Tina Griego – my colleague who’d normally edit this column – suggested that I calm down and sleep on it before writing.
Find your grounding, she urged me over the phone Thursday on one of her rare days off from our news desk.
That, of course, was sound advice that would have been workable but for the fact that I find my grounding by writing and I’m also so through-the-roof angry that I won’t sleep without having pounded my keyboard about my run-in with a Denver police officer.
It started with the sight of a black man, handcuffed and seated naked on a Colfax Avenue sidewalk across from the Statehouse, his private parts covered only with a small towel, while several Denver police officers stood around him.
As a journalist, I probably would have stopped in any case. But in this particular case, there was context for my interest. It stems partly from the fact that Denver sheriff deputies stood around the limp, lifeless body of Marvin Booker, a homeless, black street preacher, after they killed him in Denver’s jail in 2010. And it also stems from officers similarly having stood around Michael Marshall, a mentally ill, homeless, black man, after having fatally restrained him in 2015.
Given Denver’s history of uniformed officers harassing, hurting, or killing folks, sometimes without offering them medical help, it is part of my job to take notice of any questionable treatment of people in law enforcement’s custody.
That’s what I did Thursday when I was driving on Colfax and wondered why police were standing around a man they’d handcuffed and had sitting butt naked on the sidewalk without taking efforts to at least cover him up.
I parked and was using my iPhone to shoot pictures of the scene when Denver Police Officer James Brooks, badge No. 07030, blocked me, then got in my face and told me to stop. I said it was a public sidewalk and that I had the right to take photos. He said I didn’t. I said I did, citing the First Amendment. Officer Brooks tried to one-up me, all legal-like, by saying I was violating the man’s HIPAA rights by shooting his picture.
I wanted to say that was absurd.
I also wanted to say I was less interested in photographing the naked man than in photographing the officers standing around him who seemed to be shooting the breeze while I drove by.
But I decided to stop talking and to start shooting photos of this particular officer using his height and weight, his Denver Police uniform and his Cracker-Jack-brand legal poppycock to try to intimidate me.
As it turns out, Officer Brooks didn’t like having his picture taken. After accusing me of blocking the door of an ambulance that had been called to the scene – toward which he had prodded me during our encounter – and saying something about me obstructing officers, he grabbed me and twisted my arm in ways that arms aren’t supposed to move. At some point in the blur, either he or Officer Adam Paulsen, badge No. 08049, locked one or maybe two pair of handcuffs on my wrists, tightly, and pushed me toward a nearby police car by grabbing my arms hard enough – and with a painful upward thrust – that I told them to stop hurting me. Their response: That I was hurting myself by resisting.
I had heard from my work reporting on several excessive force cases troublesome accounts of police injuring arrestees, yet claiming they injured themselves. But to hear it first-hand, uttered obviously for the benefit of whoever might some day review the body-camera footage, was infuriating. So infuriating, in fact, that now would be the point in this column where I might want to add a flourish like “fucking pig” and hope that Tina would let me get away with it (she probably wouldn’t).
My flourishes wouldn’t stop there. I’d have plenty of colorful things to write about the moment when the officers were pushing me toward the police car and one of them – Officer Brooks, I think – told me to “act like a lady.” Or maybe it was “try to act like a lady.” In any case, I’m curious to hear, after reviewing the body-cam video, Denver police officials explain how exactly a woman should behave on a perp walk after having been blocked from doing her job, obstructed from exercising her First Amendment rights, handcuffed and otherwise manhandled by an ignorant and over-amped police officer and his sidekick.
I’m also curious to see whether this incident will be addressed by Mayor Michael Hancock, who has promised reforms in his wayward Safety Department more times than I care to count. It’s worth noting that in May Hancock made an appearance at the Denver Press Club extolling the value of having a free and “unfettered” press covering the city.
I made sure to be as ladylike as possible in a letter I sent the administration Thursday evening requesting, under Colorado’s Open Records and Criminal Justice Records acts, documents and recordings about the arrest of the naked man and about my own treatment. I also asked for details about whether Officer Brooks had training on First Amendment rights in case maybe he missed that day of police academy.
Note: As of Friday afternoon, police had offered no information except to say that the incident was a “medical call” and that the man in question – whom they wouldn’t identify – had been transported to the hospital without being arrested. I asked why he had been handcuffed, and department spokesman Jay Casillas said he didn’t know. “That I can’t tell you. I wasn’t there. It was a medical call,” he said in an account that seems curious given the message about “indecent exposure” I saw on the screen from the back of the police car.
Apparently at the urging of someone on the other end of his cell phone, Officer Brooks released me from the car, unhandcuffed me and let me free after what was probably 10 minutes, but seemed like longer.
I’ve been wondering since then what would have happened if I weren’t white or a journalist, or if I hadn’t mentioned those pesky “public sidewalk” and First Amendment details, or if this hadn’t gone down in broad daylight, right across the street from the state Capitol, and within view of body cameras, halo cameras and onlookers.
It has been nagging at me, the thought of Officer Brooks riding off on his motorcycle with his chip on his shoulder and legal misinterpretations in his head, his scripted “I’m-not-hurting-you, you’re-hurting-yourself” prevarications, and his apparently strong convictions about maintaining appropriate gender roles in incidents of police misconduct.
So I called Denver Police Department’s District 6 and spoke with Sgt. Shawn Saunders, who supervises Officer Brooks. He said he’d look into the incident and make sure the halo camera footage and other evidence are preserved for review. He gave me the option of filing a formal complaint against Officer Brooks. I told him I’d consider it, but that I don’t have a lot of confidence in Denver’s disciplinary system, which I’ve seen slap officers on the wrists for misconduct far more serious than this, only to have the Career Service Board side with the police union and overturn even the most meager disciplinary measures.
To that, Saunders offered a response that was at once striking yet maddening in its candor.
Yeah, he told me. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in it, either.”
Editor’s note: Because Tina Griego is taking a few days off, Mike Littwin edited this column.
Photos of Thursday’s incident, with Officer James Brooks at center, and of Susan’s handcuff marks, both by Susan Greene.