Protest Watch

Claim: Denver Cops at Protests Shoot to Maim

Michael Acker after being shot in the eye during a Denver protest.
Michael Acker after being shot in the eye during a Denver protest. Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP
A Denver protest on November 4 resulted in scattered vandalism and eight arrests — and with uncertainty over this week's presidential election continuing to linger, there are fears of more clashes between demonstrators and police over the weekend.

Such a scenario raises concerns for attorney Andrew McNulty of Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP. McNulty represents Michael Acker in a lawsuit against the City of Denver over an incident that took place this past May during rallies decrying the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. According to the complaint, Acker was shot in the eye with a 40mm baton round while trying to help fellow participants clear their own eyes from chemical irritants used by Denver Police Department officers — a blast that required multiple stitches and likely would have permanently blinded that eye had Acker not been wearing a gas mask.

The suit stresses that this wasn't an isolated incident, and includes multiple images of other protesters who were shot in the face and other sensitive areas by munitions euphemistically described as "less than lethal."

"They weren't just shooting folks with rubber bullets or pepper balls," McNulty says. "They were shooting to maim. They were shooting people in the head, neck, groin. There are at least ten other instances when the police shot folks in the head, and that goes against their training and policies. It shows they were out there trying to abuse people and stop them from criticizing the police."

A spokesperson for the Denver City Attorney's Office declined to comment about the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.

Here's how McNulty describes what happened on May 28:

"Michael Acker is a college student at Colorado Mesa University over in Grand Junction," he begins. "He took to the streets as a young black man because he thought it was important to show his support after George Floyd was killed. He was part of the march on the first day of the protest that went down from the Capitol to I-25, although he didn't go onto I-25; he watched as other folks did. And as they were marching back downtown, right at the 15th Street bridge over I-25, he saw police unleash pepper balls on folks."

click to enlarge Two images of Michael Acker's injury shared in the lawsuit. - KILLMER, LANE & NEWMAN LLP
Two images of Michael Acker's injury shared in the lawsuit.
McNulty notes that "a friend of Michael had brought a gas mask to the protest and handed it to him, and after he put it on, he was helping folks wash out their eyes. But as he was doing that, an officer unloaded a 40mm baton round straight into his eye. It shattered the gas mask and resulted in him getting twenty stitches to his eye and face. It knocked him to the ground; he said it felt like a baseball bat had hit him in the head. Some other protesters pulled him to the side and they helped him wash out his eye, but he still couldn't see out of it, so they walked past the police line and an ambulance was called."

Acker, in McNulty's view, was "a good Samaritan who had police brutality unleashed on him. And this wasn't an accident. Remember the Denver Police officer who posted a picture on Instagram of himself in riot gear that said, 'Let's start a riot'? That was the attitude the DPD brought to these protests. They went into the streets trying to start a police riot. They were the instigators before any kind of violence or damage happened in the City of Denver during these protests."

Thus far, no video of Acker getting shot has surfaced; McNulty accuses "the city of stonewalling me and not providing me any documentation of videos, because they say it's still under investigation. This is the standard cover-up by the Denver Police Department. They say everything's under investigation for years on end, and at the end of the investigation, they clear all the officers and sweep everything under the rug."

To McNulty, the lawsuit is both an attempt to get justice for Acker and evidence that "we need to massively cut back on the militarization of police. The nights when there was no destruction and no violence during the protests over the summer were the nights when there were no police officers on the streets in riot gear confronting people. If there's ever been a better argument for getting rid of police militarization, I don't know what it is."

Click to read Michael Acker v. City of Denver, et al.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts