Any hope of finding out more about the internal investigation of an officer who bashed a woman's head into the floor went out the window last week when the Colorado Springs Police Department ruled that releasing those records to the Independent "is contrary to the public interest."
Taking issue with that ruling was Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, which advocates for transparent government.
"The on-duty conduct of an officer, especially one who's been accused of doing something like this, is definitely in the public interest," Roberts says. "There are likely many aspects of that report that are, indeed, things the public would be interested in."
The case surfaced a year ago in the Independent's cover story ("Full Force," July 15, 2015) about police brutality, which featured Alexis Acker. Belligerent and drunk, Acker, then 18, was arrested in November 2013 for assault on a police officer and taken to Memorial Hospital for medical clearance before being jailed.
There, in a waiting area, Officer Tyler Walker pushed her into a chair. When her leg flew up toward his groin area, he grabbed her, swung her around and slammed her, face-first while she was cuffed behind her back, to the floor. The impact broke a tooth and bloodied her face.
In May 2014, Acker threatened to sue. Not until July 2014 did Springs police open an investigation of Walker, the son of a retired Springs Police commander. (Chief Pete Carey has never explained the delay.)
The probe took more than a year and led to some type of discipline that Carey has refused to disclose. Acker filed suit in July 2015; the case was settled with a $100,000 payment from the city in May. Walker resigned from the department effective Oct. 3, 2015.
The Indy twice sought Walker's Internal Affairs investigation file in 2015 under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act. At first, the city cited the officer's privacy interest in denying the record; the second time, it cited pending litigation for keeping the file secret. The city also claimed its release would impede the CSPD's ability to conduct IA investigations without subjecting employees to ridicule, would lower morale and interfere with "CSPD's interest in keeping historical confidential files, which include IA investigative files, confidential."
After the settlement was paid in May, the Indy once again sought the file, noting the litigation had ended. Once again, on July 15, the city withheld the report, citing the previous reasons along with a new one tied to "the provisions of the general release agreement entered into between the City and Ms. Acker." The Indy requested that agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but the city hadn't responded as of presstime.
The city also noted that in weighing whether to release the file, the city considered "the current nationwide public focus on the conduct of law enforcement officers" but concluded that protecting the police department's procedures and privacy interests "outweigh" the public's interest.
Moreover, the city said it considered whether to redact the file and release it — a step encouraged in a 2008 Colorado Supreme Court decision that created the "balancing test" requirement for weighing the public's interest in obtaining criminal justice records with the government's interest in shielding them.
The city's conclusion: "The necessary redactions would so limit the releasable information to cause such information to be of very limited value to the public."
It's worth noting the CSPD released an IA file that exonerated cops of alleged ill treatment of Ryan and Benjamin Brown, who were pulled from their vehicle in March 2015 for no apparent reason. The brothers are black.
That file was released, the CSPD said, because the case was of "high" public interest.
Yet, the Walker case is being withheld, despite a video of Walker's assault of Acker, captured by an emergency room camera, drawing 5 million views from around the world after it was posted on the Indy's website on July 15, 2015.
"Instead of just denying the internal affairs report," Roberts says, "they can do what the Supreme Court has encouraged — release as much to the public as they can and use redaction as a tool to protect private information that is not in the public interest."
Roberts says not only is Walker's performance as an officer of interest to the public, but the city used taxpayer money to settle the case.
Ralph Routon, executive editor of the Independent, says the paper will consider its next options.
"This is a matter of great importance to us, for multiple reasons," Routon says. "First, we are convinced the level of public interest in this case is higher than even the issue involving Benjamin and Ryan Brown. Second, we've been frustrated at every turn in our quest to learn the full story of the Tyler Walker investigation.
"And finally, we see this as a basic lack of transparency from our city government, which in our view is a growing problem."
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