Trapped in shackles
Wonderin' why, feelin' baffled
I was handed to the system like a ticket in a raffle
My brothers and sisters are getting hassled
By a bunch of assholes with badges and needin' counsel
After being falsely accused and abused by these scoundrels
Alex Landau noticed the flashing lights in his rearview mirror right after he turned off Colfax onto Emerson. Landau and his passenger, Addison Hunold, were on their way to the Wendy's just down the street for some late-night burgers, but they never made it there that cold January night in 2009. Instead, Landau pulled his '84 white Lincoln Town Car to a stop near the corner of 16th Avenue and Emerson, and the cop car pulled in behind.
The officer who came to Landau's window said he'd made an illegal left turn and asked for his license and registration. The nineteen-year-old explained that he'd left his wallet at home, but offered his proof of insurance on the car and his Social Security number. The cop took the information back to his squad car while Landau sat in the Lincoln, feeling nervous. They'd just come from a house where folks had been smoking pot. Not only that, but 21-year-old Hunold had a pill container full of weed in his pocket, and there was more in the trunk. Landau had a feeling the telltale odor was in the air.
Sure enough, the cop returned a few minutes later and asked the two to get out of the car to be searched. Figuring it would be discovered anyway, Hunold handed over the marijuana before he was patted down. The cop took the weed and told Hunold to go stand by the front of his cruiser, then asked Landau if he could search his car.
Landau agreed. As the cop rummaged around the seats, two additional officers, a man and a woman, arrived in a second squad car. Once he was finished with the front and back seats, the first cop took Landau's keys and went to unlock the trunk.
Knowing about the weed there, Landau took several steps forward with his hands raised above his head, as if to show he meant no harm, and asked if the officer had a warrant to search the trunk.
According to a civil rights complaint filed in federal court last week, the two cops who'd just arrived — Randy Murr and Tiffany Middleton — grabbed Landau by the arms. The first cop, an officer named Ricky Nixon, looked at Landau and said, "You don't have your license." Then he allegedly punched Landau in the face. The force of the action caused all four to lose their balance, tumbling to the curb, and the cops began pummeling Landau first with their fists, then with a police radio and a metal flashlight.
None of the officers involved in the incident can comment because it's the subject of a recently reopened Internal Affairs investigation, says Denver Police Department spokesman Sonny Jackson.
Landau's version of events is recounted in the affidavit. He heard one of the officers yell, "He's going for the gun!" That he shouted "No, I'm not!" didn't seem to matter, he says now: The beating continued.
Landau, with his face in the gutter and spitting blood, began losing track of everything going on around him. Hunold, by the squad car, screaming at the officers to stop. Additional cruisers arriving from the police station a few blocks away and surrounding the scene. Some of the reinforcements joining in the fracas, others standing and watching. Landau, who was fading in and out of consciousness, remembers one detail vividly: At one point, he felt the cold metal of a service revolver pressed to his head.
Eventually, Landau blacked out. When he came to, he was being dragged out of the bloody gutter. One of the first things he remembers hearing is one of the cops telling him, "Where's that warrant now, you fucking nigger?"
As someone cuffed Landau's hands behind his back, he says, one of the cops told him, "You don't know how close you were to getting your fucking head blown off." By now Hunold was gone, taken away. Landau remembers seven or eight officers around him, chatting and laughing as if nothing out of the ordinary had just transpired.
An ambulance arrived. According to the paramedics' report, they found Landau lying by the curb, bleeding from the head and in "acute distress." The EMTs noted something else in their report: In all capital letters, they wrote that the patient stated "HE DID NOT DO ANYTHING."
Landau wouldn't let the paramedics help him — at least not right away. He didn't want anybody to see to his wounds or clean up the blood before photos were taken.
I'm not the first and I'm not saying they did me the worst
But I'm definitely blessed to take steps on this mother earth
They tried to be covert,
They tried to coerce my witness, making sure his story worked
But y'all can't hide the truth
As I ride the beat I sleuth
To find the clues like detectives do
Lying in a jail cell, Landau was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of the blood-drenched hoodie he'd taken off and was using as a makeshift pillow.
