The fact that the Denver District Attorney’s Office actually filed aggravated assault charges and arrested Denver Police Officer Chuck Porter on May 8 shows how serious the allegations against him are. The incident on April 18, which occurred in the lower Highland neighborhood near Chubbies on 38th Avenue, sent sixteen-year-old Juan Vasquez to the hospital with broken ribs, a lacerated liver and other injuries -- all after Porter, a gang unit officer, allegedly stomped on him.
The arrest warrant for Porter, released May 9, states that about 9:30 p.m. officers spotted Vasquez drinking what appeared to be alcohol. He ran when officers tried to talk to him, but was quickly caught after a brief chase. Two other officers witnessed Porter jump up and down on Vasquez's back three to five times while the teen lay stomach-down on the ground, according to the document.
Porter has been suspended without pay and is currently out on $5,000 bond. Denver’s Latino officers group, perhaps wary of a bureaucratic cover-up, has asked DPD Chief Gerald Whitman to hand the investigation over to the FBI.
To understand how rare it is for an officer in Denver to be arrested for excessive force, one need only look at the slideshow Westword compiled to accompany our April 3 feature story about how race factors into police shootings. In the last twelve years, there have been 86 cases of Denver officers shooting citizens, forty of whom died. While some of these instances resulted in departmental discipline, not one of the officers involved was charged with excessive force. The slideshow actually includes a description of a shooting from last year that involved Porter:
March 29, 2007 Officers Damon Bowser and Chuck Porter were on patrol in Globeville neighborhood when they spotted a speeding vehicle. After attempting to elude officers, the car crashed through a chain-link fence and onto the front porch of the corner home at 4695 Lincoln Street. A man, later identified as 21-year-old Gustavo Cruz jumped out of the vehicle and ran down an alley. Bowser was in close pursuit, when Cruz turned and faced the officer. The fleeing man pointed a gun at Bowser, who withdrew his weapon and fired while still running, and fired again while seeking cover. Cruz fell, but got up and ran. He showed up more than two hours later at Fitzsimmons Medical Center with a single gunshot wound in his buttocks. Cruz said that his weapon was really a BB gun.
Bowser was eventually cleared of wrongdoing in the shooting. But what this description doesn’t go into is the series of events immediately following the shooting that earned Porter a thirty-day suspension without pay and harsh criticism from the departmental watchdog.
According to a report by the Denver DA, this is how the incident played out: When Cruz ran down the alley, Bowser followed while Porter took a parallel route. Porter caught up to his partner immediately after the second shot was fired. Cruz managed to flee between some houses. The officers searched individually for a few minutes before conferring. Bowser says he had dropped his radio while in pursuit; when he saw Porter speaking into his radio, he assumed his partner was alerting dispatch that shots had been fired. At the time, Porter was an eleven-year veteran of the police department, which vigorously trains officers to immediately report any officer discharge of a firearm so that an elaborate internal investigation procedure can begin. But all Porter told dispatch about was about a vehicle crash – nothing about the shooting or the possible armed suspect still on the loose.
Instead, Porter waited five more minutes to make a “direct connect” Nextel call to his supervisor, Sergeant Kevin Carroll, alert him of a “single car accident” and say, “We need you up here.” Approximately two minutes later, as Carroll began to respond to the scene, he received another call from Porter alerting him that shots had been fired. Carroll immediately notified dispatch of a police shooting.
That night, investigators separately questioned all three cops about the incident:
In response to questions, Sergeant Carroll indicated that it was unusual that an officer would call in an accident to police dispatch and not say anything about shots being fired—if the shots had already been fired. He said it was not a normal practice for the Denver Police Department to delay such a notification. He also stated it was not a standard practice for Gang Bureau officers….He said officers are trained to make such notifications and “you have to call that out.” He said there are a lot of questions to be answered about not calling it out. He said he is not surprised that questions are being asked about the timing of the call to dispatch.
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Porter told investigators that he did not know why he failed to indicate to dispatch and his superior that a foot chase had occurred, shots had been fired and that a suspect was still at large. He attributed his lack of communication to “stress overload.” In his annual report released last month, Richard Rosenthal of the Office of Independent Monitor said that Porter’s conduct could have caused credibility issues that would have raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the shooting. In Rosenthal’s opinion, the thirty-day suspension Porter received was inadequate and that a sixty-day suspension was warranted:
In this case, the officer’s actions created the appearance that the officer was trying to ensure that this deadly force incident would be handled by officers from within his own special unit. The officer was deceptive in his communication with dispatch, incomplete in his communication with his supervisor and, as such, put numerous lives in potential danger.
– Jared Jacang Maher