Harassed for filming: Denver man says police violated his civil rights
The incident that set Levi Frasier’s high-profile lawsuit in motion took place August 14, last year.
The 30-year-old saw four Denver police officers — two uniformed and two undercover — approach a car parked near the intersection of West 5th Ave and Federal Boulevard. The man in the car stuffed a sock into his mouth before the cops wrestled him out of the car and onto the sidewalk. All four cops piled onto him, struggling to tear the sock from his mouth.
That’s when Frasier took out his Samsung tablet and started filming the scene before him. He later gave the video to FOX31 Denver.
The video showed the following.
“Get the drugs out!” someone yells.
One of the officers — later identified as Charles C. Jones — leans over and bashes the suspect’s face six times to knock the drugs out of his mouth.
A woman screams in the background: “What’re you doing? Stop hurting him!”
After the punches, she approaches the pile of officers atop her boyfriend. She’s visibly pregnant. Jones swipes at the woman’s legs, tripping her onto her stomach.
“When that happened, I spun around in the parking lot like, ‘Did anyone else just see that?'” Fraiser told The Colorado Independent. “That’s when I knew I had to get out of there. When you see too much, you’ve seen enough.”
In the video, one of the officers yelled, “Camera!,” when he saw Frasier filming. Frasier headed back to his truck to stow his tablet and leave. What happened next is the focus of the lawsuit he filed with the U.S. District Court of Colorado last week.
Officers asked Frasier to hand over the video he had recorded and his ID. Frasier gave them his ID, but told the officers he didn’t have any video.
The officers wouldn’t let him leave without giving a witness statement. One of them opened his squad car door and said, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” as Frasier tells it.
Scared, Frasier signed a witness statement despite the fact that it contained falsehoods – namely that he didn’t see the officers do anything inappropriate and that he had no video evidence of the incident.
The officers got together and decided Frasier was lying. They threatened him with arrest if he didn’t hand over the video. Frasier tried offering up his cellphone, which they rejected, knowing he had shot the footage on a tablet.
Fraiser opted to get his tablet from his truck. A cop grabbed the device and scrolled through it without permission. When he got his tablet back, Frasier discovered his video footage was missing.
At home, he recovered the deleted file and synced it to a cloud server.
“I just sat there like, ‘Wow, I have this?'” he said. But then he wondered, “Who do you tell that you saw wrongdoing by the people who deal with wrongdoing?”
Frasier ended up giving the footage to FOX31. Commander Matt Murray denied any cover-up of police misconduct and told reporter Chris Halsne, “If there’s misconduct we will happily investigate that and report that to the community.”
A few days after that segment aired, Denver Police Department released a report titled “ACCURACY MATTERS” on social media that accused FOX31 of having “acted intentionally and irresponsibly in reporting this incident,” and presented an alternate version of the story.
The Denver Police Department justified the use of force seen in Frasier’s video.
As the police told it, the suspect David Nelson Flores was wanted on suspicion of heroin possession, and officers believed he could have overdosed had he swallowed what was in the sock. Also, they needed to retrieve the sock as evidence.
But Flores refused to comply.
“Witnessing the necessary use of force can be disturbing” the police statement reads. “The officer chose not to grab the suspect’s throat (to prevent him from swallowing) but instead opted to strike the non-compliant suspect several times. We feel this was the better of the two choices.”
Regarding the use of force against Flores’ pregnant girlfriend, Mayra Lazos-Guerrero said, “Officers did not know who she was, what her intentions were, or what threat she posed,” the Denver Police Department statement reads. “They acted appropriately in pushing her away from stopping the violent struggle and retrieving the narcotics in her boyfriend’s mouth.”
As for the claims that officers illegally seized, searched and tried to destroy video evidence, those “all hinge on the veracity of Mr. Frasier,” according to the release.
His witness statement indicates he thought officers acted appropriately and that he didn’t have any video footage. So, he was either lying then or lying now.
The department’s report states that Frasier was recently released from the Michigan Department of Corrections, where he served time for a home invasion charge.
True, said Frasier.
According to the police report, Frasier has six aliases.
Not true, said his attorney Elizabeth Wang.
The department emphasized that no excessive force complaint had been filed and that an internal investigation was underway.
Later that month, FOX31 confirmed that the FBI was investigating the excessive force allegations. And the following month, the station attained footage from a nearby city-operated surveillance camera, which offered a new perspective on the he-said, she-said debate underway.
Frasier was optimistic about what the security footage would reveal, but when FOX31 invited him down to the station to watch it, he was interrupted en route. He saw an undercover cop car swerving through traffic behind him, and he was pulled over shortly thereafter.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way this is really happening again,'” he said. When he asked if he was being arrested, “The officer was like, ‘Oh, you know what it is.’ And so I just sat there and didn’t say anything.”
Frasier was held for around a day in Denver County Jail on months-old traffic-related charges out of Park County.
Denver Police Department’s public information officer didn’t respond to The Colorado Independent‘s request for more information regarding that arrest and detainment in December, the excessive force investigation or the status of the four officers involved in the August 14 incident.
Frasier considers his winter arrest retaliatory. That and the fact that Flores and his girlfriend won’t see justice — they fled back to Honduras — both motivated his decision to sue.
Frasier filed a civil rights complaint against the four police officers as well as the City and County of Denver. The lawsuit claims Frasier’s experience is far from unique — “Denver police officers regularly intimidate, harass, and threaten witnesses who they believe are recording or attempting to record them performing their official duties in public. This is a widespread pattern, practice, and custom.”
He’s seeking compensatory damages for the civil rights violations he experienced, which are two-fold.
Under the First Amendment, the lawsuit claims that the “Defendant’s actions in harassing, intimidating, unlawfully detaining, and threatening Plaintiff caused him injury that would chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in protected activity.”
Under the Fourth Amendment, the lawsuit alleged that taking Frasier’s tablet without his consent, a warrant, probable cause or any legal justification whatsoever amounted to an illegal search and seizure.
Wang said a lot of cases similar to Frasier’s have come up over the last couple years.
“Nowadays a lot of people have cameras and are not afraid to record police,” she said. “And as long as they’re not interfering at all, they’re entitled to stand there and record. But a lot of times people don’t do anything about it because they’re scared.”
Frasier knows his story will have a chilling effect on some people, but he hopes it can also be empowering. “Police can say anything. But if you give in, you lost because you didn’t know your rights.”
He also stressed that he’s not, and has never been, an anti-police guy.
“I give those guys a lot of respect for putting on that badge every day,” he said. “You can have all good apples, but if you throw in two bad ones, that apple sauce is going to have to get thrown in the garbage.”
Can you expect to see Frasier out in the streets now, sniffing out conflict with tablet in hand?
No, he said. He’s got a family to support. “Activism doesn’t pay very well from what I hear.”
Photo by Hotch Chang, Creative Commons, via Flickr.