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Mayor Suthers will delve into how cops are punished for using excessive force

click to enlarge John Suthers has talked about infrastructure and jobs all year, and still is. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • John Suthers has talked about infrastructure and jobs all year, and still is.

A review of disciplinary actions taken against Colorado Springs police officers is needed to assure the Police Department "is dealing seriously" with missteps of officers, including the use of excessive force, Mayor John Suthers says.

In an interview Friday with the Independent, Suthers says he's confident the department has no training or cultural issues that contribute to officers' using too much force, but he wants to know if the punishments imposed send the appropriate "messages" to officers.

Suthers also says a video of Officer Tyler Walker slamming 18-year-old Alexis Acker to the floor, breaking a tooth in November 2013, appeared to be "doctored," but he stopped short of alleging it misrepresented the incident.

The Memorial Hospital video, posted online as part of the Indy's "Full Force" series that began July 15, logged 5 million views in one week and serves as a crucial piece of evidence in a lawsuit filed July 24 against the city.

The mayor also spoke about his proposed sales tax increase for roads, private-sector job creation and his efforts to stave off a lawsuit from Pueblo over lack of flood-control measures in Colorado Springs.

Previewing his State of the City address scheduled for Sept. 9 at a Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance luncheon, Suthers also says he will propose a business tax break before year's end, and notes that leadership changes are unlikely, given that he's "very impressed" with department heads he inherited from his predecessor, Steve Bach.

Suthers has a long association with law enforcement starting in 1989 when he became district attorney and later serving as U.S. attorney, head of the state's Department of Corrections and attorney general.

"I've dealt with police departments throughout Colorado, and I remain extremely confident that the training that takes place at the [Springs] department on use of force is good. It's very, very rigorous, difficult training," he says. "We hire good officers. They do good background checks."

He says he's refused to comment on specific cases in the past, because "that's going to be Exhibit One in a lawsuit." Then, oddly, he commented on two incidents.

One involved the May 6 takedown of Matthew Talley. Talley, who's black, alleged racial profiling and excessive force by officers who surrounded his vehicle, guns drawn, in downtown Colorado Springs when Talley tried to start his car using a butter knife because he forgot his keys.

Says Suthers, "Any cop ought to be fired if he doesn't question a guy starting a car with a butter knife."

As for the Walker case, Suthers says, "I do think it [video] was a doctored tape. The tape I looked at looks like it was speeded up. But having said that, that does not condone this conduct. It looked like to me like she might have contacted his genitals, but that was no excuse. It's absolutely no excuse."

Even though Walker has yet to be disciplined for the incident — an internal affairs investigation wasn't opened until after the city was threatened with a lawsuit in May 2014 and it remains pending — and he received his highest rating in at least three years just two months after the takedown, Suthers doesn't think the department tolerates excessive use of force.

"I reject your notion there are training or cultural problems at the department," he says. "I don't reject the notion that bad behavior by individual officers has to be appropriately dealt with, and that will be where my major focus will be in making sure that's done. I just want to make sure the amount of discipline that's dealt in particular cases is the kind of discipline that would send messages to other officers that the department is dealing seriously with these kinds of issues."

He gave no timeframe for the review and says he's not sure whether it will be handled internally or by an outside consultant. "I'm just beginning to have some discussions," he says.

Suthers' top priority is getting a .62 of a percent sales tax passed in November to raise $50 million a year for five years to fix the city's crumbling roads. But the measure goes hand-in-hand with another priority: jobs.

"I absolutely believe this infrastructure [problem] and new job creation are a lot closer aligned than a lot of people understand," he says. "A lot of our ability to get companies to expand and move here is riding on it."

Asked what happens if the tax is voted down, he says, "I'm not moving if it doesn't pass. But there's a lot riding on it, no question about it. I've had conversations with several companies who I know are debating whether to expand here or elsewhere, and there's no question that us showing them a commitment to improving our infrastructure would help our case in terms of expansion."

Previewing his Sept. 9 speech, he says Colorado Springs should focus on attracting cyber security companies.

"We've got lots of [cyber security] private sector companies," he says. "It's a big emphasis in the military here. [The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs] has a consortium of eight colleges and universities emphasizing cyber security. We're going to see a lot of job growth here."

But companies aren't interested in moving to a city that ignores basic needs, he notes. "If they're going to be here and they're going to invest for the future, they need to see some commitment by the city to do those essential functions that only the city can do, including infrastructure."

A component of infrastructure is flood control, which Suthers and City Council will address by carving out $16 million from the general fund and another $3 million from Utilities after voters defeated a stormwater fee last year. Pueblo and others have threatened a lawsuit if the city doesn't control runoff, and Suthers has made several trips to Pueblo assuring its leaders the Springs isn't ignoring the problem.

"Just because the public as a whole doesn't understand or appreciate the stormwater issue doesn't make it any less important," Suthers says. "It's a huge issue not only for the people in Colorado Springs but also for those downstream, and we've got to deal with it."

So when he hears people wondering why he's so obsessed with satisfying Pueblo, here's his answer: "Pueblo is a potential legal problem, and frankly, it's the right thing to do. We ought to help solve the problem we've created for Pueblo. Stormwater is still very much a health, safety and welfare issue for the citizens of Colorado Springs."

Suthers also is engineering a tax break for businesses by proposing to eliminate the business personal property tax levied on equipment and inventory. El Paso County phased out the tax in the 1990s.

"It would help us with business attraction of equipment-intensive companies," he says.

Suthers' plan calls for a three-year rollback, which he says would offset rising property tax revenues resulting from a reassessment of property values that is driving property tax bills upward. That means there's less chance the city would collect more revenue than allowed by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. "What a great time to begin phasing it in," he says.

Lastly, don't look for turnover at the top, as was true of Bach's tenure. Saying he's "very impressed by the caliber of the department heads," Suthers emphasizes that his management style is not "there's a new sheriff in town."

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