Denver Police Beating Caught on Camera: Citizen Board Criticizes Cops' Defense

A screen capture from footage obtained by Fox31. More images and a video below.
A screen capture from footage obtained by Fox31. More images and a video below.

Late last month, we shared allegations against a Denver police officer caught on video punching a suspect six times in the face and tripping a pregnant woman. In addition, officers were accused of deleting the video, which was later said to have been recovered from a cloud-based storage system.

After Fox31 broke the story, the Denver Police Department issued a long statement declaring that the officer's actions were justified and questioning both the videographer's credibility and the station's ethics. But now, this defense is under scrutiny by the city's Citizen Oversight Board, which has issued a letter highly critical of the DPD for these public-relations efforts while an investigation into the punch-out remains ongoing. Continue for photos, video, the complete letter and more.

See also: Denver Police: Cop Justified in Punching Man, Tripping Pregnant Woman

Levi Frasier. All images courtesy of Fox31.
Levi Frasier. All images courtesy of Fox31.

As we've reported, the video in question was captured by Levi Frasier, a bystander to an incident that took place in August near the intersection of West 5th Avenue and Federal Boulevard.

According to Frasier, police approached a vehicle occupied by a man subsequently identified as David Flores when the suspect shoved a white sweat sock into his mouth.

The presumption: The sock contained heroin, and Flores was trying to swallow it.

Shortly thereafter, Officer Charles "Chris" Jones IV and other DPD personnel took Flores to the ground, yelling "Spit the drugs out! Spit the drugs out!" And to assist him doing so, Jones punched Flores in the face six times.

Here's one image from the video....

Denver Police Beating Caught on Camera: Citizen Board Criticizes Cops' Defense

...and another that offers a closer look at Flores amid the pummeling:

Denver Police Beating Caught on Camera: Citizen Board Criticizes Cops' Defense

As this is going on, a woman with Flores, Mayra Lazos-Guerrero, can be heard screaming. She approaches the scrum and extends her leg, at which point she's tripped to the ground.

Here's one image from that sequence....

Denver Police Beating Caught on Camera: Citizen Board Criticizes Cops' Defense

...and another:

Denver Police Beating Caught on Camera: Citizen Board Criticizes Cops' Defense

Frasier captured these actions on his tablet, and the officers noticed, with one of them announcing, "Camera." Afterward, Frasier says the officers demanded to take possession of the device and deleted the video. But at home, he told the station was able to sync his tablet to the cloud and retrieve the footage.

Flores, for his part, was badly injured in the melee. Fox31 obtained this shot of him in an ambulance....

Denver Police Beating Caught on Camera: Citizen Board Criticizes Cops' Defense

...and this one showing a wound on the back of his head, presumably from the impact of his skull on the pavement while he was being slugged:

Denver Police Beating Caught on Camera: Citizen Board Criticizes Cops' Defense

The police report obtained by Fox31 makes no mention of the officers deleting Frasier's video -- and when the station offered to screen it for DPD supervisors, they reportedly declined. However, Commander Matt Murray appears on camera in the station's initial piece to encourage Frasier to come forward so that the department can investigate the possibility of excessive force and impropriety.

Mayra Lazos-Guerrero's booking photo.
Mayra Lazos-Guerrero's booking photo.

Then, on November 28, the DPD sent out a release entitled "ACCURACY MATTERS." We've included the piece in its entirety below, but this excerpt argues that preventing Flores from swallowing the heroin may have saved his life and concludes that the method used to get him to spit out the sock was the best choice available:

A violent struggle, prompted by the suspect, was already underway. This left the officers with limited options for recovering the evidence and preventing ingestion and a likely medical emergency. The officer chose not to grab the suspect's throat (to prevent him from swallowing) but instead opted to strike the non-compliant suspect several times. We feel this was the better of the two choices. These strikes did cause the suspect to comply with the arrest and to relinquish the narcotics.

David Flores's mug shot.
David Flores's mug shot.

Likewise, the department release maintains that pushing Lazos-Guerrero away when she chose to "intervene" was the right call and casts doubts on Frasier's story about the video being deleted amid references to his police record. The report states that Frasier "was released from the Michigan Department of Corrections in the spring of 2014, where he served a lengthy sentence for numerous charges including: breaking and entering, home invasion, and stealing or retaining a transaction device." The item adds that Frasier "has six aliases" -- monikers typically "derived by either a legal name change, or the illegal use of someone else's name or lying about one's identity to the police."

This bold strategy is ripped in a letter to Denver Police Chief Robert White from the Citizen Oversight Board, a group set up by the Mayor's Office to monitor police behavior. We've also included the letter in this post, but here's one telling passage, which notes that an investigation by the department's Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) has not yet been completed:

We strongly believe that it was not appropriate for the DPD to make these statements. There is already significant community concern and distrust of the DPD and IAB. Instead of thanking the witness who came forward to share information, the DPD publicly attacked his character. It is very likely that the DPD's attacks on this witness will only reinforce fears in the community, and inhibit other members of the public from cooperating with DPD or IAB if they witness possible officer misconduct in the future.

