Hancock administration’s “transparency” about Michael Marshall’s death is hard to see

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration says it’s “committed to transparency” about the death last week of Michael Lee Marshall after sheriff’s deputies restrained him at the city jail.

Nevertheless, the city is refusing to make public any information about the deadly incident.

“Transparency means allowing the Marshall family and the community to see the video showing what happened to Michael. Anything less isn’t transparency. It’s a hollow promise,” says the family’s lawyer, Mari Newman.

The city has denied all parts of a lengthy freedom of information request filed by The Colorado Independent. The inquiry — filed under Colorado’s Open Records Act and Criminal Justice Records Act — asked for video or audio recordings of the November 11 incident at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in which deputies restrained Marshall until he lost brain function.

Marshall, 50 and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, died on Friday after his family ended the life support that had kept him alive for nine days after his confrontation with deputies.

The Independent asked for the names of those officers as well as their previous disciplinary reports. It also requested radio transmissions, 911 recordings, incident reports, a list of inmates housed near Marshall’s cell, a list of inmates who witnessed the confrontation and witness’s statements.

“Your request for those records is denied because it would be contrary to the public interest to release records related to the incident before the completion of the current investigations,” reads a letter written Monday by the Department of Safety.

The city didn’t respond to a follow-up question about how a blanket denial of The Independent’s public information request is consistent with the “commitment to transparency” it has pledged in a press release.

Denver has a long record of trying to avoid disclosing records in use-of-force cases. After sheriff’s deputies fatally restrained Marvin Booker in the jail in July 2010, the city stalled for ten months before showing videotape of his killing to his family. During a federal civil trial in 2014 – during which Booker’s family won a $6 million jury verdict against the city – it was revealed that Safety Department officials destroyed evidence in that case, withheld key facts about the incident and lied in their accounts of it.

Some watchdogs say the city’s track record of being less than forthcoming about excessive force cases, as well as its repeated failure to live up to promises for sweeping reforms in its Safety Department make transparency more necessary than ever.

“While the Denver Sheriff’s Department has discretion under the law to withhold many records related to Marshall’s death, there must be compelling reasons to do so,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Given past incidents at the Denver Jail and promised reforms, the public interest in this case is understandably high, and it’s imperative that officials release as much information as possible as soon as possible.”


Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr