Just shy of eleven years ago, Michael DeHerrera was beaten by two Denver police officers, Randy Murr and Devin Sparks — an offense that could result in the pair scoring a jackpot cumulatively worth well over $1 million.
How? Murr and Sparks were initially given a mere three-day suspension for roughing up DeHerrera — but in 2011, following a community uproar over the incident, which was captured on video, their punishment was increased to termination. The action spurred a lengthy court battle that ended this week, when the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the City of Denver's appeal of a lower court ruling in the officers' favor. As a result, the pair are technically eligible for rehiring by the Denver Police Department and nine years' worth of back pay that would almost certainly exceed $500,000 for each.
Anthony DeHerrera, Michael's father, a 32-year veteran of the Pueblo Sheriff's Office, calls this development "sickening — and a black mark on the badge of good cops. I know 95 percent of cops are good, but what do you do with the 5 percent of bad cops? We've been fighting for eleven years to make sure these guys never got back on the street, where they could hurt someone else, but the justice system failed. And now these guys are probably going to get a million dollars in back pay."
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Ryan Luby, the public-information officer for the Denver City Attorney's Office, doesn't confirm that number, saying only that "we're going to work with opposing counsel to reach a resolution." When asked about the possibility of Murr and Sparks being rehired, he responds, "There are a lot of unknown question that need a lot of answers, and that's one of them."
Still, Anthony's estimate hardly seems beyond the range of possibility. A recruiting page on the DPD's website lists the starting pay for a police officer recruit at $58,633, with salaries ratcheting up by rank: $63,480 for a fourth-grade officer, $70,261 for third grade, $75,225 for second grade and $94,630 for first grade. Sparks had been on the force for under two years prior to the DeHerrera matter, but his attorneys could argue that he would have advanced up the career ladder had he not been sacked. Murr was a fifteen-year veteran who'd been promoted to corporal, a position currently salaried at $104,193. Multiply that by nine, and Murr's take nearly hits seven figures without factoring in Sparks.
What led to this scenario? It all started over a trip to the bathroom.
On April 4, 2009, as described in the "Findings of Fact" section of a February 2013 Civil Service Commission order regarding Murr and Sparks, DeHerrera and a companion, Shawn Johnson, caused a stir at 5 Degrees, a now-defunct club in LoDo, when both tried to use the women's restroom. Bouncers subsequently escorted both men outside, where they encountered Murr, who was working security at the venue in an off-duty capacity. Murr asked DeHerrera and Johnson to leave, prompting physical contact of some sort, though witnesses couldn't agree on who did the pushing, shoving and/or striking.
In any event, Johnson was subsequently taken to the ground by one Gabriel Esquibel at Murr's instruction. Meanwhile, DeHerrera phoned his father, Anthony. But the conversation was interrupted when Sparks, who arrived after the original incident, got physical with DeHerrera in an extreme way. The reason, the document suggests, is that Murr told Sparks that DeHerrera had punched him earlier and needed to go to jail.
Afterward, Sparks insisted that he'd gone after DeHerrera in response to aggressive movement and resistance on the latter's part — actions not on view in video captured on a nearby HALO camera. Likewise, Murr told investigators that he'd seen DeHerrera try to hit Sparks, contradicting the visual evidence.
Here's the clip, courtesy of Complete Colorado:
The attack was major news for months — and it blew up even bigger in August 2010, when then-Manager of Safety Ron Perea determined that Sparks and Murr should be suspended for three days without pay but not fired for their actions.
This conclusion was so reviled by a significant and vocal percentage of the public that Perea subsequently resigned. In March 2011, new Manager of Safety Charley Garcia fired Murr and Sparks, but they appealed the decision, and a hearing panel sided with them. The rationale: Because the cops had already accepted Perea's punishment (by not appealing the decision during a prescribed period), Garcia's move to can them for the same offense represented the equivalent of double jeopardy.
DeHerrera's September 2011 comments to Westword about these developments ring with irony today. "I knew it would be a long process," he told us, "but everything seemed so clear. The video speaks for itself, so we thought everything was laid out for things to happen smoothly and efficiently."
Hardly. The February 2013 Civil Service Commission report essentially re-fired Sparks but reversed Murr's dismissal. That prompted an appeal by the Manager of Safety's office, and in December 2013, the commission supported Garcia's right to fire the officers despite their acceptance of the suspension because he had acted "within a reasonable period of time" and his actions were prompted by "new and material evidence."
In response, Murr and Sparks headed to Denver District Court, where the case ground forward over the course of four-plus years. Finally, in November 2017, the district court affirmed the Manager of Safety's actions. But the officers remained unsatisfied, turning to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which flipped the script again.
According to the appeals court's ruling released in April 2019, Murr and Sparks "argue that appellee the Civil Service Commission of the City and County of Denver...erroneously interpreted the Charter of the City and County of Denver...to grant the Manager of Safety...implied authority to reopen their disciplinary matter, rescind the discipline previously imposed, and order more severe penalties, all after the order became final and the time for appealing it had expired." The simple conclusion of the three-judge panel that considered the dispute: "We agree with the officers."
Denver's response: "The City is extremely disappointed and shocked by the Court of Appeals ruling, which effectively overrules previous decisions in its favor by the Denver District Court and Denver’s Civil Service Commission. The City can seek rehearing by the entire Court of Appeals or ask the Colorado Supreme Court to review the decision, but at this point the City Attorney’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, and Denver Police Department still need to confer about next steps."
After this huddle, the City of Denver asked that the Court of Appeals as a whole (it consists of 22 judges) reconsider the panel's conclusions. After this request was rejected, the only options left were to accept the panel's decision and settle the case...or turn to the Colorado Supreme Court, whose denial of the case came down on March 9.
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According to Anthony DeHerrera, Michael, who still lives in Denver, has asked him to speak for the family about the court's refusal. "I'm very disappointed," he acknowledges. "It's like getting hit in the gut one more time by this whole situation. In a couple of weeks, it'll be eleven years that we've been fighting this, and we fought it because we knew our son hadn't done anything wrong. And now they're going to get all those years of paid vacation. They're getting rewarded for what they did."
In his view, "Ron Perea messed this up from the start. Charley Garcia tried to fix it, but the appeals court said they didn't have the power to rescind Ron Perea's decision."
Still, he continues, "we're very proud of Michael for standing up about this, and we backed him the whole way. He set an example for other people to come forward about Denver police brutality, and a lot of people have done that since then."
Such incidents have convinced Anthony, a law enforcer for more than three decades, that "something's got to change in Denver. These last eleven years, they keep saying they're going to change the culture and they're going to be more transparent. But then they just keep giving these bad cops their jobs back."