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Vast majority of Denver’s $40 million in legal settlements over last 7 years due to law enforcement misconduct

All things considered, Lindsay Minter feels lucky.

Lindsay Minter, a community organizer and ...
Lindsay Minter in Aurora on Aug. 19, 2020. (Photo by Eli Imadali/Special to The Denver Post)

She only needed to have a tooth pulled after she was hit in the face with a projectile from a rubber ball grenade flung in her direction by an unidentified Denver police officer in May 2020 during that year’s racial justice protests. She’d been headed back to her car after helping to lead a march, according to a description of the events in the lengthy lawsuit her attorneys filed against the city on her behalf.

“It was just chaotic. There were more bloody, gory injuries,” Minter said of what she saw before she was injured that day.

Minter, 42, settled with the city last year for $50,000, just a small fraction of the millions of dollars the Denver City Council has approved to pay claims resulting from police conduct during the 2020 protests. Those cases are a big factor in soaring payouts to the public by the city of Denver to resolve large legal claims — a total that reached nearly $39.5 million between 2017 and 2023, according to a Denver Post review of data provided by the City Attorney’s Office.

The Post found that roughly nine in 10 of those dollars were paid for claims involving the Denver Police Department or Denver Sheriff Department. That continues at least a decade-long trend in which public safety agencies’ share of the total has ratcheted up as jail- and police-related misconduct claims have mounted.

While the physical impact of Minter’s incident was relatively small, she says it still affected her — as did the treatment of other protesters in the spring and summer of 2020, including some episodes she witnessed.

The city has approved settlements in cases that stemmed from injuries from projectiles, including being blinded or losing eyes, as well as police officers’ targeting of protesters and the use of tear gas. The city has paid seven figures to settle some of the suits, and still unresolved is a pending $14 million jury award to a dozen protesters for violations of their rights. It’s not included in The Post’s seven-year total because the city plans to appeal it.

“The people who got more money definitely deserved that,” Minter said, “because they were violently victimized for standing up for their rights.”

Just in 2023, the city paid $17.3 million to resolve cases and claims involving the Denver police — a chunk that on its own makes up roughly 44% of the seven-year total in large payouts. Just under $10 million of that was attributable to cases stemming from police actions during the protests, according to City Attorney’s Office records.

The department’s response to the massive, recurring racial justice protests in May and June 2020 in downtown Denver spurred several other settlements prior to last year. The protests initially were organized in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Minter, who has a long history of advocacy and activism around police reform in Aurora, where she lives, felt it was necessary to come to downtown Denver not only to call for justice for Floyd and his family but also for Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died after a violent arrest in Aurora in 2019. As a Black woman, Minter said the broader issue at the center of the protests was calling out disparities in how people of color are policed in this country.

In the aftermath of the demonstrations  — which brought thousands of people to the heart of the city and at times were accompanied by vandalism and looting along the 16th Street Mall — the city’s then-Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell assessed the police response. In a scathing report in late 2020, Mitchell detailed problems with inadequate training and multiple violations of DPD’s use of force policies, including officers firing less-lethal munitions (such as pepper balls, foam bullets and tear gas) at protesters without warning.

The police chief at the time agreed to nearly all the recommendations, including better training for officers on crowd control and tracking the use of less-lethal weapons.

In the overall picture of the large claim payouts reviewed by The Post, the annual average during those seven years was more than $5.6 million — or enough to pay the salaries of 85 entry-level firefighters. The Post focused in on the years since the newspaper’s last comprehensive report on Denver legal payouts in early 2017.

Most of that time was during the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock, who left office in July after three terms. Mayor Mike Johnston, in his first six months, has renominated Hancock’s public safety director, police chief and sheriff to continue serving.

The Department of Public Safety and the City Attorney’s Office did not grant requested interviews with Armando Saldate, the safety director, and City Attorney Kerry Tipper, also a Hancock holdover, instead responding to questions in writing.

Johnston said in an interview Friday that city officials were seeing the tide of settlements begin to recede.

