Thursday, July 16, 2015

Does CSPD need a citizen advisory board?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 16, 2015 at 10:46 AM

Our coverage in this week's Independent features seven lawsuits that were filed within last five years against the city and the Colorado Springs Police Department, and two more that are expected to be filed soon, regarding use of force.

That doesn't seem like very many, considering the CSPD received 209 citizen complaints about use of force since 2011, about one per week on average.

click to enlarge Josh Tolini, left, and Shimon Kohn, handle civil rights cases. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Josh Tolini, left, and Shimon Kohn, handle civil rights cases.
Local attorneys say a dearth of legal filings might stem from cops targeting people who are least likely to have the wherewithal to engage a lawyer.

Josh Tolini, who is on the legal team for Ronald Brown, the Army vet whose home was destroyed in an explosion set off by police, had quite a bit to say in an interview back in May when we were researching our stories.

"We don’t see a lot of this [legal filings] because it’s a difficult and technical part of the law," Tolini says. "There’s not a lot of lawyers, especially in Colorado Springs, who handle this. Just because Colorado Springs Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office isn’t suffering from multiple lawsuits doesn’t negate the impact it’s having on the community.... The psychological impact it has on a community can be severe."

Given what's occurred and been publicized from other parts of the country, including Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, he says, "It’s built up into an us-versus-them mentality that has long-term negative consequences both for the police and the community."

To help ease strained relationships, Tolini suggests the creation of a community advisory board that would review cases of use of force and policy matters.

For example, when is it appropriate to bring in the SWAT team. "Basically, any time you use SWAT is a military operation," he says. Is that appropriate? He says that, at the moment, there's no specific guideline on when SWAT deployment is appropriate. "What type of information do we have to have to make this show of force? Right now we don’t have anything like that."

He adds, "Also, beyond when we call in the SWAT team, before we go to the next step, what do we have to have happen before we start blowing things up? Detonating bombs? Sending tear gas in on people? What type of things do we have to have before we go in there with weapons drawn pointing at people? A strong set of guidelines that is reviewed by a community board would go a long way."

Cindy Hyatt, a criminal defense attorney who represented Alexis Acker, the teenager thrown to the floor by Officer Tyler Walker, says filing a lawsuit can be a scary thing for some people.

"There are some people who are so naïve they are afraid," Hyatt says in an interview in May. "There are people of the mindset when you start poking at a police department, that that could be even dangerous. There are people who are just not sophisticated and don’t know there are protections for them."

Hyatt says she can't say whether more lawsuits should be filed, but she says there is a problem with cops refusing to take responsibility when an officer goes too far.

"They maintain that somehow this is OK. Or he shouldn’t be held responsible for what he did," Hyatt says. "That to me is just as big a problem as a numbers analysis of how often it happens. When something like this happens, a responsible police department should take action and should publicly state that they don’t approve of this, that this is not OK, they don’t support it, they don’t tolerate it. I certainly didn’t get that vibe during [Acker's] criminal case that he [Walker] was remotely interested in taking responsibility for this. That’s offensive."

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