None of it felt real yet. Not the trip in the ambulance, during which he'd gone into shock, shaking violently. Not the cop riding along in the ambulance, who allegedly called him a pussy for refusing to let the paramedics insert an IV into his arm until somebody got pictures of the damage. Not the scene at the hospital where, after a cop finally consented to take photos of his face, Landau let the doctors set his broken nose, see to the concussion he'd suffered and close his head wounds with 45 stitches.
He still hadn't had a chance to survey the damage for himself. Later, when he finally looked in a mirror, the sight would bring him to tears.
But for the moment, here he was, just a couple hours after the January 15, 2009, traffic stop, passing a sleepless night in the Denver jail. This wasn't anywhere the gregarious Landau expected to be. The adopted son of a social worker turned teacher and an environmental engineer, both white, he'd gone to schools for gifted children in the metro area and was now pursuing a degree in business management. When he wasn't busy scribbling lines of poetry and rap lyrics into one of his many notebooks, he was always the first of his friends to lend a hand when somebody needed help, volunteering to drive his classmates to and from the airport in his old, beat-up Lincoln.
But now that he was the one who needed help, who was going to come to his aid?
The next day, Patsy, Landau's mom, got a call from a sheriff's deputy while she was teaching her second-grade class. When she got to the jail and saw her son, "I was horrified," she remembers. Steve, Landau's dad, wasn't much better when he heard the news.
Steve's father and grandfather had both been Denver patrolmen. He'd grown up hearing stories of how his dad had saved lives, watched as he broke up a street fight using nothing other than his commanding presence. One evening in the tense late '60s, Steve's father took him aside. There was talk of a race riot breaking out that night, and the department was putting every cop on the street. Before he left, Steve's dad wanted to shake his son's hand and tell him to take care of his mother if anything were to happen.
Nothing happened that night, but the story was handed down in the Landau household. For a while, Alex had even wanted to be a policeman, and he'd acted like one the day his mom suffered a seizure while the two were home alone. The then-six-year-old Alex had the wherewithal to call 911 and direct the authorities to their mountain home in Conifer, even though he didn't know the exact address.
What had happened to their son at the hands of the cops didn't make sense. "I have to say, this incident strongly affects my impression of what the police were like in the past and what we see today," Steve Landau says. "I had two relatives who were Denver police officers, and I am disappointed that the officers involved couldn't have used the same sort of techniques they used to use to keep the situation under control."
When Alex was finally released from jail two days after the incident, Steve Landau took him directly to the DPD's Internal Affairs Bureau. But the sergeant who took down his story there seemed unmoved by the incident. According to the federal complaint, when Alex Landau told her about being called "nigger," she asked if he really wanted to play the race card.
But as it turned out, the cops apparently weren't above playing the race card themselves.
Alex Landau discovered this several days later when he saw Hunold. It was the first time the two had talked since the traffic stop, and Hunold was wracked with guilt. While Landau was in the gutter, the cops had taken Hunold to the nearby police station — where, Hunold told his friend, everything had gotten weird.
Instead of being escorted to a holding cell, Hunold had been taken into a back office where a bunch of officers were hanging out, acting casual. One guy was shopping for boats on Craigslist. Another cop unlocked Hunold's handcuffs and sat him down in front of a desk. Sitting across from him, a third officer reportedly said, "Your buddy is going to jail for a long time, and if you don't cooperate, you could be pinned with the same charges."
"I pretty much did everything they said," Hunold says now. "I was scared shitless."
At their prompting, Hunold wrote down exactly the statement the cops wanted. "They were leaning over my head, choosing the questions to ask, suggesting answers," he says. Yes, he conceded, maybe he had noticed Landau's arms tense up when the cops first grabbed him. Yes, maybe the officers were trying to calm the situation down, to prevent Landau from doing something.
But there was one point Hunold refused to concede, despite the cops' alleged encouragement: He wouldn't say that he'd witnessed Landau reaching for an officer's gun.
When it was all over, the cops wrote Hunold a $160 ticket for the marijuana and told him he could go home.
"It was so shady that I, a white person, walked out of the police station that night unscathed and Alex almost died because he was beat up so bad," Hunold says. "They let me go because that night I was cooperating with them and they were manipulating me."
One moment at the station particularly stood out, a moment described in the federal lawsuit. At one point, the officer interviewing Hunold asked how he knew Landau. After listening to Hunold describe their friendship, the cop allegedly looked him in the eye and said, "That nigger's not your friend."
