Baltimore has in the past four years paid out $5.7 million in police brutality settlements, The Baltimore Sun reported last fall. Since Freddie Gray’s death two weeks ago, the story is being widely cited as further evidence that police there are out of control.
Well, in those same four years, Denver – despite being slightly smaller than Baltimore and home to a far lower crime rate – has paid out at least twice that much in excessive force cases. That’s the same timeframe Michael Hancock has been mayor.
Denverites have been relatively quiet about the Safety Department’s brutality. In fact, as Hancock seeks re-election next week, the issue has hardly come up.
“Mayor Hancock has been able to escape the hard questions and the hard challenges of the city of Denver,” said the Rev. Spencer Booker, brother of Marvin Booker, the street pastor whose murder at the hands of sheriff’s deputies in the city jail resulted in a $6 million jury award last fall.
“For him to be running unopposed,” Booker added about Hancock, either means the people in Denver are unbothered by excessive force or that “nobody is willing to lead that city at this time.”
Hancock’s office did not respond to inquiries for this story.
The mayor has for four years said almost nothing about Marvin Booker’s killing at the hands of city jailers. He has stayed mostly silent even after a federal jury found members of the sheriff’s department lied and covered up facts about Booker’s case. And he has said very little publicly about a long string of excessive force cases that last year prompted him to demote the sheriff, whom he still hasn’t replaced nine months later.
Spencer Booker decried the mayor for his silence.
“Mr. Hancock is a ceremonial leader, and apparently he can not speak truth to power,” he said.
“I wish the people of Denver were furious about these issues,” added Wanda James, a Denver entrepreneur who blogs about police misconduct. “I wish I understood how someone who is black like the mayor and an elected official would not make excessive force a top priority.
“Why is this not being taken seriously?”
The Booker case is the costliest in a long series of payouts for excessive force in Denver. The city has spent about $20 million in settlements or jury awards over the past ten years, legal records and news reports show. Of that, it has paid out roughly $12 million since 2011. That’s about twice what Baltimore reportedly has spent during the same period.
Weeks ago, Denver approved a $50,000 settlement in the case of Patricia Lucero, who was slammed into a wall by a police officer. A month earlier, the city settled with James Moore, who was beaten by another officer, for $860,000.
In 2014, Denver reached a $3.25 million settlement with Jamal Hunter in exchange for his agreement not to disclose details of a jail beating that Hunter said a deputy planned and encouraged. A federal judge called the city’s internal investigation of Hunter’s attack a “sham.”
In 2013, the city paid $360,000 to four women who were roughed up by police at the Denver Diner. In 2011, Alex Landau, an African-American whom police pulled from a car and beat after he made an illegal left turn, won a $795,000 settlement.
Those and several other incidents, critics say, run counter to the reputation Hancock works hard to cultivate.
“He’s all about Denver being a nice city. He’s the nice mayor of a nice city. That’s the message, even if everybody’s burying their head in the sand,” James said.
Many of the lawsuits settled by Hancock’s administration stem from brutality incidents that took place before the mayor took office.
Still, excessive force has continued under his watch.
Last year, a video obtained by The Independent showed an unprovoked attack — in a courtroom — on inmate Anthony Waller by Brady Lovingier, son of the department’s longtime head, Bill Lovingier.
Another exclusive video shows Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Ford booking a man into Denver’s downtown detention center, walking over to him, belting him in the face and then apparently kicking him.
Deputies also Tasered an unarmed, unthreatening suicidal man.
And sheriffs Deputy Steven Valerio punched and manhandled an inmate who posed no apparent danger.
As with the Booker case, Hancock stayed mum about those and other use-of-force incidents, partly in an effort not to compromise the city’s defense in possible civil rights lawsuits.
