At the end of a largely peaceful protest three weeks ago, after Civic Center Park had been cleared by police, 23-year-old Sam Eagleburger joined others at 14th and Sherman to form a circle around a man who was having an asthma attack brought on by tear gas. Just before midnight on May 31, the group called street medics to make sure the man was all right. Then, as the protesters made their way back to the Capitol, they were surrounded by police shooting pepper spray and rubber bullets.
Eagleburger and the dozen or so people he was with tried to run away, but the police ordered them to the ground, screaming expletives, he remembers. They had violated the 8 p.m. curfew instituted the day before by Mayor Michael Hancock.
Eagleburger was handcuffed and forced onto the ground, directly into a pile of what seemed to be human feces. He recalls one of the officers saying to him, “Oh, you sh*t yourself?” Another walked by and commented, “This stinks. This is what anarchists smell like, right?”
He was pulled out into the street, searched for weapons, then told to take off his pants and shoes, Eagleburger says. He and other protesters were put in a Denver Police Department paddy wagon — there was a dirty needle on one seat, he recalls, but a protester was forced to sit there — and then officers began pulling people out one by one to take selfies with them. A captain took a picture with the arresting officer and Eagleburger on his phone, and then the arresting officer wanted one on his phone as well.
The protesters were taken a few blocks away to the Downtown Detention Center, where they had to wait in a holding area for a few hours without masks; deputies had taken them away, Eagleburger says. During the wait, he met a restaurant owner who'd been arrested for violating curfew while delivering leftover food to the homeless. The restaurateur had knives in his car, he told Eagleburger, and the cops were trying to charge him with possessing deadly weapons.
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After he was moved to the intake area about 6 a.m. June 1, Eagleburger was eventually given a mask. There was no soap, even though a nurse warned him to wash his hands as much as possible and not to go near other people, to avoid catching the virus. “So we were contained with no ability to effectively create that hygiene,” he says.
During his time in in jail, Eagleburger felt himself growing detached. “I just kind of shut down,” he says. “I didn’t feel frightened. I’m white and male, so I didn’t feel threatened by them [he officers]. But there was this feeling of powerlessness. You kind of have to go numb to get through.”
Eagleburger was in jail for two nights. He didn't get a chance to bond out until thirty hours after he'd been arrested; his bail was $500. His cellmate, who'd been arrested the same night, was still in jail when Eagleburger bonded out. He faced no charges other than curfew violation.
Eagleburger considers curfew-violation arrests a tactic to keep people locked up and to exhaust the public, to quell the rage. “It’s par for the course for what the American state does to political opponents,” he says.
Francesca Lawrence, a 24-year-old graduate student, was arrested around the same time as Eagleburger after the May 31 demonstrations. She, too, saw police use tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, she says, and witnessed harassment of women, medical neglect and the purposeful withholding of information.
Lawrence's bail was also set at $500. She says that a friend went to the jail three times the day after her arrest for violating curfew, but was told that she didn't exist, or had already been released. In reality, her fingerprints hadn't been processed. He was finally able to make her bail at 10 p.m. on June 1, and she was released at 5 a.m. the next morning.
Unlike Eagleburger, Lawrence says she wasn't harassed by the Denver police officers who arrested her for curfew violation, but by the sheriff's deputy who came to take her to jail, kicked her bag and called her “retarded." That was better than what happened to two black men standing next to her, who were searched by the deputy. "When it was pointed out that they had already been searched, he said that there was probably something that they were hiding,” she says.
In the holding area, Lawrence joined about twenty other people, many covered with tear gas and coughing; their masks were also taken way. Lawrence says that when she asked why more health-safety protocols weren't in place, a deputy told her that it wasn’t his problem: “You shouldn’t have been arrested,” she remembers him saying.
One woman had been hit by a baton and was covered in blood; another man had blood dripping down his face. Neither were offered medical treatment, Lawrence says. Another woman told her that officers had refused to let her use a bathroom, and they'd laughed when she'd peed her pants. She had to sit in those pants for twelve hours.
Lawrence works with youth in the juvenile justice system, and believes that the lack of care and communication at the Downtown Detention Center was unconstitutional. She thinks that protesters could have received paper citations instead of being arrested and held in jail for days. "Sure, we were out past curfew, and that’s a valid reason to arrest us," she acknowledges. "But to hold us for a day and a half…and what we experienced didn’t seem right.”
Both Lawrence and Eagleburger say that they never saw any lawyers around after they were arrested and slowly processed, and never even heard mentions of attorneys and their rights, or got an explanation of why the wait was so long.
Kristin Wood, administrator of the Denver County Court, says that she wasn't aware of any gaps or delays for court proceedings.
According to the Denver Sheriff Department, the system was overwhelmed with curfew violators on the night when Eagleburger and Lawrence were arrested. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been a practice for the Denver Sheriff Department (DSD) to provide individuals coming into the Denver Downtown Detention Center (DDC) with cloth face coverings in the Intake area as they wait to be processed," the DSD says in a statement to Westword. "During May 31-June 3, there were times in which there were unprecedented numbers of individuals brought into Intake, which resulted in the Department running out of face coverings. DSD’s Intake staff did their best to manage the large number of individuals and provide an environment in which everyone was processed as quickly as possible."
Other protesters tell stories similar to those of Eagleburger and Lawrence: They were shot by less-lethal munitions at short distances, had officers take their pictures, were made to take off their masks, and were held for hours, sometimes days, for fingerprint processing before being given a chance to bond out.
Twenty-year-old August Knowles, who was also arrested May 31, says that she and others were held in an alley like rats, surrounded and shot at from both sides by police using less lethal weapons. She reports being “kicked around” by her arresting officer, having her picture taken, and being forced to take off her face mask for longer than she felt comfortable at intake. Charged with violating curfew, she was held for 34 hours before she could bond out, she says.
