Earlier this year, according to the ACLU of Colorado, a Castle Rock cop fired several shots from a semi-automatic rifle -- and while he didn't hit the apparently unarmed suspect targeted, he did manage to strike the tire of a car occupied by two locals.
The couple want records about the investigation into what they see as dangerous and unjustified gunfire. But Castle Rock isn't cooperating -- so the ACLU has filed a lawsuit on their behalf. Below, get more details, see the suit and learn why the ACLU feels it's so significant.
The incident described in the suit took place on the afternoon of February 21. That's when Castle Rock Police Department Officer Terry Watts shot at a burglary suspect fleeing in an SUV near the corner of Mango Drive and South Plum Creek Boulevard.
This intersection isn't in the middle of nowhere. The lawsuit points out that the residential area includes Daniel C. Oakes High School, which was in session that day, plus businesses, homes and parking lots. Explore it using the following interactive graphic; if you have problems seeing the image, click "View Larger Map."
View Larger Map
Also present at the time were Michael and Susan Cardella, who live in the neighborhood and happened to be sitting in their car across the street from Officer Watts when the lead started flying. The suit maintains that the officer "swept his rifle in a 180 degree arc and continued to fire between four and seven rounds in quick succession," prompting the Cardellas to take cover. And while neither was perforated, a bullet is said to have "barely missed physically injuring the Cardellas." It ultimately struck their left front tire.
Cut to June, when the Cardellas, assisted by the ACLU, filed a formal request to the CRPD to request assorted documents related to the shooting. But the only record released to date is a "single affidavit supporting the warrantless arrest of the fleeing burglary suspect."
Subsequent requests for records were rejected as well, prompting the lawsuit, which is representative of the ACLU's long struggle to get Colorado police departments to be more transparent.
"Over the years, the ACLU has had repeated struggles with the Denver Police Department when we have asked for records about how they have investigated and resolved complaints of serious police misconduct," Silverstein says. "It seemed that for a number of years, we could get no documents until or unless we filed a lawsuit. And after the lawsuit, we would get the documents, but the next case would come along and we'd be forced to sue again before we could get any documents."
In this view, "The public has an important interest in seeing how police departments investigate cases of serious police misconduct -- in seeing if the investigations are thorough and the officers are held accountable, or if they are, as some believe, whitewashes to cover up for police officers."
Continue for more about the ACLU of Colorado's lawsuit against Castle Rock, including two original documents. The situation in Denver improved, from the ACLU's perspective, after a 2005 court ruling included below in the exhibits for the Castle Rock lawsuit. As a result of the ruling, featuring what he describes as "a very stern written opinion from a Denver Distrct Court judge," he notes that "the Denver Police Department finally revised its policy, and we've been able to get documents related to completed Internal Affairs investigations. And since that time, we've sometimes been successful taking that opinion to other jurisdictions and saying, 'This is the opinion that prompted Denver to change its policy.'"
In the case of Castle Rock, however, "the city was not open to persuasion," Silverstein acknowledges. "The city insisted it could continue to withhold the documents, so we're filing suit. We understand there's been at least one and possibly two internal investigations that have looked at the conduct of this officer, and those investigations are concluded -- and we feel the public has a right to see them. And so do our clients, the Cardellas."
By the way, Silverstein says the couple have received no compensation related to the shooting, "and I think they weren't even going to get their tire returned until they signed a waiver saying they wouldn't hold Castle Rock responsible." In the end, though, "they did get it back without signing," he notes.
Even if a Douglas County District Court judge rules in the ACLU's favor, the decision won't have a binding effect on cities in other places around the state when it comes to the release of such documents. But Silverstein hopes their cumulative impact will make it easier to convince communities to share material rather than going through the expense of fighting for secrecy in court.
Here's the aforementioned lawsuit, along with a separate exhibits document that includes the 2005 opinion that led to a change in Denver's policy.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
More from our News archive circa August: "Sex-offender residency restrictions challenged by ACLU ruled unconstitutional."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.