A disproportionate number of Denver’s excessive force flare-ups have involved black or Latino victims. None – even Booker’s videotaped killing by a gaggle of sheriff’s deputies – triggered anything even remotely close to the level of fury playing out in Baltimore over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Still, Hancock’s silence has raised the ire of civil rights activists who have looked to city leadership to end the brutality. Several black faith leaders have been particularly disappointed because Hancock, Denver’s second black mayor, has deep ties in the city’s civil rights and faith communities.
Hancock faces no competitive opposition in his bid for re-election Tuesday. Without the debate that a vibrant mayoral race would have triggered, there has been virtually no scrutiny of his record on excessive force by people other than civil rights activists, many of whom have lost faith.
“I think there’s a feeling in which African Americans are always proud when other African Americans are holding positions of power. What becomes sobering for us is when we’ve been into the relationship for years and there does not seem to be a lot of change for our people,” said the Rev. Reginald C. Holmes, pastor at Denver’s New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha Omega Ministries. “It’s the opinion of this community, not just me, that this administration isn’t capable of taking us to the point where we can feel that some level of change is taking place. I don’t think people in this community have any confidence that’s going to happen.”
Attorney David Lane – whose office represented Marvin Booker’s family, as well as several other excessive force victims in Denver – described Hancock’s record on civil rights by quoting the Who song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” he said.
Lane attributes the fact that Denver has paid two times more for excessive force incidents than Baltimore not to a higher rate of brutality — which is doubtful — nor to a higher sense of remorse among officials, but to a more vibrant community of lawyers pursuing civil rights cases.
“Ultimately, the political community has failed on this issue… And the public is asleep at the wheel,” Lane said. What gets results, he added, is when a jury like the Booker jury metes out justice or when law enforcement officials are fired or criminally charged for assaulting people in their custody.
It has been the exception rather than the rule that deputies and officers have been reprimanded – let alone fired or prosecuted – for excessive force in Denver.
When outcry among civil rights leaders intensified and lawsuits kept getting filed last year, Hancock demoted Sheriff Gary Wilson in July and promised a replacement who would help enact meaningful reforms. It was the first time Hancock has spoken publicly and forcefully about his discontent with a department that still employed staffers who not only had beaten inmates, but also were found to have destroyed evidence and written inaccurate reports about them.
But nine months later, Hancock has yet to appoint a replacement. The process hinges on an independent assessment of the sheriff’s department, which is not yet complete.
Safety department spokeswoman Daelene Mix said the review is “on track to conclude this spring, which is consistent with what we have communicated over the past several months.”
“The recruitment for Denver’s next sheriff will follow the completion of that assessment, as the findings will help define the desired attributes that will be sought. The timing of the recruitment is also consistent with the expectations that have been set publicly,” she said.
Rev. Holmes said nine months and counting isn’t, in fact, the timetable he expected.
“I would have thought that the search would have begun in earnest immediately last summer. I would have thought there was some sense of urgency to get a new sheriff as quickly as possible,” he said.
As Lane puts it, nine months with no new sheriff “says something about how seriously they’re taking reform.”
In the meantime, Elias Diggins – a close friend and protégé of Wilson, who now works under him – has been interim sheriff since last summer. Hancock’s administration has said it was unaware at the time of Diggins’ interim appointment that he was once charged with a felony for allegedly bribing a public official after a car accident. He pleaded the case to a misdemeanor conviction of false reporting.
Hancock held a community forum on race and criminal justice last weekend. The event barely addressed excessive force or police misconduct. Hancock called for a “summer of solidarity” against gang violence that has flared up in northeast Denver. There have been at least five shootings in the area so far this week.
The Rev. Calvin Booker, one of Marvin Booker’s other brothers, had hoped someone would step up to challenge Hancock for re-election.
“Marvin would want to know where are the rest of the leaders in the community. He’d just be curious where they at,” he said. “Either they don’t want that position because it has a tarnish on it and they don’t think things can change around, or – and this is worst case scenario – they just don’t care.”
Photo Credit: Still from Michael Hancock’s campaign announcement video.