Longform

Alex Landau was pulled over for making an illegal left turn and ended up beaten bloody

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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.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner