Alonzo Ashley: No charges for eight cops in Denver Zoo death

Update below: On the same day Denver Manager of Safety Alex Martinez met with Westword, his office cleared eight cops in a July incident at the Denver Zoo during which Alonzo Ashley died.

The decision summary contradicts the account offered by Ashley's loved ones in virtually every respect.

Ashley died after grappling with police and being contact-Tased, meaning that a stun gun made direct contact with his skin -- a technique intended to localize the effect, rather than spreading it throughout the body as when the device's barbs are deployed.

What happened? As we've previously reported, Ashley's girlfriend says he got so overheated that he vomited. Afterward, he was trying to cool down by splashing water on his head from a fountain near the elephant enclosure when a zoo staffer asked if he needed help. He allegedly responded by saying he wanted to be left alone, prompting calls to zoo security and Denver Police. And while the DPD claimed a "domestic disturbance" was underway when officers arrived, she insists this was not the case -- and she maintains that Ashley didn't fight back against the cops.

In contrast, the Manager of Safety report says that when Zoo guests asked Ashley if he was all right, he reacted angrily, yelling, "Fuck the zoo. This is my house." Then, when a Zoo guard checked in on him, Ashley repeatedly declared, "I am a lion," then chased and attacked him, punching him in the face while proclaiming, "I am going to kill you" and "I am going to do it for the Lord."

At that point, the account continues, Zoo guests pulled Ashley off the guard. But when other Zoo personnel asked if he was okay, he challenged them to a fight, too, declaring, "Come on, motherfucker, test me. Come on!"

Shortly thereafter, two Denver Police officers arrived, pointed Tasers at Ashley, and ordered him to get on the ground. He's said to have walked away in an attempt to leave -- and when one of the cops attempted to stop him, Ashley slugged him in the gob.

What followed was a melee that ultimately included eight officers and was marked by the use of Tasing in what's described as "the less painful stun-drive mode," plus nanchakus wrapped around Ashley's ankles in an effort to gain "pain compliance."

Did these techniques backfire? According to the document, Ashley vomited twice, then stopped breathing, and attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital at shortly after 6 p.m.

This narrative is followed by many pages of explanations and evidence. But the following section sums up the final determination:

The Manager finds that the officers used reasonable force options and acted pursuant to their training. When Ashley began vomiting, officers assisted him, and when he stopped breathing, they began resuscitation efforts.

Based on a careful review of the facts, a comprehensive analysis of the polices and teh law, and a consideration of the recommendations of the OIM (Office of the Independent Monitor) and the Chief of Police, the Manager concludes that the officers did not violate DPD's Use of Force policy, any other Department rules, or any laws with regard to the use of force. Therefore, disciplinary sanctions will not be ordered.

Ashley's death is tragic. However, it was both unintended and not the probable consequence of the force used by the officers.

In October, after Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey declined to issue criminal charges in the incident, ACLU of Denver legal director Mark Silverstein questioned Tasing in the stun-drive mode, telling us, "When the Taser is held up against the subject's body, it doesn't have that much-promoted paralyzing effect. All it does is cause pain. And so, when you have an agitated subject who's displaying signs of being irrational and is resisting being handcuffed, causing him pain doesn't produce compliance. It causes thrashing and agitates him even more -- and that's the opposite effect of what the police officers would want." He added that he hoped the department would reconsider and possibly change its approach to Tasing.

What's Silverstein's take today? We've left messages requesting an interview. If and when he responds, we'll update this post. For his part, Martinez sat down with the Westword editorial staff for an extended conversation prior to the release of the document, but he did not mention the Ashley case during the meeting, which was approximately an hour in length.

Update, 11:37 p.m. January 30: ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein responded to our interview request via e-mail. He's currently in Florida attending a staff conference.

According to Silverstein, his review of the Manager of Safety's statement "confirms that police officers appear to expect, erroneously, that using the Taser in the drive-stun mode would produce the incapacitating effect that is produced when the darts are used."

This assumption is undercut by information in a study by the Police Executive Research Forum cited in this post. Here's a key excerpt shared by Silverstein:

Drive Stun: Avoid use as a pain-compliance tactic

The most commonly used ECWs can be used in two modes: probe and drive stun. Many police managers and officers erroneously believe that applications of drive stun are as effective as applications with probes, but that is not correct. The drive stun mode can be used to complete the circuit in the event that one of the probes is ineffective or becomes dislodged. The drive stun mode can also be used in close quarters for the purpose of protecting the officer or creating a safe distance between the officer and subject. Absent these circumstances, using the ECW in drive stun mode is of questionable value. The primary function of the drive stun mode, when not used to complete the circuit, is to gain subject compliance through the administration of pain. Using the ECW to achieve pain compliance may have limited effectiveness and, when used repeatedly, may even exacerbate the situation by inducing rage in the subject. For these reasons, agencies should carefully consider policy and training regarding when and how personnel use the drive stun mode, and should discourage its use as a pain compliance tactic. Drive stun has an applicable but limited purpose that should be taught, explained, and monitored during ECW training and field use.

"As PERF notes, using the drive stun multiple times in quick succession, as the officers did in this case, may well be counterproductive and may increase the subject's resistance," Silverstein writes, adding that " the ACLU will be urging Denver police to accept the PERF recommendation and avoid the use of the Taser as a pain compliance device.

"On the positive side," Silverstein continues, "Manager Martinez's first public statement on an officer-involved death appears to represent a welcome advance in transparency. The statement mentions multiple times that all the documents and statements the Manager relied on will now be open to public inspection. ACLU lawyers will accept that invitation to review the full record."

Here's the aforementioned statement from the Manager of Safety's office.

Denver Manager of Safety Statement on Alonzo Ashley Death

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More from our Follow That Story archive: "Alonzo Ashley: Decision not to charge anyone for homicide at Denver Zoo followed by protest."