If only life moved in slower motion.
That’s what nags at Isabelle Padilla every time she watches images of Denver police gunning down her son, Joe Valverde.
Padilla has a video of the 2014 shooting that she plays on her laptop, sometimes several times a day. She has watched it so much that the footage replays in her head, split second by painful, agonizing split second. If only she could press pause, she wishes. Or rewind. Or edit it.
“I can’t turn it off,” she says. “I can’t stop wishing they had done it different. What they did to Joe was wrong.”
Valverde’s killing didn’t make headlines. That’s partly because he pulled a gun out of his pocket while officers moved in on him during an undercover drug bust. Not only was his shooting deemed “justifiable,” but the officer who pulled the trigger was commended.
Padilla immediately had doubts about the police version of her son’s killing. She felt certain he wouldn’t have pulled a gun on cops. Then she saw the video, which she says confirms her suspicions.
Taken from an overhead camera near Overland Pond Park in South Denver, the footage from the afternoon of July 2, 2014 shows 32-year-old Valverde – the man wearing the backpack closer to the bottom of the screen – talking to an undercover narcotics detective. The detective then used his phone to alert a SWAT team, which had put Valverde under surveillance.
The unit deployed a “flash bang” device, and the detective immediately threw himself to the ground.
Valverde stepped toward a white sedan parked next to the sidewalk, then reached into his pocket with his right hand, pulled out a gun, and quickly tossed it under the car, presumably to hide it.
Padilla is haunted by what happened next.
After tossing away the pistol, her son lifted his arms as if to surrender. And then, almost instantly, police fatally shot him in the chest.
As Padilla sees it, his hands-up-don’t-shoot motion made him an unnecessary target, especially given that he had tossed away his gun.
“I don’t understand how they didn’t see him raise his hands. I don’t see how they could justify this,” she says.
She’s not alone in those concerns.
Sarah Fidler is a professional dog walker who was close by in the park at the time Valverde was shot. She was startled by the SWAT team’s flash explosion and started running. When she looked back, she saw officers quickly moving in on Valverde, their guns pointed at him.
“It all happened so fast. They just were advancing right toward this guy so quickly,” she told The Colorado Independent.
Fidler is especially suspicious of claims by Denver police Sgt. Justin Dodge that he saw Valverde pull the gun from his pocket. She notes there was smoke from the flash and that the air was foggy.
More than two years later, she said she still thinks about the shooting every day.
“I still go to the park once a week and say prayers,” she said, in tears during a phone interview. “It has been a long couple of years. I’ve just felt in my heart that it wasn’t right what they did to him.”
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s report on the incident shows Valverde had a history of criminal convictions. SWAT officers were on the scene for added protection because police feared he would be violent and dangerous.
Morrissey ruled that Dodge’s rapid succession of gunshots was justified because Valverde had had a gun. Morrissey went the extra step of patting the officer on the back.
“…Sgt. Dodge acted to save his own life and the lives of the other officers approaching Valverde from Valverde’s imminent use of a deadly weapon,” reads the DA’s report. “As such, Sgt. Dodge is to be commended for his bravery and the leadership he displayed.”
The Denver Police Foundation awarded Dodge a medal of valor for what it described as his “genuine and unequivocal heroism as he actively sought to protect civilians and fellow officers.” The foundation asserts that “after the suspect refused to comply with an order to drop his weapon, he continued toward officers with a raised gun.”
That last part – about Valverde advancing toward the police officers with his gun raised – is questionable.
The Independent has slowed down footage of the shooting.
At least from the angle at which this piece of video was filed, it looks like Valverde had already tossed his gun under the car before he advanced toward the police. He was unarmed when shot and his arms were up, as if he was surrendering.
“Justin Dodge jumped the gun and had to cover his ass by saying my son advanced towards them,” Padilla says. “He won an honor under false pretenses, and the video proves that. I want them to pull that award back from him because he lied.”
“The officer’s account doesn’t match up with what the video shows,” she says. “Why he’d be commended for shooting Joe is very, very upsetting.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration hasn’t returned inquiries about the shooting. We’ll update this story if it does.
As a result of a long string of questionable use of force cases, the Denver Police Department this year has launched a program requiring officers to wear body cameras. The devices are believed to help curb police violence and also to document incidents in which police are threatened. The department is in the process of training 800 officers to wear the cameras on duty.
A notable exception, though, is that members of the city’s SWAT units won’t be required to use them. Police Chief Robert White has said use of the cameras would risk divulging the unit’s secret tactics.
SWAT units are involved in some of Denver’s deadliest maneuvers. If Dodge had been wearing a body camera at the time of Valverde’s shooting, Fidler says, “We could have seen what his point of view was and could have know if it was really justifiable to have killed him.”
“I think we absolutely need as many cameras as we can get on as many officers as possible,” she says.
As Padilla sees it, “if cops know that everything’s being filmed, they wouldn’t do a lot of things they’ve been getting away with.”
“Body cams make the cops think before they shoot. They slow them down. Those cameras save lives,” she says. “But for Joe, of course, it’s too late.”