"Given the nature and timing of the aforementioned public statements by the DPD, as the Citizen Oversight Board, we are very concerned that the DPD may not be approaching this matter with an open mind and a willingness to look into it without bias," the letter goes on. "At this early stage of the IAB inquiry, it is not known if any misconduct was involved or not."

The Citizen Oversight Board, in a Fox31 image.
The Citizen Oversight Board, in a Fox31 image.

Upcoming Events

By the way, we'd previously noted that we were unable to find any evidence that Fox31 had reported about the DPD's "ACCURACY MATTERS" release. However, its update includes a link to a web-posting of the release time-stamped on November 28.

One more thing: In the latest Fox piece, reporter Chris Halsne says Frasier was driving to the station yesterday to participate in coverage when he was arrested by Denver police on a warrant out of another county for failure to offer proof of insurance. Halsne doesn't explicitly charge the department with retaliating against Frasier, who spent the night in stir, but his tone certainly suggests it.

Continue for two Fox31 reports, the Citizen Oversight Board letter and the original "ACCURACY MATTERS" release from the Denver Police Department.   Here's the original Fox31 report, which was a bit glitchy for us. If the clip doesn't play in Google Chrome, try Firefox.

Here's the latest Fox31 piece about new developments in the case:

Here's the Citizen Oversight Board letter:

Citizen Oversight Board Letter to Chief Robert White

And here's the DPD release:

ACCURACY MATTERS

DENVER -- Friday, November 28, 2014 -- On Saturday, November 22, 2014, Fox 31 news investigative reporter Chris Halsne contacted the Denver Police Department seeking comment about a felony narcotics arrest from August 14, 2014. The Denver Police Department informed Mr. Halsne that we would be happy to respond on Monday morning when the facts of the incident he was asking about could be ascertained. Fox 31 began running what are commonly known as "promo's" (advertisements) indicating that they were investigating an excessive force allegation as well as corruption and a cover-up.

On Monday, November 24, 2014, the Denver Police Department spoke with Chris Halsne by phone, spoke with Fox 31 management by phone, and met with Chris Halsne in person for an interview. The Denver Police Department spoke with Mr. Halsne again on November 25, 2014, after his initial story aired and it was apparent he would be airing a second story regarding the same incident.

The Denver Police Department believes that Chris Halsne and Fox 31 have acted intentionally and irresponsibly in reporting this incident. We are issuing this press release to clarify facts, which were minimized, omitted, or misconstrued.

Transparency is critical to DPD's Chief White, and it is essential to maintaining a positive and trusting relationship with our community. As such, we cannot stand idly by as the truth is distorted. We, the Denver Police Department, fully understand that we work for the community and that they will set the standards and expectations that we must abide by. But that requires that facts be fully and accurately reported.

TWO DISTINCT ISSUES:

This incident involves two distinct and separate issues:

1. Was the force used (as reported by officers and viewed in the video aired by Fox 31) legal and within policy?

2. Is there merit to witness Levi Frasier's claims that the Denver Police Department illegally searched his computer and then engaged in a "cover-up" by destroying evidence?

USE OF FORCE

The Denver Police Department does not tolerate excessive force. But we also recognize that there are incidents where the use of force becomes necessary. Witnessing the necessary use of force can be disturbing. However, there are times when officers must respond to the actions a suspect chooses. Like in this case, when a felony narcotic suspect violently resists officers and refuses to obey their legal commands.

This case was reviewed by the police department at three levels. This was despite the fact that no complaint has ever been lodged against officers. All three reviews found that the officer's actions were legal and within policy.

The officers were confronted with a person they were arresting for possession of narcotics with the intent to distribute. The suspect refused officer's command to submit to arrest and to release the narcotics, which were contained in a sock, he had in his mouth. Officers repeatedly asked and then ordered that he spit the evidence out. The suspect refused to comply.

Officers, and witness Levi Frasier, all attempted to pull the sock from the suspect's mouth. Finally, uniformed officers arrived and Levi stepped back and began to video the encounter. Responding officers knew that the suspect had suspected heroin in his mouth, and that swallowing the drugs could be fatal. They were also legally within their rights to retrieve the contraband as evidence.

A violent struggle, prompted by the suspect, was already underway. This left the officers with limited options for recovering the evidence and preventing ingestion and a likely medical emergency. The officer chose not to grab the suspect's throat (to prevent him from swallowing) but instead opted to strike the non-compliant suspect several times. We feel this was the better of the two choices. These strikes did cause the suspect to comply with the arrest and to relinquish the narcotics.

There is a second use of force observed in the video as the suspect's girlfriend attempts to intervene in the felony arrest. The female approaches officers, screaming, and is pushed or tripped and falls.

The female chose to intervene. Officers did not know who she was, what her intentions were, or what threat she posed. They acted appropriately in pushing her away from stopping the violent struggle and retrieving the narcotics in her boyfriend's mouth.