First day of class
Face bruised and full of stitches
Good riddance is what they're hoping for
But I'm a motherfuckin' lion
It wasn't easy for Alex Landau to return to school after winter break with a stitched-up, black-and-blue face and a right eye swollen shut. To add insult to injury, the cops had left his Lincoln a wreck. They'd used a knife to slice up an Air Jordan backpack he had in the car, and had torn a notebook of his lyrics to shreds.
But such inconveniences paled in comparison to the fact that five days after the traffic stop, the Denver District Attorney's Office charged Landau with attempting to disarm a peace officer, a class 6 felony that could lead to eighteen months in prison. Landau's case wasn't helped by the police department's Internal Affairs Bureau, which two months later declined to launch a full investigation into the incident after concluding that the actions of the officers involved "were within the policies of the Denver Police Department." Still, when the DA offered a plea deal that would have reduced the felony to a misdemeanor and reduced the maximum time he could serve, Landau refused to take it, deciding instead to fight the charge.
That turned out to be a good move: Despite the bureau's finding, despite the fact that the eight officers on the scene presumably could have served as witnesses, seven months after charging Landau, the DA dropped the case.
By then, Hunold had retracted everything he'd written at the police station, claiming he'd been manipulated by the police into making the statement. And Landau's defense attorney had won a motion to obtain the police documents collected during the Internal Affairs investigation. Those documents included the officers' accounts of what transpired the night of the traffic stop — accounts that seemed to shift in the days following the incident.
According to the federal lawsuit, in their initial reports, officers Nixon, Middleton and Murr said that because Landau flailed and fought against them and appeared to be reaching for Middleton's gun, they were forced to punch him in the face. This did not affect Landau, Murr recounted, so "I reached over and pulled Middleton's flashlight from her gun belt and struck Landau an unknown number of times in the head."
The day after the traffic stop, a detective working on the case wrote an e-mail to Nixon, Middleton and Murr, noting that he'd relayed the facts to Deputy District Attorney Alma Staub and that she had "stated she would reject this case of attempt to disarm a peace officer based on the facts presented and I would need further details on the incident."
Nixon soon responded via e-mail that he'd forgotten something in his earlier report: "I spaced putting this in my statement, but prior to Officer Middleton cleaning the blood off of her weapon, I observed what appeared to be the imprint of the webbing of the hand in blood on the backstrap of her gun, I'm not too sure if this helps out or not."
For her part, Middleton never claimed that Landau touched her gun — but her story of the traffic stop changed in other ways. She initially reported that Landau was "fighting us" and had "pushed all three of us with such force that we all advanced toward the curb" and subsequently fell over — an account that clashed with the descriptions of the other officers, who reported that the group had tumbled over in the give-and-take of the commotion. Later, Middleton e-mailed a "clarification" of her report, stating, "I was never assaulted by Mr. Landau."
Reading through the documents, Landau was struck by what the officers seemed to think they could get away with — and he decided he wasn't going to let them. How many other people had been treated the same way? How many other victims of alleged police misconduct had been slapped with a felony charge and then offered a plea deal they couldn't refuse, thereby losing any chance to complain?
"It's not safe to have people like this who are supposed to be protecting the streets but instead are abusing their authority," says Landau. "There are probably other people who have been in the same situation as me who haven't had any recognition, maybe some who've had it worse. But you can only do this sort of thing for so long before it goes public."
I'm up at 4 am so often
Even when alarms aren't set my clock's poppin'
I'm low key, you know me
Especially when the cops are watchin'
Must be my conscience telling me to stop talkin'
To every one of these strangers who are barkin'
But really aren't involved in the success of my squadron
The Denver-based law office of John Robert Holland has looked into some striking cases in its practice focusing on race discrimination and civil rights abuses. Holland and his partners, Anna Holland Edwards and Erica Tick Grossman, have litigated abuse and neglect at nursing homes, sued the Denver Zoo for working conditions that allegedly left a worker with lung disease, and in 2007 successfully won freedom for a detainee at Guantánamo.
Still, the lawyers were taken aback when Landau came to them last year with his story — and with the photos the cop had taken of his injuries, which he'd obtained during his criminal case.
"Those photographs speak volumes," says John Holland. "One of the things that struck me was when he said he didn't want the paramedics to do anything, and he demanded that photographs be taken before he was treated. It struck me that this was the kind of person who wanted to bear witness that this was done to him."
