Late last year, the ACLU of Colorado put together a graphic highlighting six cases of alleged mistreatment of black suspects by members of the Aurora Police Department since 2015. With recent payouts to Omar Hassan and Dwight Crews, the City of Aurora has now settled five of the six cases for a cumulative total of $3.12 million in taxpayer money.
"There's been a multi-year trend of case after case in which Aurora police officers are sued for violating the constitutional rights of people of color," says ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein. "I think that pattern means the Aurora Police Department needs some serious self-examination."
Hassan and Crews represent a relatively small amount of this sum. Hassan received $40,000 as a result of a March 2016 incident during which two APD officers allegedly told him "Your kind of business is not welcome here" when he stopped into a coffee shop while wearing a hoodie and ordered a muffin. Crews got $35,000 for a November 2015 roughing-up at the hands of Aurora cops prompted by his cat slipping out of the house.
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Aurora dodged culpability when it came to Jeffrey Gale, who said cops hogtied him and then switched off their body cameras so they couldn't be seen jolting him with a Taser after a June 2015 pickpocketing bust; his lawsuit, filed the next year, was dismissed in early 2017. But the city paid big money to three other individuals referenced in the graphic, which can be seen here:
In November 2016, Aurora ponied up $2.6 million to settle the fatal shooting of Naeschylus Vinzant by Aurora police officer Paul Jerothe the previous year. The following July, Darsean Kelley, who Silverstein told us "was basically stopped for walking while black and then tased in the back while he was saying, 'I know my rights,'" took home a $110,000 settlement.
More recently, this past May, Aurora forked over $335,000 to settle a lawsuit filed against three members of the Aurora Police Department by OyZhana Williams regarding a 2015 run-in during which she had her head stomped in the parking lot of a hospital where her boyfriend was being treated for a gunshot wound, apparently because a cop lauded for heroism during the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting didn't like the way she dropped her keys.
Aurora admitted no wrongdoing in the Williams matter, but in the opinion of her attorney, Adam Frank, the cash carried a clear message. "I've never heard of anyone paying $335,000 because they did nothing wrong," he said in a previous interview. The city's statement, which maintained that the settlement was made to avoid the cost of prolonged litigation, "is the kind of thing defendants say, and it's unfortunate that they say it. But I think any reasonable person knows you don't pay a third of a million dollars unless you did something wrong."
Silverstein makes a similar observation about the Hassan and Crews deals.
"In settlements like these, the police don't actually acknowledge that they did something wrong," he points out. "They're always careful to say they're settling this, but it's not an acknowledgement that they're actually legally liable."
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The sums Hassan and Crews accepted are modest in comparison with the other three settlements, but Silverstein doesn't think the dollar amounts mean what happened to them was less serious. "Sometimes clients, and especially clients who don't have much money, are willing to accept an amount that's certain instead of continuing with litigation where the ability to get more might be uncertain," he explains.
Given the recent history of Aurora police finding dubious reasons to roust African-Americans, Silverstein thinks the city would benefit from "some form of civilian review, or perhaps an independent monitor, like Denver has. That's an alternative to doing nothing and seeing a further decline in community trust, more incidents and more lawsuits."
He stresses that "there are just too many cases we hear about where persons of color are being mistreated by the law enforcement officers who are charged with protecting them. So we'll continue to push for that to be addressed in Aurora, and my colleagues around the country will push for that to be done in their jurisdictions, too."