Mar 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Denver defends police response to 2020 protests, citing "unprecedented violence"

Stanford Smith, who was pepper sprayed by police is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city.
Stanford Smith, who was pepper sprayed by police, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city. This 2020 photo was shown to the jury. Photo: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post via Getty Images

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's administration on Monday mounted its most forceful defense to date in support of the city's police officers and their response to the violent George Floyd protests in 2020.

Driving the news: In opening arguments for a federal lawsuit, assistant city attorney Lindsay Jordan acknowledged officers made mistakes.

  • But she argued to the jury that the use of pepper balls, tear gas and other less-lethal weapons were needed because of the "unprecedented violence and destruction" that accompanied the racial justice demonstrations.
  • "When justifiable anger turns to violence and destruction, it's the responsibility of police to intervene as a matter of public safety," Jordan said after showing images of vandalism to downtown businesses.

The big picture: The city's response to the protests is the focus of a federal civil rights lawsuit that went to jury this week — the first in the nation to go to trial, advocates say.

  • The plaintiffs are 12 protesters who suffered injuries when police officers shot less-lethal munitions, sprayed and gassed them over the course of six days worth of demonstrations near the state Capitol that started May 28, 2020.

Between the lines: The city attorney repeatedly focused on "agitators" in the crowd, not peaceful protesters, and said "the behavior of the crowd as a whole" should be used to determine whether the officers' actions were justified.

  • Still, Jordan said the plaintiffs broke the law by violating the curfew put in place by Hancock and suggested some of them supported other illegal activity.

The other side: Attorneys for the protesters equated curfew violations to jaywalking in their opening statements.

  • "Being out after curfew is not a license to shoot someone with a 40mm weapon or pepper ball. It's not a crime that justifies a police use of force," said Tim Macdonald, an attorney for seven of the plaintiffs.

Macdonald, who is working in collaboration with the ACLU in Colorado, and Makeba Rutahindurwa, an attorney for other protesters, showed graphic photos on a screen of the injuries their clients sustained, as well as the weapons police used against them.

  • "These are not people committing violence and breaking windows — these are people raising their voices," MacDonald said.

Be smart: The bulk of the lawsuit relies on the report from the city's former independent police monitor who found "extremely troubling" actions on the part of law enforcement.

  • The lawsuit must prove the city's policies are to blame for violating the protesters' First Amendment rights, rather than the actions of individual officers.
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