Three years ago this past Sunday, Denver police officers pulled over Alex Landau, then nineteen, for allegedly making an illegal left turn onto Emerson Street — and then, wielding flashlights and radios as weapons, they beat him bloody ("Black and Blue," January 20, 2011). Although Landau received one of the city's largest police-brutality settlements — $795,000 — this past May, his story remains a chilling example of racial profiling. And now that story is starting a new chapter, since Officer Ricky Nixon, who was involved in the incident and later fired from the Denver Police Department in connection with a fracas at the Denver Diner, was just ordered reinstated to the force by three hearing officers with the Denver Civil Service Commission.
Then-Manager of Safety Charles Garcia had sacked Nixon and fellow officer Kevin Devine in April over the Denver Diner incident; a HALO security camera had captured the scene on July 12, 2009, when Nixon and Devine appeared to beat several women with billy clubs and Mace one of them in the eyes even though she'd already been subdued by another cop. Three years before that, Nixon had been involved in another violent incident — one that left 23-year-old Jimmy Orozco dead. According to a Manager of Safety report, Nixon and his partner had caught Orozco and an accomplice breaking into a car at the Metro Urban apartments near Coors Field. When the officers shined their flashlights on Orozco and his alleged accomplice, Orozco reportedly started the car and drove toward the officers. Nixon fired, breaking the driver's-side window and hitting Orozco, who was pronounced dead on the scene. Nixon was cleared of any wrongdoing in that shooting — and he was never disciplined in connection with the Landau case.
On the night of January 15, 2009, Nixon was driving the police car that stopped Landau, a Community College of Denver student who is African-American but had been adopted by a white couple with police officers in their family. The fight allegedly started when Landau asked Nixon if he had a warrant to search his trunk and Nixon responded by punching him in the face; two other officers who'd pulled up to the scene reportedly joined in. Landau was eventually treated for a broken nose, lacerations and closed-head injuries — but not before he demanded that someone take photos of his injuries. Those pictures helped convince the city to settle the federal lawsuit that Landau's attorney had filed.
Last spring, Garcia had also fired both Randy Murr, one of the officers involved in the Landau incident, and Devin Sparks in connection with the videotaped beating of Michael DeHerrera in LoDo in 2009; this past fall, hearing officers recommended that these officers, too, be reinstated.
"The Manager of Safety's office is committed to fair and impartial decision-making based on the facts and circumstances of each individual case," Alex Martinez, the city's new Manager of Safety, said in a statement after the hearing officers' recommendation that Nixon and Devine be reinstated came down on January 13. "While I respect the authority of the Civil Service Commission hearing officers, as with every case where the disciplinary decision is overturned, I will review the decision and consult with the city attorney's office to decide if it is appropriate to pursue an appeal."
Even before he heard about the recommendation that Nixon be reinstated, Landau had teamed up with the Colorado Progressive Coalition to relaunch the CPC's Racial Justice Hotline, which was originally started in 2002; now two dozen volunteers, including Landau, will answer the calls made to 866-329-0908. And that's not the CPC's only push: At a "know your rights" street-theater performance before the Martin Luther King Jr. Marade on Monday, the group called for the city to discipline Nixon, Murr and Officer Tiffany Middleton for their role in the Landau beating, and protested the reinstatement of the officers involved in both the Denver Diner and DeHerrera incidents.
"Coming to the reality that that actually happened to me took a long time, and from that I just want other people to know that you can't be shut down," Landau, who addressed the crowd, says in a video on YouTube. "Don't let anybody shut you down." After the rally, the group joined the Marade, which passed by the corner where Landau was beaten.
The CPC will hold a second rally on Friday, January 20.
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"You get to a point where you're not surprised, but the average person would be shocked to hear that somebody was stopped, pulled out of their car and threatened with an attack dog for no reason," Mu Son Chi, program director for the CPC, says. "People have shown me video of officers grabbing cameras out of their hand. The calls we get are insane."
In recent weeks, the coalition has met with new police chief Robert White to discuss the issue of excessive force, and to urge that all brutality investigations take no more than ninety days and that officers at fault be fired.
"They know our feelings," Chi says. "These are cases that absolutely must be avoided in the future. If officers were disciplined appropriately, this would not happen."
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