Based on all of the statements and evidence we had prior to the news story on November 24, 2014, the officers actions were deemed to be legal and within policy.

The Denver Police Department Internal Affairs Bureau is conducting another investigation (though, as stated previously, we have still not received a complaint) to determine if there is new evidence, which would change the determination.

Former Denver Manager of Public Safety and Colorado Supreme Court Justice Alex Martinez used to tell us that "reasonable people" can disagree about the facts or what conclusions the facts lead to. We understand that there are those who will not agree with our determination about the appropriateness of the force used in this case. Ultimately, the community is the arbiter of the law and of policy and we welcome that transparent debate.

ALLEGATIONS OF CORRUPTION/COVER-UP

Witness Levi Frasier makes the second allegation. He tells Fox 31's Chris Halsne that Denver Police Officers took his Samsung tablet (the one used to video the incident) and that against his wishes; they looked through files and then deleted the video of the incident, which had just occurred. He says that he later recovered the video through a "cloud- based" back-up service.

Frasier states that this was an illegal search and that it is corrupt to destroy evidence of an excessive force incident.

If these allegations are true, then we concur.

However, there are numerous facts that Chris Halsne and Fox 31 either minimize or omit in their reporting. We believe that they are relevant and should have been provided to Fox 31's audience as a part of a balanced, ethical, and un-biased news account.

LEVI FRASIER

The use of force incident is separate, and may be reviewed and weighed by the officer's statements, video taken by Mr. Frasier, and other evidence contained in the investigation.

However, the allegations of misconduct regarding illegal search, destruction of evidence, and a cover-up, all hinge on the veracity of Mr. Frasier. There is no independent evidence that we are aware of that would lead the reviewer to a conclusion.

Therefore, as a basis for weighing the statement of Mr. Frasier, there are facts, which should have been reported, and others, which should have been pointed out with greater weight:

1. Levi Frasier told Fox's Chris Halsne that he didn't know if the officer deleted the video, if he had deleted the video, or if the video had even been deleted at all.

2. Levi Frasier made a statement to police immediately following the use of force. In that statement he told officers that he felt they had acted correctly. He confirms this to reporter Chris Halsne. Frasier also told officers that he did not have a video, but rather has been using "snapchat" and that the pictures he took were gone.

3. Levi Frasier has never initiated a complaint with the Denver Police Department regarding any of his allegations.

4. Levi Frasier did not provide the video of the arrest to the Denver Police Department. He retained an attorney and then provided the video to Fox 31 for "limited use."

5. After DPD completed an on-camera interview with Chris Halsne, Levi Frasier went to the Denver FBI Office and gave them a copy of the video. The FBI alerted us to the fact that they had a copy of the video.

6. We have no indication that the FBI is investigating this case.

7. Levi Frasier was released from the Michigan Department of Corrections in the spring of 2014, where he served a lengthy sentence for numerous charges including: breaking and entering, home invasion, and stealing or retaining a transaction device.

8. Levi Frasier has six aliases. Typically, an alias is derived by either a legal name change, or the illegal use of someone else's name or lying about one's identity to the police.

PEOPLE IN THE VIDEO

1. Although both were interviewed regarding the use of force, neither initiated a complaint against officers.

2. Both parties are now fugitives.

3. The pregnant woman seen in the video was charged with child abuse. Chris Halsne reports that this was due to having her children in the car. A more accurate statement would be that she was charged with child abuse for bringing her children to a heroin transaction.

4. The pregnant woman was also found to be in possession of drug paraphernalia.

POLICE EXPERT

1. The police "expert" interviewed for the story is a retired Brighton Police Sergeant. The police expert is a paid witness for the defendants in this case.

PHYSICAL EVIDENCE

Clearly, at issue is whether police officers deleted a video from Levi Frasier's Samsung tablet. Thus it would seem that a review, even a cursory lay person review, of the tablet's files, audit trail for file deletion, and the audit trail for the cloud back-up service would be important considerations to assist in determining the veracity of Mr. Frasier's complaint. But the Denver Police Department does not have access to either Mr. Frasier, his records, or his Samsung tablet. And though Chris Halsne and Fox 31 presumably had access to all three, this was not mentioned in their story.

We believe that a thorough review of the physical evidence is merited due to the serious allegations being made in this case. We also believe that Fox 31 should have conducted such a review prior to reporting the allegations in the sensational manner that they did.

Chief White is committed to creating a police department, which treats everyone in a respectful manner. He believes in transparency and accountability. If we are wrong, we will say so and hold those responsible accountable. However, when our officers act appropriately (as they do in the vast majority of calls they handle), it is just as important the chief, the police department, and the community supports them.

Chief White expects that the Internal Affairs Bureau complete a thorough examination of all the facts, old and new; that all allegations are taken seriously; and that the results of that examination are available for public inspection.

We thank the community for their willingness to consider the issues contained in this document with an open mind.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.


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