“To be clear, this is not the police chief or the manager of safety that oversaw the George Floyd responses,” he said. “We’ve made a dramatic set of changes to policies and practices since then that I think are going to provide much better public safety — and also much less risk of that bad behavior.”

But in the wake of the city’s 2023 legal bills, some City Council members and the Denver Citizen Oversight Board are calling for more transparency around law enforcement settlements and a deeper focus on the training and accountability protocols meant to correct or prevent them.

“People were hurt that shouldn’t have been hurt and people were arrested that shouldn’t have been arrested,” at-large Councilwoman Sarah Parady, also an attorney, said of the police response to the Floyd protests. “What I am trying to move on quickly is how we can create accountability and transparency around terms in settlement agreements so we can focus on structural reforms going forward.”

George Floyd protest May 30, 2020. ...
Denver police advance on protesters in downtown Denver on May 30, 2020. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Nearly 90% of city payouts come from police, sheriff’s cases

The Post examined legal claims approved by the council, a step that’s required for claim payouts and settlements above a certain amount. Small settlements and property damage claims such as vehicle accidents — those under $5,000 and $25,000, respectively — don’t appear on council agendas for votes and aren’t included in The Post’s totals.

The Post’s analysis focused on cases and claims brought by the public, but the city has incurred some substantial bills from complaints filed from within its own workforce. The city paid a combined $3.3 million to resolve seven employment-based legal cases over the last seven years, including $2.1 million in discrimination and other cases. Those weren’t included in The Post’s totals.

For the large claims brought by the public, the police and sheriff’s departments led all city agencies in payouts stemming from cases against them since 2017 — $29.7 million and $5.6 million, respectively. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, formerly known as the Department of Public Works, came in third, with $3.5 million.

Denver has a dedicated fund to cover liability claims. That comes with the territory when a large government entity self-insures, as the city does, instead of relying on liability insurance. But the protest payouts have required the city to transfer more money into that fund — at a time when the city has faced extra budget pressures, including from the migrant crisis.

The city’s police and sheriff departments long have generated its most significant legal payouts.

High-profile cases such as the 2010 jail death of Marvin Booker, after a struggle with deputies, and the 2015 police shooting of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez, while she was behind the wheel of a stolen car, made headlines.

They also resulted in big payments out of that liability claims fund — $6 million to Booker’s family in 2014 and $1 million to Hernandez’s family in 2017 — and helped spur reforms in the downtown jail and in the police department’s policies around when officers can shoot at moving vehicles.

Between 2004 and early 2017, the police and sheriff departments accounted for 82% of all settlements against the city, according to an earlier Post analysis. That proportion has only risen in the years since — and even in the last few years of that period, from 2014 to early 2017, it reached 91%.

From 2017 to 2023, The Post’s analysis found, Denver agreed to pay a combined $35.3 million to resolve large legal claims filed against the police and sheriff’s departments. That’s more than 89% of city government’s $39.5 million total.

Saldate, the city’s safety director for two years, did not agree to be interviewed for this story, with a spokesperson citing scheduling conflicts. In response to emailed questions, Saldate noted that the Department of Public Safety does not play a role in choosing whether to settle cases or for how much. Those decisions are up to city attorneys who weigh the risk of going to trial and other factors.

He said public safety leaders weren’t sitting back waiting for settlements to dictate the type of instruction officers and sheriff’s deputies might need.

“The department is taking proactive steps to identify areas of potential risk and make policy revisions or provide additional training to our law enforcement,” Saldate wrote in an emailed response. “This process includes working with the Office of the Independent Monitor to determine areas in which they may also have concern and keeping (the office) up to date on the proactive steps being taken.”

Jax Feldmann, 21, poses for a ...
Jax Feldmann, then 21, poses for a portrait outside of his home in Denver on Monday, June 8, 2020. Feldmann underwent eye surgery after being shot with a rubber bullet by police while walking to his car. (Photo by Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post)

City faces more steep payments in protest cases

The fallout from the police response to the Floyd protests has not yet settled, with payouts continuing in 2024.

