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ACLU settles suit over Denver police complaint records

On the eve of going to court in its effort to protect internal investigations records of police officers from public scrutiny, the City of Denver has agreed to settle a lawsuit by forking over many of the documents sought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

The case of Ashford Wortham and Cornelius Campbell, two African-American males who claimed to be subjected to racial slurs during a 2009 traffic stop, marks the seventh time the ACLU has sued Denver over its policies regarding internal affairs records. The Denver Police Department and the city attorney's office maintain that police officers have a "privacy interest" in not disclosing internal affairs records, especially when previous complaints against officers have been deemed groundless -- but they've caved on the issue repeatedly when challenged in court.

One of the officers involved in the Wortham-Campbell stop, Sgt. Perry Speelman, has been the subject of at least eighteen internal affairs investigations dating back to the 1990s, on complaints ranging from "unnecessary force" to "discourtesy" and at least one prior racial profiling complaint. An Internal Affairs Bureau probe of the 2009 incident concluded that Wortham's complaint was unsubstantiated, but a county court judge threw out charges against Wortham, finding that the police conduct in the stop was "extreme, profane and racially motivated."

When Wortham and Campbell tried to inspect the IAB file on the incident, they were told they couldn't see the documents -- even though the DPD had released redacted files to ACLU lawyers in other cases. "They were told, 'Sorry, you can't get a single page -- not even your own statements,'" the ACLU's Mark Silverstein says. "It shouldn't require a lawsuit every time to get them to release this information to the public."

On June 3, hours before a hearing in Denver District Court on the matter, the city provided Silverstein with a 150-page file containing most of the information sought. The city refused to release videotaped interviews that IAB conducted with the officers involved, claiming that releasing the image of the cops (none of whom are working undercover) would interfere with their ability to do their jobs.

But Silverstein says the city agreed to provide transcripts of the interviews -- and to pay all of the plaintiffs' attorney fees in the dispute. That may not be enough of a penalty to keep the DPD from trying to block access to other IAB records, Silverstein adds, but it's a start.

"There needs to be some kind of deterrent for stonewalling, for forcing people to sue for the documents, then delivering them just before a court hearing," he says.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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