Greene: Another police beating caught on video. But how many are not?

Greene: Another police beating caught on video. But how many are not?

You know that tree, the proverbial one that falls in the forest and raises the old question of how we know it made a sound if nobody was there to hear it fall?

Well, that tree comes to mind every time I see a video like this of cops beating someone up because they figure – or at least I figure they figure – that nobody’s looking.

If David Martinez hadn’t installed a surveillance camera behind his tattoo shop in Westminster, it’s likely nothing would have come of the fact that two city police officers hauled off on him, unprovoked, in August 2016.

It went down like this: The North Metro Drug Task Force had a warrant to arrest Martinez on a charge of distributing a controlled substances. Sgt. Steven Holton and Detective Ben Russell of the Westminster Police Department staked out Martinez’s tattoo shop. A video, captured on a surveillance camera installed behind the business, shows Martinez arrived at the back door, and lit a cigar, which he was holding in one hand while holding what looks like groceries and a six-pack in the other. While he was smoking it, with his back turned, Holton – dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers – approached him swiftly from behind, grabbed him, stiff-armed him in the throat, and slammed him into a wall. Then Russell – dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers – approached, helping Holton continue attacking Martinez, then dragging him down to the pavement, choking, handcuffing and arresting him. The attack came so fast, so suddenly that Martinez never raised his hands toward the cops. 

The video is unedited, but has no usable sound, which makes it unclear whether Holton identified himself as a cop as he approached Martinez from behind. But it doesn’t much matter. Martinez’s account of the incident – that he didn’t see the cops coming and was startled as they jumped him – bears out in the video footage.

“I thought I was getting robbed. I thought I was getting jumped,” he told his lawyer, Faisal Salahuddin, to relay to me for this column.

Courts records say he had a hernia surgery prior to the incident, and that the attack reopened that wound, causing him to require another operation. They also indicate he has permanent face wounds.

After his criminal case on the drug charge ended with probation and work release, Martinez filed a federal lawsuit against the cops on Feb. 1. The complaint says the officers assaulted Martinez excessively and “without justification” in violation of his civil rights. 

Westminster police haven’t returned several inquiries about the case, the officers’ job status, and the videotape, which is attached to the lawsuit.

It’s unlikely that Martinez would have had a viable lawsuit without the video evidence. It’s also unlikely that, without the video, his case would have made news. Let’s face it: It would have been the word of a long-haired, tattooed Latino guy being sought on a drug case against the word of police. All too often, I’m sorry to say, that translates into a non-story.

Which brings me back to that tree falling in that forest, out of earshot, and the nagging question of how we can know – truly know – what we haven’t heard or seen or experienced.

I have no proof that what Steven Holton and Ben Russell did to David Martinez has played countless other times between other cops and other suspects without being captured on videotape. But I have no doubt, either.

It is an act of terrible acquiescence to accept that, far more than we can ever know, there are cops who mess with guys like Martinez beyond the lenses of surveillance cameras, the gaze of witnesses, or the earshot of someone, anyone, with the conscience and fortitude to speak out.

What’s even more terrible is the knowledge that they’re getting away with it.

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About the Author

Susan Greene

A recovering newspaper journalist and Pulitzer finalist. Her criminal justice reporting includes “Trashing the Truth,” with Miles Moffeit, and “The Gray Box.”
susan@coloradoindependent.com | 720-295-8006 | @greeneindenver

5 Comments

  1. Jay on said:

    Isn’t it a little early for cop brutality season? Doesn’t it officially start in April?

    Not everyone who is a cop, should be a cop, just like not everyone who enlists in the military, should be in the military. The trick is getting departments to stop protecting the ones who aren’t cut out for the job.

    There are two easily implemented, common sense policies that would immediately curtail police misbehavior.

    First, body cam operation isn’t optional. Therefore, officers are only paid for the hours during which their body cams are recording video. Cams roll 24/7.

    Second, require departments to use police retirement pension funds to pay settlements and legal costs for cop brutality cases.

    I think you’d see departments immediately change protocol on a number of levels overnight, including what kind of folks they hire…which may be the most important piece of the puzzle.

  2. Jeorge on said:

    Yup, thugs with badges. The GOP needs to turn it’s union busting efforts in their direction.

  3. Rev Fidel "Butch" Montoya on said:

    A never ending battle with rogue cops who feel their actions are some how within the parameters of good enforcement and that they will not be held accountable for their police violence.

    Under cover cops who operate under a veil of “for the public good” should work under the highest standard of accountability.

    It appears the way this case was handled was an abuse of Martinez’s civil rights. No need to ambush this man and certainly excessive force was used in apprehending him.

  4. Kaream on said:

    @Jay, it’s not that easy, bud. Cops also have the backing of their union, which will cover the actions of their members no matter how blatantly wrong. These unions will also help these cops find lawyers who will, guess what, sue the police department that fired them for their jobs back. And all this is only IF the cop actually even gets fired–not paid leave. Look up some data on how “bad” cops are back working again. Meanwhile, men like Martinez are getting surgery for an completely excessive and unnecessary assault.
    Which leads me to my next question: if those “bad apple cops” are the ones that make up unions,continue to have work after repeated altercations, and are never stopped by the so-called good cops, how are they just a few bad apples?

  5. Jay on said:

    You’re right K. There needs to be a zero tolerance policy put in place that prevents bad cops from keeping or returning to their jobs after an incident…regardless of the wishes of the police union.

    I would think that associating police retirement accounts with the costs of hiring people unsuited for the job would go a long way toward curbing the abuses of the police union as well. It will take a drastic measure like that to change the culture among police departments that hide the behavior of bad cops.

    With constant use of body cams, the practice of simply relying on bad cops to tell the truth would cease to be a relevant tactic.

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