Update: The Denver City Council, without comment, approved the settlement agreement at its Monday, Sept. 30, 2019 meeting.
Denver’s Police Department has agreed to a $50,000 settlement with Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene, whose First Amendment rights officers violated when they wrongfully handcuffed and detained her for photographing police last summer.
As part of the settlement, Denver agrees to significantly strengthen First Amendment and sensitivity trainings for police through at least 2024. The department also will update its policies on police bias and search and seizure of recording devices.
The settlement requires final approval of the City Council, which must sign off on any payment above $5,000. Ryan Luby, spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said it’s unclear when the council will vote on this. “But certainly soon,” he said. Council President Jolon Clark said he had not yet received information on the settlement and so he could not comment.
On July 5 of last year, Greene was driving on Colfax Avenue near the Capitol when she pulled over to observe a police interaction with a naked black man they had handcuffed and told to sit on the sidewalk. Greene is a veteran investigative reporter who’s written extensively about police excessive force in Colorado and multiple incidents in which law enforcement officers have killed African-American men they’ve arrested or jailed.
She began recording on her iPhone — as was her First Amendment right — at which point officers James Brooks and Adam Paulsen ordered her to stop, alleging that she was violating the naked man’s HIPAA rights. When she refused, Brooks seized her phone, then the officers handcuffed her and told her to “Act like a lady” as they pushed her into a police car. She was released after 12 minutes, and her phone was returned.
“This incident never should have happened, and it’s disturbing that police, who we trust to know the law, can be so clueless about our first law, the First Amendment,” Greene said Tuesday.
Regarding the settlement terms, she added: “Hopefully this extra training will make it clear to officers that the public and the press have the right to photograph them doing their jobs in public places. And on the occasions when how officers do their jobs seems questionable, I hope Denverites point their smartphone cameras at them and record it.”
After a seven-month internal investigation, the Denver Police Department announced in February that officers Brooks and Paulsen had acted improperly, and docked both of them two days worth of pay.
Police Chief Paul Pazen could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A spokesman told The Independent to speak to the city attorney’s office instead.
But soon after the original incident, Pazen deflected when asked about his officers’ behavior, telling The Independent that “what we all should be focusing on” is the fact that Brooks and Paulsen treated the naked man with “respect and dignity.”
In addition to fining the two officers, the police department said in February that it would “continue to address First Amendment issues by developing additional scenario-based First Amendment training.”
The settlement bolsters those training requirements.
Denver will be required to hire Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, to train officers on the First Amendment right to photograph and record police activity in public. His training will be recorded and officers and command staff will be required to review the recording annually through 2024.
Denver also has agreed to retain Lynne Sprague, an “anti-oppression trainer” and co-founder of Denver’s Showing Up for Racial Justice chapter. Sprague will provide sensitivity training to officers and command staff, which, the settlement states, “shall address topics including race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and gender identity.” Her training will also be recorded and shown to officers and command staff annually through 2024.
The selection of Osterreicher and Sprague came at the recommendation of Greene’s attorneys, Mari Newman and Andy McNulty of the Denver Firm Kilmer, Lane & Newman.
Newman said the settlement terms send “a clear message.”
“Sexism and censorship have no place in our society,” she said. “I am hopeful that Susan’s fight to change Denver’s policy and training will ensure that its officers no longer harass and arrest members of the public or media for simply filming police officers’ actions on a public sidewalk. When Denver officers told Susan to ‘stand up and act like a lady,’ I’m guessing this is not what they had in mind. But they messed with the wrong lady.”
Added attorney Andy McNulty, Newman’s colleague: “When one person stands up for their First Amendment rights, like Susan Greene did, everyone in society benefits.
“Without reporters being able to do their job, there would be no one to hold public officials accountable and this settlement guarantees that every reporter, not just Susan, can do their job without threat of arrest.”
Local advocates for press freedom also celebrated the progress the settlement promises.
“This legal case and its settlement not only reinforce the constitutional rights of journalists to pursue coverage without fearing the use of excessive force, but make clear those rights extend to all citizens,” said Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association.
Said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition: “Susan’s handcuffing and detention made it clear that some Denver officers didn’t understand — or didn’t care about — the First Amendment rights of journalists and members of the public to record police activities in public places so long as they’re not interfering with the officers.
“So it’s great to hear that DPD will get training from an outside expert and the training will be repeated for the next few years. Perhaps other law enforcement agencies in Colorado will see this as an opportunity to step up their First Amendment training if they haven’t already done so.”
Greene said she plans to share the settlement money with The Independent, which is a nonprofit newsroom, and donate some of the money.
On Monday, Denver’s council approved a $1.55 million legal settlement with a group of female sheriff’s deputies who work in the Denver jail and alleged workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.