The firm took Landau's case and this past August delivered a letter detailing Landau's story to Denver City Attorney David Fine and then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, one that included the bloody photographs. Fine agreed to meet with Landau, and not long after that meeting, the DPD's Internal Affairs Bureau opened an investigation into the case, rescinding its decision of more than a year earlier that such an inquiry wasn't warranted.
This wasn't the first allegation of police-department violence to surface in August. One case in particular attracted national attention: In April 2009, Denver cops were captured by the police's citywide video surveillance system using a department-issued weapon called a sap to repeatedly beat Michael DeHerrera, a young man who is the son of a Pueblo sheriff's deputy. Even with that video replaying over and over on television, new Denver Manager of Safety Ron Perea, who'd replaced Al LaCabe, refused to fire the two officers involved in DeHerrera's beating — one of them Randy Murr.
But within a few days, Perea himself had resigned. And in September, City Attorney Fine reported to the Denver City Council that over the past six years, the city had been involved in 63 excessive-force lawsuits against police, for which it had paid out more than $5 million in settlements.
Nationwide, allegations of police brutality are on the rise; according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, federal cases involving law enforcement authorities using excessive force or violating civil rights increased 25 percent between 2001 and 2007. The National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union, has suggested the rise could be due to aggressive post-9/11 hiring pushes, coupled with reduced training standards. Three years ago, the DPD launched its biggest recruiting effort ever, ending up with 65 more officers than it had the budget for.
"It's primarily a white-male police force," says Art Way, director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition's Racial Justice and Civil Rights Program. "It seems like all they want to hire are military types from Montana." The power of the local police union, coupled with cozy relationships between the police department and both the Denver District Attorney's Office and the city's Office of the Independent Monitor, which monitors internal law-enforcement investigations, makes it difficult for decision-makers to come down hard on cops who step out of line, he adds.
"In my mind, Denver has an old-style policing culture," says Joe Sandoval, a criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver who monitored police discipline issues first as a member of the city's Public Safety Review Commission and then as the first chair of the commission's successor, the Citizen Oversight Board. "It seems to me that there has been a conscious effort on the part of Hickenlooper, Al LaCabe and [DPD chief] Gerald Whitman to turn the Denver police culture around. But informally, the Denver police are known throughout the metro area by other officers as a place where they knock heads and take names later."
Richard Rosenthal, who's been the city's independent monitor since the position was created five years ago, thinks the recent attention does not reflect a police force out of control, but rather a very transparent citywide monitoring system. "In many other cities, the public would not become aware of accusations of excessive force," he says. "Such cases are dealt with behind closed doors, and quite often there is no public reporting. Denver has chosen to have robust, professional oversight and reporting. I am required to report publicly if I believe a [police administrative] decision is unreasonable, and that will get media attention." Rosenthal, for example, made it clear he disagreed with Perea's decision not to come down harder on the officers involved in the DeHerrera beating.
Whatever the reason, reports of police brutality in Denver are definitely on the upswing. For the past two years, David Packman, a Seattle man who spent a month in jail for first-degree assault before being cleared because of video evidence, has run the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project, tracking reports of police misconduct across the country. In September, he decided to look into the reports coming out of Denver. And while he determined that Colorado as a whole fell comfortably in the middle of the national pack in terms of reported police misconduct — in 2009, the state ranked 29th in terms of publicized misconduct incidents per law-enforcement officers — the city of Denver didn't fare so well. Between January and June 2010, Packman found reports of nineteen Denver officers involved in alleged police misconduct, placing the city the sixth-worst out of the 63 police departments with more than 1,000 officers that he tracked nationwide.
The stats got worse when he focused on excessive-force complaints. According to Packman's research, through June of 2010, seventeen officers had been associated with brutality complaints, a higher per capita number than in any other major U.S. city. Adding in the ten officers listed in the highly publicized police-brutality reports of this past August, Packman calculated that Denver had an "Excessive Force Rate" of 2,531 officers involved in excessive-force complaints for every 100,000 officers — more than ten times higher than what he'd determined was the national average.
"I think that surprises people, since Denver is a city that isn't known nationally for having a bad department," says Packman. "You'd think New York, Los Angeles or Chicago would have the most complaints, but that's not the case. Here you have Denver heading up the list."