The City Council last month approved a $2.3 million settlement with Jax Feldmann, whose eye was permanently damaged after a Denver officer shot him with a pepper ball during the protests.

Feldmann wasn’t a protester. He was walking to his car after visiting a friend when an officer in a passing truck fired the projectile at him without warning, according to his lawsuit.

“They shouldn’t be used,” Feldmann, then 21, said about the projectiles in an interview with The Post in 2020. “We’re citizens, not criminals.”

His injury was similar to that of Russell Strong, a protester hit in the face during a peaceful demonstration by a “kinetic impact projectile” fired by police, according to a lawsuit. It ruptured his eye, broke the bones in his eye socket and fractured his face. He told The Post in 2021 that losing his eye had a “devastating impact.” In September, the council approved a $550,000 settlement with Strong.

Denver attorney Birk Baumgartner, who represented Feldmann, described three more cases still moving through the legal system that stemmed from what he described as severe injuries caused by law enforcement officers during the protests.

“Those three claims are going to be a heavy burden on the city, as they should be, because the only way to get this city to change its tactics and policies is to make them pay heavy prices,” he said in an interview. “They have shown that.”

Russell Strong poses for a portrait ...
Russell Strong poses for a portrait in Aurora on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. While peacefully protesting police brutality in May 2020, an unidentified Denver Police officer shot Strong in the face with a less-lethal projectile. His eye had to be removed and bones in his face surgically reconstructed. “I had done nothing wrong and was assaulted in a way that significantly altered my life,” he said. Strong filed a lawsuit against the Denver Police Department. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post)

The largest potential payout so far is still not finalized. City officials plan to appeal the $14 million jury verdict handed down in 2022 after a jury found the police department failed to properly train officers and prevent them from violating protesters’ civil rights during the demonstrations.

There were 12 plaintiffs in the case, including now-State Rep. Elisabeth Epps.

But the appeal hasn’t been filed yet. The outstanding issue, according to Elizabeth Wang, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, is a second trial that’s still pending in the case and will focus on the actions of Aurora police officers during the protests. Denver can’t file an appeal until final judgment is rendered; a recent motion to separate the Denver portion was denied, Wang said.

“They would like to never pay,” Wang said of the city’s response to the judgment. “… But they will. It will be resolved sooner or later, and that bill is going to come due.”

Settlement agreements can go beyond financial restitution.

When Denver resolved a class-action lawsuit covering the arrests of more than 300 people detained for violating an emergency curfew during the 2020 demonstrations, the city agreed to pay $4.7 million. It also vowed in the agreement that its officers would not enforce future emergency curfews against people engaged in protests or other activities protected by the First Amendment.

Still, the settlement agreement says the city “specifically denies the emergency curfew was targeted for enforcement against anyone engaged in First Amendment or protest activity” in 2020 — reflecting a standard practice in which the city makes clear its decision to settle a case is not an admission of fault.

Demonstrators honor George Floyd with seven ...
Participants honor George Floyd with seven minutes of silence as they marched down Broadway in downtown Denver on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

“The real work of repairing the harm is fixing the problem”

The Denver Citizen Advisory Board raised concerns late last year about what it viewed as a lack of oversight and follow-through on non-monetary terms in settlement agreements. Those terms include items such as commitments to require additional training for officers and deputies as a way of preventing future harm and civil-rights violations.

Saldate, the city’s safety director, pushed back on the board’s concerns in a statement last year. He said the department had lived up to its promises and would continue to “share improvements with the public to enhance trust in public safety.”

Julia Richman, who works as the chief operations officer at the University of Denver, chairs the Citizen Oversight Board. She noted that the board’s letter of concern last year focused on just three settlements out of dozens the city has entered into.

Even tracking down the details of what those settlements required was difficult, she said. In Richman’s view, the oversight board and the Office of the Independent Monitor, which reviews internal affairs investigations and provides safety oversight, should have a role in tracking non-monetary conditions in settlements to ensure the city follows through, especially on training requirements.

