Mar 7, 2022 - News

Denver police response to racial justice protests goes to trial

Illustration of a police cap on dark background under spotlights.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Nearly two years after violent clashes erupted between police and racial justice protesters in Denver's downtown, the city's questionable response will go to a jury in U.S. District Court.

Driving the news: The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a dozen individuals, claims the Hancock administration violated their constitutional rights because it failed to train its officers to handle peaceful demonstrations.

  • The city has paid out more than $3 million in settlements for physical injuries caused by police projectiles, including shots to the face, during the 2020 protests. Over $1.3 million was paid just this year.
  • But these protesters are refusing to accept a settlement, instead pushing to hold the city accountable for what they call "indiscriminate use of excessive force" that chilled their First Amendment rights.

Why it matters: The trial marks the first federal case in the country challenging police use of force against people protesting the murder of George Floyd, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the civil rights group defending most of the plaintiffs.

Details: The class-action lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the city and names more than a dozen Denver officers, lieutenants and sergeants who are being sued in their individual capacity.

  • The City of Aurora is also named as a defendant "on the basis of its policies, customs and practices" for its involvement in the effort to disperse protesters.

What to expect: The trial likely will last up to three weeks, starting with jury selection. Opening arguments could begin as soon as today.

  • The city is expected to paint protesters as part of a "riotous mob," according to its legal filings, and maintain the use of pepper balls and tear gas was necessary to respond to protesters who tossed projectiles that injured 60 officers.
  • Attorneys for the protesters will point to expert testimony from a former police chief who reviewed the case and found "strong evidence" the Denver Police Department didn't follow "the most basic and generally accepted police policies."

Of note: Judge R. Brooke Jackson, who is presiding over the trial, ordered a temporary restraining order in June 2020 against DPD to prevent officers from using chemical weapons and projectiles against peaceful protesters.

  • The agency "failed in its duty to police its own,” Jackson wrote at the time in his sweeping ruling.

What to watch: The trial could bring renewed attention to how the city responds to protests in the future.

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