As the depression started sinkin' in
Relieve my brow of the sweat beats perspiration through my skin
Reflectin' on the hard times that we're livin' in
My family and friends and my next of kin
I wanna believe that we're destined for a change
Strange, funny, how things remain the same, livin' in vain
Alex Landau still bears the scars of what happened to him that January night two years ago — scars beyond the knot of tissue that's formed on his right temple, the lack of feeling he has on one side of his face and the eye that now twitches when he's anxious. There are also the internal scars, the ones that fuel his nightmares of cops beating his friends, the ones that make him nervous whenever he thinks he's being followed by the police.
"The police were threatening his physical existence," says his mother. "I know that's very damaging, and there can be repercussions from that for years to come. It's been a very, very hard period for a long time." It's been hard on Landau's parents, too; Patsy says she now thinks twice before calling the cops. She doesn't have much hope for the DPD Internal Affairs Bureau's belated investigation, either.
"It is extraordinarily difficult to prove an excessive-force complaint against a police officer," says Independent Monitor Rosenthal. "For one thing, the officers have enormous discretion as to how much force they can use. For another, even if you have it on video, it's difficult to prove because of issues of perception and memory and biases among witnesses and conflicting testimony. That makes it extraordinarily difficult to reach a point where you can discipline an officer or terminate an officer.
"The number of sustained cases involving excessive force is minimal," he adds. "It's very rare, and that's not just in Denver, that's all over the country."
Landau's lawyers aren't counting on that investigation to reveal the truth. And so last week, they filed a 37-page federal complaint, complete with pictures, alleging that the actions of Murr, Nixon and Middleton, along with the "dangerous environment of police retaliation" fostered by Chief Whitman and the City and County of Denver, violated Landau's civil rights. "The government was changing hands, it didn't seem like it was a focal point for resolution during the elections, and time was a-wasting," says John Holland. "It was time to file suit."
The morning after that complaint was filed and just hours before news of the filing broke, interim Denver mayor Bill Vidal took advantage of his swearing-in ceremony to address the issue of police brutality — the issue people had most mentioned as a concern to Vidal after it became clear he would be mayor. Asking the city's officers and deputies to "remember the days when you graduated from the academy," Vidal implored them "to continue to serve our citizens with the same optimism and dedication, knowing that the actions you take make a difference in their lives, and to act in a manner that you would be proud of, no matter who is watching."
And while Vidal can't comment specifically on the Landau allegations because the case is under investigation, he says he'd like to wrap up all unresolved cases of alleged police brutality before a new mayor is elected. "Such cases are taking a long time, and it is actually the length of time, in my opinion, that hurts our reputation, because it makes us look like we are stalling," says Vidal. "My hope is we move on these cases appropriately faster, so we can get them resolved in a more timely fashion."
Landau's case might even lead to citywide improvements, suggests Metro professor Sandoval. "This civilian oversight business is ongoing," he says. "It's always developing, it's continuous, and we as citizens of Denver and those on the Citizens Oversight Board and in the Independent Monitor's Office have to be extremely vigilant, because the police are the only entity that has a monopoly on the use of deadly force. These kinds of incidents emerge every once in a while, and they sometimes serve as additional impetus to improve the process further." For example, Sandoval points out, the city's first citizen oversight group, the Public Safety Review Commission, was formed in 1992 after a public outcry over the treatment of fifteen-year-old Jovan Ivory, who said cops had called him racial epithets and kicked and beaten him — and had graphic photos of his injuries.
For his part, Landau is just trying to take one day at a time. He's been writing a lot about what happened to him, trying to process his emotions through his lyrics. "I guess I've felt like I've had a lot to say," he says. "It's definitely helped me incorporate more passion into my music."
And that's helped him keep going. It's like what his English professor, Yvonne Frye, used to tell him: Stick with it, justice is going to come. She said that to him the last time he saw her in October, before she was killed by a drunk driver. He coupled that pain with her advice, and put it into his lyrics:
RIP, Yvonne Frye, who showed me this light in the darkest night
Damn right, we're fam' for life, al'ight
I've grown a lot in the past year
Even though a lot of paths just aren't that clear
Sometimes all I know is to adhere
To my solo isolation
My lyrical combination
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A money motivation and no hesitation
Corrupted police beat my face in
With no justification
But that won't stop me now.