“Policing is more complicated. The interactions are far more complicated. That’s why training (and) systems need to keep pace,” Richman said of the demands on Denver officers. “Money is not going to repair the harm. The real work of repairing the harm is fixing the problem.”

But the settlements have been costly to Denver — which isn’t the only city to face a legal reckoning for police officers’ conduct during the 2020 protests.

Last year, Philadelphia agreed to pay $9.2 million to settle lawsuits brought by protesters and bystanders injured during that city’s demonstrations. Police reforms were included in that package, according to the Philadelphia Tribune. In early 2022, the city of Austin announced that it would pay a combined $10 million to two men who were severely injured during May 2020 protests.

The wave of costly police settlements in Denver has overlapped with the new mayor’s efforts to grow the ranks of DPD, which has struggled with recruitment and retention. He included $8.2 million in his 2024 budget to pay for efforts to add another 167 officers to the force.

Johnston chose to keep senior public safety leadership intact at city hall, much to the chagrin of critics such as justice reform activist and former mayoral rival Lisa Calderón. Besides Saldate, he has renominated Ron Thomas as police chief and Elias Diggins as sheriff. Those appointments are still pending council approval.

The mayor’s priority is a renewed focus on “neighborhood policing,” in which officers build relationships with the people and neighborhoods they are tasked with protecting. That model is a building block of efforts to “prevent the need for any future legal settlements,” said Jordan Fuja, a spokeswoman for Johnston’s office, in an email.

On Friday, Johnston told The Post: “There were certainly bad actions (during the protests), and people have taken responsibility for those. We also think there’s a real need for us to continue to support public safety and public services, and I think the city sees that.”

Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas gave an update on an investigation into the overnight shooting downtown that left nine people, as well as at least one suspect, injured during the revelry that followed the Nuggets winning the NBA championship at Denver Police Administration Building in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas speaks during a press conference at the Denver Police Administration Building in Denver on June 13, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“We all understand the rules of engagement”

Despite Johnston’s optimism, public safety reform advocates and attorneys predict that large settlements will continue to draw down the city’s general fund until officers face harsher internal discipline for excessive force and other actions that drive the legal complaints.

Though outsiders may take issue with the punishments, recent years have brought a spate of disciplinary actions.

Following the Floyd protests, eight DPD personnel were disciplined by the department, including four officers and a former corporal who were given unpaid suspensions ranging from four to 10 days, according to information provided by department spokesman Doug Schepman.

Diego Archuleta, the officer who Baumgartner said fired the pepper ball that seriously injured Feldmann, was suspended for six days for pepper spraying a woman in a parked car who posed no threat to officers. Archuleta resigned from DPD in January 2022, on the same day he pleaded guilty in a separate matter to a felony charge of attempted strangulation.

Denver attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai, who has extensive experience bringing legal cases against law enforcement agencies in Colorado, said the city had a long way to go when it came to adequate training and accountability within its police force.

He represented Strong, the protester who lost an eye, and Hernandez’s family in negotiations with Denver. He also won a record-setting $19 million settlement for the family of Christian Glass after he was shot to death in his SUV by a Clear Creek County Sheriff’s deputy while suffering a mental health crisis in 2022.

In Mohamedbhai’s view, settlements are a sign that municipalities acknowledge the wrongs their law enforcement officers have committed. He is hopeful that the still-new Johnston administration will foster a better approach.

“We haven’t heard about the same sort of cultural reluctance to engage with the Citizen Oversight Board and the independent monitor that we saw with Michael Hancock,” he said.

Richman has credited Thomas — a more-than-30-year DPD veteran appointed in late 2022 to take over for the retiring Paul Pazen — as being much more committed to ensuring officers take part in ordered training than his predecessor.

During a Citizen Oversight Board hearing earlier this month, she asked the police chief for an update on training in the aftermath of the Floyd protests. As evidence of progress, Thomas pointed to a lack of controversy around the handling of protests in recent months by pro-Palestinian demonstrators downtown.

“I think every officer has been retrained in our new policies — (on) our new tactics as it relates to crowd management,” Thomas said. “We all understand the rules of engagement.”

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