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Forcing the issue 

CSPD launches review of how citizen complaints are filed, investigated and dealt with

click to enlarge Chief Pete Carey isn't sharing details. - FILE PHOTOS
  • File photos
  • Chief Pete Carey isn't sharing details.

Facing several lawsuits over police brutality, the Colorado Springs Police Department has launched a "comprehensive" review of officers' use of force that looks at incidents from top to bottom.

While not all citizens' complaints will be reviewed, those chosen through a methodology not yet fully explained represent "a statistically significant sampling," police spokesperson Lt. Catherine Buckley says via email.

The review is being conducted by a committee formed in May of "internal and external law enforcement representatives" whose identities are being withheld to avoid "undue influence or individual criticism before the review is completed," Buckley says.

The committee will review everything from the complaint process itself to internal investigations to discipline that results from those investigations and the department's policies and procedures, Buckley says.

The review comes after the Independent in April began delving into police reports, court cases and District Attorney's Office investigations, which led to a series of stories this summer ("Full Force," July 15).

The series highlighted a May 2012 incident in which police used an impromptu and untried explosives strategy to blow up a man's condo, a November 2013 incident in which an officer was caught on video slamming a handcuffed woman to the floor face-first, and a fatal April 2011 incident in which an officer, later exonerated, gave no warning before shooting a drunken 22-year-old man armed with an unloaded handgun in the back, then later told investigators he shot him in the chest.

The Indy also reported the CSPD received 209 complaints from 2011 through April 2015, and only three were ruled as valid through an internal process in which cops evaluate one another.

Mayor John Suthers, who told the Indy in August he was contemplating some type of review, said through a city spokeswoman he approves of and supports Police Chief Pete Carey's initiative. Stressing that the city and CSPD are committed to providing "the best possible service to citizens," Suthers in a statement said the "thorough" review by committee members will "ensure they serve the public interest."

As police use-of-force cases across the country stirred debate and inspired rioting over the past few years, the case of Ryan and Benjamin Brown, who are black, emerged in Colorado Springs. The brothers were stopped on March 25 for a cracked windshield and were pulled from their vehicle and held at gunpoint. After the ACLU got involved, the story went national and a video shot by Ryan Brown drew more than 150,000 views on YouTube. But the CSPD's internal affairs department cleared the officers. Charges against Ryan Brown of interfering in the performance of official duties were later dismissed and Benjamin Brown pleaded guilty, according to media reports.

The ACLU also took up the case involving Matthew Talley, a black man, who was surrounded by officers on May 6, pulled to the ground, searched and held at gunpoint after a passerby reported he was trying to jimmy a car's ignition. It was Talley's car.

"Colorado Springs police must stop relying on force and weapons as a first resort when dealing with young men of color," ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a news release at the time. He added the treatment of Talley was "heavy-handed, and completely over-the-top."

The Indy's series included a video of the Nov. 21, 2013, incident in which Officer Tyler Walker threw Alexis Acker, 18, to the floor at Memorial Hospital's emergency room, busting a tooth and causing other injuries. The video went global and drew some 5 million online views.

An internal affairs investigation, though, wasn't opened until July 2014, three months after Acker's attorney, Shimon Kohn, threatened a lawsuit, which was filed July 28. Walker was punished in an undisclosed way in August but wasn't terminated. (The department refuses to release the punishments officers receive as the result of excessive-force investigations.)

His sergeant, Mary Walsh, who didn't observe the incident and wrote in her report that Walker "rolled" Acker to the floor, is now under IA investigation for "whether or not she took the appropriate supervisory action in relation to this incident."

The Indy's series also reported the city has paid more than $400,000 to settle cases in the past five years, and that use of force appears to be increasing. From 2012 to 2014, officers filed Response to Aggression forms indicating they had to use force in 929 incidents involving 1,060 officers, and during that time the number of officers involved increased by 54 percent.

Suthers responded by defending the department, saying officers are well-trained, policies are sound and it doesn't suffer from cultural issues.

click to enlarge Mayor John Suthers is supportive. - FILE PHOTOS
  • File photos
  • Mayor John Suthers is supportive.

"I've watched this department for years," he said Aug. 28. "This is not a culture that, you know, kind of promotes the tough-guy image of cops or anything like that. This is a police department that very much emphasizes the proper role of the police in the community. I'm very confident of that."

But he also told the Indy in that interview he favored conducting some kind of examination, although he hadn't yet defined its parameters and hadn't decided whether to perform it internally or hire an outsider.

"I'm just beginning to have some discussions," he said then, noting the objective was to look at disciplinary actions to assure "the right signals are sent to the members of the department ... when a particular officer acts badly."

Last week, city spokeswoman Julie Smith said in an email that Carey got the ball rolling in May by forming the committee, which met in June and "started the review process" in August.

"After reviewing the process set forth by Chief Carey, this satisfied Mayor Suthers' request for a review," Smith said.

Smith said the analysis would cover "a random sampling of five years' worth of use of force complaints," and added that "results" are expected in mid-2016.

Buckley gave more details about the review but stopped short of fully explaining how it would be conducted, by whom and how many members there are.

"In order to respect the integrity of the process, a detailed description of the methodology of the Use of Force Committee will not be released at this time," she said. Buckley later said, "There will be findings from this committee that will be made public."

It's unlikely the committee's meetings will be opened to the public, and they're not required to be under the Colorado Open Meetings Law, which doesn't apply to administrative meetings of staff. Specifically, the law requires open meetings be conducted by "boards, committees, commissions, authorities and other advisory, policy-making, rule-making or other formally constituted bodies, as well as any public or private entities that have been delegated governmental decision-making functions by a body or official."

Although the ACLU's Silverstein declined to comment about the review, he told the Indy in July that there's "a tremendous need for both accountability and transparency" in how CSPD responds to allegations of abuse of citizens and excessive force.

"That's clear from your articles," he said. "I imagine the community doesn't have much confidence in the Colorado Springs Police Department's ability to investigate their own officers to hold them accountable."

Colorado Springs' neighbor to the north handled a study of police brutality differently. Last year, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock hired two out-of-state consultants — from Chicago and Los Angeles — to conduct an independent assessment of use of force at the Denver County Jail after a series of incidents cost taxpayers $9 million in attorney fees and settlements, according to the Denver Post.

The study report, issued in May, made 14 findings and 277 recommendations for change. The findings, made public in a 294-page report, addressed leadership, policies and culture, job evaluations, training, technology deficits and needed improvements for community engagement.

Hancock immediately set up an implementation team.

  • CSPD launches review of how citizen complaints are filed, investigated and dealt with

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