Denver must defend itself in Jimma Reat family suit over botched-911-call death, judge rules
In September 2012, the family of Jimma Reat, who was killed after a 911 operator told his companions and him to return to an area near where they'd just escaped a racially motivated attack, sued the City of Denver. A subsequent ruling allowed a potential federal civil rights trial focusing on the operator to move forward. But now, Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty has once again made Denver a defendant, after new evidence surfaced about a troubling incident that preceded Reat's death -- one that led to no significant discipline of the operator. Details and more below.
Early on April 1, 2012, as we've reported, Reat and two of his brothers, Changkuoth Pal and Ran Pal, as well as Joseph Kolong, were in a vehicle near the intersection of 10th and Sheridan when a Jeep Cherokee pulled up alongside their car. The Jeep's male occupants began "harassing and attempting to injure" the four young men, according to the lawsuit, which we've also included below.
The men in the Jeep are said to have called Reat and friends "niggers" while throwing beer bottles and what's described as "bottle rockets" at them. The back window of Reat's car was shattered in the altercation, showering the occupants with broken glass. In addition, one of the Jeep's occupants brandished a handgun.
At that point, the suit's narrative continues, Ran Pal phoned 911 to report the crime and get emergency police and medical assistance. The call was answered by Juan Jesus Rodriguez, who was subsequently fired as a Denver emergency operator. During the conversation, the victims were able to elude the men in the Jeep and find relative safety at an apartment building's parking lot in Wheat Ridge, approximately seven and a half blocks west of Denver's city limits -- and Ran Pal is said to have told the operator that he was too unsettled by the occurrence to feel comfortable driving.
Another photo of Jimma Reat.
Nonetheless, Rodriguez told them they needed to drive back to Denver in order to rendezvous with DPD officers, and though wary, they eventually acquiesced. But the complaint maintains that the operator didn't do anything to secure police dispatch until about one minute after the shooting, nor did he create an incident report. Moreover, the suit says, he told the victims that once they had moved their car to a suitable spot, they should make themselves prominent to officers by turning on their hazard lights and leaving them flashing.
Rodriguez was still on the phone with Ran Pal when the car came to a stop in the vicinity of West 29th and Sheridan -- at which point the Jeep Cherokee rematerialized and its occupants opened fire. Jimma Reat died at the scene in Ran Pal's arms, having been shot in the back.
While these facts are not in dispute. Magistrate Judge Hegarty, the first jurist to hear the case, determined that the events weren't sufficiently "shocking to the conscience" to meet the requirements of the "state-created danger" test. For that reason, Hegarty limited the complaint to "willful, wanton, reckless state-law claims only," as opposed to federal ones. However, United States District Court Judge Robert Blackburn disagreed, ruling that the events of the case met the standard for a federal complaint when it came to Rodriguez.
Was the city also potentially liable?
The scene of the crime.
Denver's status as a defendant was in doubt until information surfaced about a call taken by Rodriguez in February, more than a month prior to Reat's death. As outlined in the second amended complaint filed by Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, PC, the law firm representing the Reat family (the section starts on page 24), Rodriguez was told by a caller that he'd choked his mother's boyfriend to death after the man had allegedly been violent toward his mom. But rather than dispatching law enforcement to the scene immediately, Rodriguez is said to have spent five minutes processing the call. During that time, he allegedly had the caller go outside the check the exact street address of the house and even suggested that he attempt to revive the man he'd just choked to death.
Here's an excerpt from a highly critical city analysis of the incident featured in the suit:
You started to have the caller, who admittedly choked out the victim, perform CPR. When you asked the caller to check for anything in the victim's mouth, the caller told you, "No, I told you I choked him out! At no point during the conversation did you actively listen to what the caller had to say or appear to understand that a homicide had occurred and scene safety was paramount. You repeatedly harangued the caller with questions and appeared to have no appreciation for the caller's environment and his efforts to assist you with processing the call.
Despite the mishandling of the call, as determined by a city inquiry, "Mr. Rodriguez was not terminated, disciplined, re-trained, or supervised to ensure that he developed these critical abilities to do his job safely," the lawsuit states. Instead, he was merely given a verbal reprimand and allowed to stay on duty -- where, on the first day of April, he answered the call about a group of attack victims that included Jimma Reat.
Jimma Reat, right, with two of the plaintiffs and the newborn child of another of his brothers.
In statements referenced in the lawsuit, Rodriguez appears to comprehend that Reat and his friends were in danger, but he simply didn't act on this understanding in an adequate way. Moreover, the suit contends that the City of Denver had evidence that Rodriguez had exhibited similar characteristics as recently as February but did nothing to address them -- hence Magistrate Judge Hegarty's decision to rejoin Denver as a defendant in the complaint.
We've included a statement by Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, PC, below. But in conversation, attorney John Holland outlines how his team learned about the significance of the February 2012 homicide call.
"When I deposed Rodriguez, he denied that he was disciplined," Holland says. "The predicate that people were going on is that there had been some significant intervention, but it turned out it was ordinary, garden-variety counseling. So then we started exploring the implications of the leadership not disciplining him, and they admit he got no new supervision, no monitoring of his calls, no additional anything."
Holland sees Hegarty's ruling about the city as "a significant decision in the pursuit of justice. Because the 911 leadership played a significant role in what happened here."
A map showing the distance between the apartment building and the intersection where gunfire rang out.
A statement by the attorneys representing the family of Jimma Reat:
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty has ordered that the City and County of Denver be rejoined as a defendant in the case arising out of the death of Jimma Pal Reat.
The federal Court had previously ruled that former 911 operator, Juan Rodriquez, was plausibly alleged to have engaged in conscience shocking reckless behavior early in the morning of April 1, 2012, by directing the callers from the safety of their apartment complex back to the danger of the Sheridan corridor, where he realized their attackers could still be lurking without seeking police cover.
Judge Hegarty has now determined that recently discovered evidence also makes it plausible that the City and County of Denver may be sued for its own direct responsibility for this death.
This decision is based on new evidence supporting a claim that top 911 officials were deliberately indifferent in their training of Mr. Rodriguez after his mishandling of another homicide case just weeks earlier in February 2012.
In that earlier case, investigated by Denver's top 911 supervisors, after a City homicide sergeant complained to them about Mr. Rodriquez's conduct, Denver 911's supervisors knew there was "nothing subtle" about Mr. Rodriguez's danger creation of a risk for death from private violence for the persons involved in that call.
In fact, Plaintiffs allege that they formed an opinion back then that they neither acted upon through additional training or supervision, or even discussed with Mr. Rodriguez, that his "handling of this call" demonstrated "an inability to discern, based on [the] callers comments, what type of situation he was dealing with" which, as the Magistrate observed, is a "crucial ability" for 911 operators.
Recognizing that a failure to train an 911 operator in essential specific skills necessary to handle recurring life and death type situations presents an obvious potential for constitutional violations, Magistrate Hegarty determined that there is a fact question "about whether the City failed to train Mr. Rodriguez in the specific skill of discerning danger and handling emergency situations" which "in the interest of justice" requires that the City be a defendant.
The still very anguished family of Jimma Pal Reat continues to seek a fair measure of justice for his unnecessary and tragic death in the early prime of his life. They are encouraged that they will now also be allowed to seek such justice directly against the City.
Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, PC
John Holland, Anna Holland Edwards, Erica Grossman
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
More from our News archive circa June 2013: "Jimma Reat: Ruling in botched 911 call case opens door to federal civil rights trial."