Nineteen-year-old Lee Ann Denard was surprised by the number of young people she saw at the detention center after her arrest on May 31, and also by the lack of communication from officers about when they might be released. She says she was horrified by the poor sanitation during her time at the jail. Deputies would take a rag, spray it a few times, and run it across the railings and walls, she recalls; when women were released, their bunks weren't cleaned before new detainees were brought in.
Denard was held for 61 hours before she finally was given the opportunity to bond out, she says.
She, too, wonders why those stopped for curfew violations were held for so long rather than simply receiving fines. “I understand why we were arrested, but I would tell the police to arrest the right people," Denard says. "Arrest the ones who were looting, breaking buildings and shooting. Arrest the people who were doing this for the wrong reasons.”
On June 15, Denver dropped curfew-violation charges against approximately 320 protesters, according to Ryan Luby, public information officer for the Denver City Attorney's Office. That left about sixty cases involving more serious charges — from assault to threats, destruction of property, carrying a dangerous weapon, throwing stones or missiles, and obstruction of the street.
All curfew charges went through the city attorney's office. Carolyn A. Tyler, communications director for the Denver District Attorney's Office, said that as of June 16, the DA's office had twelve open cases stemming from the protests. The charges in those cases were more serious, including everything from criminal attempt to commit murder in the first degree to first-degree assault, criminal trespass, carrying a concealed weapon, second-degree burglary and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.
Although the city attorney's office says that all curfew-only charges have been dropped, Eagleburger, Lawrence, Knowles and Denard all report being unaware that their cases have been dismissed. Lawrence says that people with whom she was arrested have tried calling various judicial and law enforcement offices but have been unable to reach anyone. "I think the status of our charges should have been communicated to everyone who was arrested in one way or another," she suggests. "Or at least made available who it was we should contact."
Of the 320 curfew-violation arrests made before the curfew was lifted on June 12, 16 were made on May 30; 99 on May 31; 126 on June 1; 63 on June 2; and 16 on June 3.
In a statement to Westword, DPD spokesman Doug Schepman notes that the arrests on May 31 followed the violent and destructive actions of some protesters in preceding days. “The illegal actions of a very small percentage of protesters resulted in police intervention and arrests/citations for a variety of violations including arson, assault, weapons violations, public fighting, burglary, destruction of public property, violation of the emergency curfew and more,” he says.
“DPD didn’t just arrest anyone who was violating the curfew order," he explains. "DPD arrested protesters who were violent after curfew hours and were given numerous advisements, both through broadcast recorded messages and by officers, to leave the area before arrests were made."
But that's not consistent with what 24-year-old Rachel Haltom experienced when she was arrested the following night.
On June 1, Haltom was out after curfew, volunteering as a street medic with more than a dozen others who were trying to be peacemakers: putting up fliers, breaking up fights, and stopping those who were shooting fireworks at the Capitol.
After getting a call from another medic who said a woman had fallen down behind the police line, Haltom says she asked officers if she could help her. They refused, but she tried to reach the woman anyway. As she crossed the line, she says, officers charged, trapping her and five other medics in a building alcove, then shooting a pepper round. After she and the others dropped to the ground, the officers continued shooting from very close range, she reports, throwing two canisters from each side when they blocked them in, then another when they were trapped. “The only reason I have my eye is because I was wearing protective goggles,” she says.
Still, she was unable to see when she was arrested and, with snot running out of her nose, the officers took pictures of her. “They were bragging about how bad off we looked,” she says.
Haltom, Eagleburger, Denard and Knowles all say they either plan to file complaints over their treatment or provide testimony for others' complaints. Lawrence says that she submitted a complaint to the Denver Sheriff Department a day or two after she was released, but hasn't heard back from anyone at the department.
Complaints about Denver law enforcement conduct are customarily reviewed by the Office of the Independent Monitor, and those that fall under the OIM's jurisdiction are forwarded to the Internal Affairs Bureau of either the Denver Police Department or the Denver Sheriff Department for review. Complaints found credible by the OIM are then presented to the Denver DA's Office.
“Denver District Attorney Beth McCann is committed to holding law enforcement officers accountable for their actions (including filing criminal charges) during the George Floyd protest. However, at this time, those cases are being reviewed by the Independent Monitor and we have not been presented with them,” Tyler says.
Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell says that his office has received hundreds of complaints regarding law enforcement conduct during and after demonstrations. "We're working with Internal Affairs to triage and investigate complaints from the protests," he explains. "When more evidence has been gathered, we'll have those conversations" with the DA's office.
It's challenging to identify the officers who are the focus of the complaint, he notes, since more than a dozen local law enforcement authorities helped the DPD. It's also difficult to determine where a pepper ball came from or who used a particular type of force in the middle of a chaotic conflict.
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On June 8, Denver City Council sent a letter to Mitchell asking that his office do a broad investigation into the general approach taken by the DPD during protests, looking into military equipment on the streets, use of force and more. Mitchell says that his small team is now trying to organize thousands of hours of footage. "The system is under a tremendous amount of stress right now given the volume," he says. "The reality is that people are working extremely hard to get through everything and collect evidence."
Haltom says that she's experienced PTSD since her arrest. “I was in a King Soopers parking lot, and I saw exhaust coming, but it wasn’t coming from a car because it had floated down. I thought it was tear gas, and I freaked out and ran away and hid,” she says. “The major lasting psychological effects aren’t really being considered.”
Haltom knew that the DPD had been making arrests at the protests before she decided to work as a medic. But she wasn’t prepared for the extent of violence she witnessed and personally experienced, she says.
“I genuinely assumed that those arrests were the people who were taunting the police, throwing things at the police and rioting," she explains. "I thought I was safe.”