Denver police commander sued for nabbing watchdog’s phone

A citizen journalist from Fort Collins is suing a Denver Police commander for seizing a phone she was using to record video of officers arresting her husband.

The civil rights suit filed in federal court Monday also sues the City and County of Denver. It stems from a downtown Denver rally last April when protestors were demonstrating against police brutality in solidarity with Baltimore Black Lives Matter activists ten days after the death of Freddie Gray.

A police officer’s motorcycle fell over. Denver police began arresting people, including a man named Jesse Benn. He chronicled his account of what happened here.

His wife, Jessica Benn, pulled out her iPhone and started filming her husband’s arrest as she says officers were smashing his face into the ground.

Jessica Benn says Denver Police District Commander Antonio Lopez took her phone from her and told an officer — who’s named in the suit as Sergeant Dixon — to arrest her. Dixon pulled her off of the sidewalk and pushed her against a bus with his baton pressed against her neck. She told Dixon she was pregnant, and he let her go. But her phone had been confiscated.

She asked bystanders near her to shoot video footage. But they refused, she said, because they were scared.

Related: Video: Denver cops pepperspray, arrest, tackle police brutality protestors

“It was very traumatizing,” Benn said. “Jessie was hospitalized because of his arrest. He was concussed. When I was filming him, I saw blood on his face. It was kind of surreal and bizarre. This was not something I had ever expected to have happen.”

After the demonstration, she called Denver Police Department’s property unit, which said nobody had turned her phone in. She called internal affairs. Dixon and Lopez were questioned and said she was lying.

Attorney Elizabeth Wang of the civil rights firm Loevy and Loevy says a photo, shown above, of Dixon shoving Benn against a bus demonstrates the officers aren’t telling the truth.

(Wang represented The Colorado Independent earlier this year in a lawsuit demanding the city release video of its sheriff’s deputies killing Michael Marshall, a mentally ill homeless man, in the Denver jail. The Independent dropped that suit after the city made the video public a day later.)

Related: Video of sheriff deputies fatally restraining Michael Lee Marshall

A Denver Police Department public information officer said Monday that he had not heard about the latest lawsuit and declined to comment.

The lawsuit alleges the police violated the First Amendment by interfering with Benn recording police officers in public, the Fourth Amendment by unlawfully taking her property, and the Fourteenth Amendment by not returning her property to her.

“For a citizen to commit theft of something over $1,000 would be a felony,” Benn said, outraged that police — armed guardians of public safety with the full power of the system behind them — are held to lower standards of conduct than people like her holding phones on the sidewalk.

“If just following the law isn’t enough to keep you from being assaulted by police, what do you do? Do you just not leave the house?”

Benn’s answer to that question is the lawsuit, which she said she filed not just for herself, but to embolden people to record police violence and to fight to change the system.

“While it is important to me to address the violation of my constitutional rights and the theft of my property, more importantly, to me, is addressing the systemic issues this whole situation demonstrates, with hope that the culture changes.”

Photo courtesy of Loevy and Loevy

Correction March 28: Jesse Benn’s first name was misspelled in the original story.