Last night, the Denver City Council agreed to pay Ashford Wortham and Cornelius Campbell (plus their law firm, Kilmer, Lane & Newman) $60,000 over a 2009 traffic stop they allege was racially motivated. Attorney David Lane sees this payout as yet another example of Denver's wrongheaded approach to dealing with the issue of police misconduct.
"These guys weren't beaten, so it's not as serious as some cases," concedes Lane, who didn't directly work on the Wortham-Campbell lawsuit (his partner, Darold Killmer, oversaw it) but is familiar with the basic facts. "But it involves racism, and I think a lot of these beatings we see are racist in nature."
The incident has been the subject of litigation for years. Indeed, one filing, dating back to 2010 and handled by a different law firm, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, was required to shake free internal affairs files related to the case. Why were those files so important? As Alan Prendergast reported in 2010, Sergeant Perry Speelman, who was named in the Wortham-Campbell complaint along with officers Jesse Campion and Tab Davis, has been the target of at least eighteen internal affairs investigations dating back to the 1990s, with many of them triggered by claims of unnecessary force and discourtesy.
That Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz suit, on view below, features an account of what took place on the evening of February 13, 2009. According to the document, Wortham and Campbell, who are both African American, were driving from their homes in northeast Denver to a club in LoDo. En route, they noticed that they were being closely followed by a DPD vehicle driven by Speelman.
Shortly thereafter, Speelman and the other officers, in a second vehicle, pulled over the pair, even though they'd studiously observed traffic laws for fear they'd been targeted. They say one officer approached the driver's side and yelled profanely for Wortham, who was behind the wheel, to produce his license, registration and insurance. Then they removed both men from the car, searched them, handcuffed them and set them on the curb, where they remained for a long, long time -- all the while being insulted and subjected to racial epithets by the cops, the suit maintains.
In the end, Speelman was ticketed for allegedly failing to wear a seat belt, failing to come to a complete stop before turning right at a red light and failing to sign his insurance card. But a judge at an evidentiary bench trail subsequently questioned Speelman's credibility and found that "police conduct was extreme, profane and racially motivated." Moreover, she determined that Wortham and Campbell (who'd earlier filed a complaint with the Internal Affairs Bureau claiming that they'd been racially profiled) were "unlawfully detained for an unreasonable time without reasonable suspicion."
Last night, the Denver City Council signaled their agreement with this conclusion by agreeing to pay just over $21,000 to Wortham, nearly $14,000 to Campbell and $25,000 for legal fees. But the approach the council took in doing so frustrates Lane.
"When they agree to these settlements, its allegedly done in public," he says. "But only the vote is done in public -- and there's never any public discussion about what's going on with any given case. The city council meets behind closed doors. They talk to the City Attorney about why the hell we're spending all this money. And then, when the vote is taken, they go, 'We'd like to congratulate Sylvia on working 32 years at the Denver Public Library, and we'd also like to pay off this case.'
"The city council covers up this stuff as well as they can, which is not all that well," he goes on. "If they really wanted to spark some public outrage, they'd have public meetings dealing with every settlement, where they'd talk about what the case was about and why they were settling it. But that's not how they operate. They rubber stamp what they talked about behind closed doors, and the public doesn't understand what's happening."
Or why paying $60,000 for a four-year-old traffic stop unprompted by an actual crime makes sense. Here's the aforementioned 2010 lawsuit.
More from our News archive: "DPD racial profiling charges: The continuing costly saga of Sgt. Speelman."
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.