively discipline officers involved in confirmed and repeated instances of misconduct.

To see what we mean, and to get an idea of what our numbers are based on, here are the reports that were tracked by the NPMSRP for 2009 and 2010 so far:

January 2009 – Denver settled an excessive force lawsuit for $10,000 to a woman who was caught on video when police shoved her to the ground, causing her to break her wrist, then lying about what happened on their report by alleging that she tripped over her own high-heel shoes, which she wasn’t wearing. The officer received no discipline for the use of force or for lying on his report.
Officer: Nicholas Rocco-McKee
Victim: Trudy Trout

April 2009 – The Denver police department was the subject of an excessive force lawsuit filed by John Heaney in April of 2009. Heaney was allegedly beaten by undercover detectives  assigned to catch scalpers but, instead, allegedly decided to stop Heaney for allegedly running a stop light on his bicycle (must have been a slow scalping day). Parts of the incident were caught on video showing Heaney being punched and choked before taken to the sidewalk where it appeared as though the detective bounced his face off the concrete, breaking his front teeth. The officer was later found not-guilty of assault by a jury in September 2009 based on defense claims that the loud crack heard as the victim’s head appeared to bounce off the pavement wasn’t his teeth, but the sound of a baseball bat at the nearby stadium. That suit appears to still be winding it’s way through to trial after a settlement conference was vacated in August.
Officers: Michael Cordova, other unnamed officers
Victim: John Heaney

September 2009 – Denver settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $225,000 to the family of a man who died after being repeatedly tasered and beaten with “impact weapons” by police when he was arrested while wearing only boxer shorts. The suit alleges he presented no threat that merited the use of such extensive force that broke 8 of his ribs and split open his tongue before he died.
Officers: Unspecified
Victim: Alberto Romero

December 2009 – Witnesses reported that they watched as multiple Denver police officers repeatedly beat and pistol-whipped a man that they had shot, yelling at him to shut up, until he went silent and died. While the DA justified the shooting itself, there appeared to be no investigation into the allegations of excessive force used after the shooting with the department justifying it out of hand.
Officers: Officers Ford, Garber, Mudloff, and DiManna
Victim: Nicolas Alvarado

May 2010 – Denver settled an excessive force lawsuit to Eric Winfield who suffered 2 black eyes, broken teeth, a broken nose, and permanent nerve damage after two officers mistook him for a bar fight participant in a bar he was never in and repeatedly beat him without provocation. The officer who inflicted the most damage was also a “cage-fighting” enthusiast and the other two officers involved apparently falsified their reports to cover for the incident. The department’s own investigation cleared the officers though charges against Winfield were also dropped.
Officers: Antonio Milow, Thomas Johnston, Glen Martin
Victim: Eric Winfield

June 2010 – 3 Denver police officers were involved in an excessive force incident that left a 16-year-old boy severely injured with a lacerated liver and broken ribs after one of the officers was accused of using a fence as leverage to jump up and down on the boy’s back while he laid prone on the pavement. The officer accused of that was found not guilty of assault in March 2009 even though the other two officers with him testified against him. The city paid out $885,000 in 2008 to settle a civil suit brought over that incident and later fired all three officers for their involvement in June of 2010.
Officers: Charles Porter, Luis Rivera and Cameron Moerman
Victim: Juan Vasquez

June 2010 – Four Denver police officers are the subject of an excessive force lawsuit alleging that officers beat a man while arresting him on suspicion that he was involved in a fight in the Lower Downtown area and then failed to report the use of force or identify themselves when asked. Three of the officers involved are accused of participating in the beating and the fourth is accused of lying about the incident in order to cover it up.
Officers: Michael Morelock, Adam Barrett, Stephen Kenfield, Eric Golladay
Victim: Nick Lynch

June 2010 – A denver police officer is the subject of an investigation that was opened in June of 2010 in association with 21 alleged incidents of excessive force within a span of 2 years including allegations by witnesses who claim he beat a man with a billy club then smashed his his own cruiser window in an attempt to justify the beating.
Officers: Michael Morelock
Victim: Alonzo Barrett

June 2010 – A Denver police officer was accused in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in June of 2010 of beating a man without justification during an arrest for alleged vandalism and then lying when he reported that the suspect hit him so hard he nearly blacked out. The alleged victim suffered head injuries and a collapsed lung from being beaten with a flashlight. One of the officers in question is the subject of an internal investigation into 21 allegations of excessive force involving him over a period of two years which was opened in February of 2010 after the officer was arrested on a DUI charge.
Officers: Michael Morelock and Kimberly Thompson
Victim: Tyler Mustard

June 2010 – Four Denver police officers are the subject of a suit alleging that they followed a 17-year-old boy home after he allegedly witnessed the officers using excessive force on a group of kids and, according to witnesses, kicked his legs out from under him, put him in a chokehold, cuffed him, then beat him for 15-20 minutes with police batons.
Officers: Eric Sellers and 3 other unnamed officers
Victim: John Crespin

August 2010 – Three Denver police officers were investigated and one was suspended for 45 days over an incident in November of 2008 where one of the officers put a volunteer firefighter into a choke hold until he nearly passed out then cuffed him while berating him after he tried to get the officers to take his report about being assaulted by a man who punched him and knocked a pizza out of his hand in the LoDo district. The public safety manager was roundly criticized for not firing the officer for that unnecessary use of force or for lying about it, causing him to begin reconsidering the lax discipline in August of 2010 just before he resigned instead.
Officers: Eric Sellers and two unnamed officers
Victim: Jared Lunn

August 2010 – Two Denver police officers were caught on the department’s own HALO camera system using excessive force on two people in the town’s LoDo district while trying to arrest one of them on suspicion that he used a woman’s restroom at a bar and the other for talking to his father, a deputy, about what was happening to his friend. The officers could be seen on the ground with the one man when one points out the other, telling officers that he was recording and to get him. The camera then shows one officer get up, walk over, then almost immediately takes him to the ground without provocation when the camera mysteriously zoomed out. Still, despite zooming out a succession of rapid repetitive movements indicative of repeated blows could be seen being delivered by an officer who admittedly used a department-issued sap (which are illegal in most states). After the camera zoomed back in the officer is seen dragging the man to a police cruiser where he slams the door on the man’s leg after putting him halfway in. The officers were given a 3 day suspension for filing misleading reports despite a review that indicated the officers used excessive force and outright lied about what happened. This was also after the city settled suit for $17,500 to the man beaten while talking on his cell and $15,500 to his friend. The investigation was reopened after public outcry over the lax discipline.
Officers: Deven Sparks and Randy Murr
Victims: Shawn Johnson and Micheal DeHerrera

August 2010 – Two Denver police officers were the subject of a lawsuit and quiet settlement for $20,000 that was made over an incident where they allegedly beat a man after they overheard him saying “cops suck” when they allegedly began flirting with a woman he was with. The officers were accused of hitting him several times before driving him face-first into the pavement, leaving him with facial injuries. The man’s lawyer claims it settled because there was a witness and videotape involved.
Officers: John Ruddy and Randy Penn
Victim: James Watkins

August 2010 – Two Denver police officers are under investigation over a videotaped incident in March of 2010 where they detained a man who was walking his dog because he told a motorist that the officers pulled over that he would testify on his behalf since he witnessed the driver stop when he was pulled over for failing to stop. However, once the man started to use his cell phone to take pictures when he became nervous police officers took him to the ground and began to punch him while attempting to take his cell phone, all of which was caught on a bystander’s video.
Officers: John Diaz and Jeff Cook
Victim: Mark Ashford

August 2010 – Denver settled an excessive force lawsuit for $22,500 to a man in August of 2010 over an incident that was caught on video in April of 2010 where an officer entered an apartment building after resident over a supposed jaywalking incident and jumped him from behind, leaving him with facial injuries. The officer’s report appeared to be contradicted by the video evidence but it didn’t appear as though the officer faced any disciplinary actions.
Officer: Kenneth Johnson
Victim: Chad Forte

The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) is an independent project designed to analyze reports of misconduct in order to produce statistical data about police misconduct and accountability that are not otherwise available.

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