Law Enforcement

Justice Delayed: Have Denver Officials Been Listening to This Sexual-Assault Survivor?

Justice Delayed: Have Denver Officials Been Listening to This Sexual-Assault Survivor?
Getty Images/Westword Illustration
Call her TC.

The Denver resident, a woman of color, does not want to be identified; she chose this moniker to speak for the first time publicly and in detail about the entire hellish odyssey she's gone through — one that started with a shocking crime six years ago and continues to this day because, she says, the many Denver officials to whom she's turned, including Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen and several past and present executives with the city's Department of Public Safety, didn't do nearly enough to help and often heaped harm upon harm.

"I've been continuously traumatized and re-traumatized for years," she says.

In the summer of 2016, TC was sexually assaulted by a man she'd just met. Although she managed to locate him and his friend, who'd witnessed what happened but did nothing to stop it, neither was prosecuted.

But that was only the beginning. Corporal Zachery Phillips, who was among the Denver Police Department officers to respond to a call about the attack, took advantage of the situation in ways that she summarized in her application to Colorado's Address Confidentiality Program, a service designed to help survivors of stalking, sexual assault and domestic violence. "Phillips contacted me from his personal cell phone and pursued a relationship with me," she wrote. "He made unwanted advances, and engaged in...harassment."

In 2018, Phillips was disciplined for his offenses, but the punishment barely qualified as a wrist slap. He received a total of two fined days for his actions regarding TC — much less than the fifteen days he got after a 2017 incident in which he admitted to paying for sex with a prostitute. But for TC, this lack of serious punishment was made infinitely worse by language in the Denver Department of Public Safety order that falsely suggested she and Phillips had been involved in a consensual relationship.

Phillips declined Westword's request for an interview, and in recent days, there's been confusion about his employment status. On February 8, DPD spokesperson Doug Schepman confirmed that "Phillips is a member of the Denver Police Department" in an email exchange in which he also turned down a request for a photo of the officer because of "safety concerns," even though the department gave one to 9News in 2018 for its report about discipline deals for Denver police officers. However, a revised order from Armando Saldate, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's nominee to lead the Denver Department of Public Safety, which was emailed to TC late on February 14, ends with this line: "Zachery Phillips is no longer a Denver Police employee."

The next day, on February 15, Department of Public Safety spokesperson Kelly Jacobs told Westword: "The last line was included in error — Officer Phillips is still with the department."

Such mixed messages have been typical over TC's long and frustrating odyssey. Since 2018, she repeatedly attempted to get the references in the order changed, and two years ago, she actually sat down with Pazen — a meeting set up by her most powerful advocate, Lisa Calderón, a former Denver mayoral candidate who was then serving as chief of staff to Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. During the conversation, Pazen not only admitted that the order's reference to a nonexistent relationship was inaccurate and promised to see what he could do to get it changed; he also seemed receptive to letting TC create a training video for both incoming and current DPD officers that might help prevent what she'd gone through from happening to anyone else. "I thought, 'This is great — a step to the healing process and trusting the police department again,'" she recalls.

But after more than a year of planning, TC was abruptly told the video wasn't going to happen, in what she and Calderón see as retaliation for Calderón's public criticism of Murphy Robinson, the Denver Department of Public Safety's executive director at the time.

Robinson, who hasn't responded to requests for comment, subsequently left his government role. But a spokesperson for his designated successor, Saldate, who's up for confirmation by Denver City Council on February 22, told Westword that Saldate would consider making changes in the order.

And in fact, Saldate's revision, dated February 10 but not sent to TC until four days later, does reword the specific language to which she objected. However, the changes were made without any direct interaction with her, and she's unhappy with the results. "The letter doesn't reflect any of the truth," she says.

She reacts similarly to a statement from the DPD's Schepman that she still may be able to contribute to improving the police department's culture, despite the fact that the training program for which the video was intended has already been completed. No one from the City and County of Denver bothered to tell that to TC, and the news leaves her feeling frustrated but not surprised. "There's no explanation for what I went through, and what I'm still going through," she says. "It shows that the system is definitely flawed in multiple ways across the board."

Adds Calderón: "Every year, Chief Pazen comes out and talks about how, in the campaign against sexual assault, 'We start by believing.' And that's infuriating, because they didn't start by believing her."
click to enlarge Corporal Zachery Phillips in a Denver Police Department photo shared with 9News in 2018. - DENVER POLICE DEPARTMENT VIA 9NEWS
Corporal Zachery Phillips in a Denver Police Department photo shared with 9News in 2018.
Denver Police Department via 9News
On Fourth of July weekend in 2016, TC and a friend grabbed a quick drink at the defunct club Cold Crush, then headed over to the Meadowlark, a nightspot at 2701 Larimer Street. There, they met Jack and Donald, two men we're referring to by pseudonyms because they weren't charged with a crime. The pair hailed from opposite coasts (East for Jack, West for Donald) and were in town to attend what they described as a Chinese wedding in Lakewood.

TC and her friend lived nearby, and Jack, who's white, and Donald, who's Black, offered to walk them home. The pair stuck around after the friend began to feel sick — something that seemed strange, TC recalls, since neither she nor TC had consumed more than a couple of alcoholic beverages. After TC got her friend settled on the couch, she remembers telling the men at least three times that they could go. Neither had taken the hint when TC began feeling incapable of keeping her eyes open — a sensation so extreme that she says she believes she and her friend were drugged.

Although TC doesn't share the specifics of Jack's attack, she says that she fought him off after being awakened by an assault and confirms that his DNA was left at the scene. Donald stayed in the next room and didn't intervene on her behalf, she adds.

TC ordered the men to leave, and they did. She then called 911, but the officers who responded stayed mostly on the home's lawn or front porch, and didn't examine the bedroom to see if any physical evidence had been left behind. A short time later, the women were transported by ambulance to Denver Health, where TC experienced a series of events that made a bad situation worse. She was left alone in a room for two to three hours, provided a urine sample that she doesn't believe was ever collected, and was given a SANE exam — a routine procedure after a report of sexual assault — much later than the process should have been conducted, she remembers. Even more problematic were medical reports that said she was intoxicated rather than the victim of a controlled substance consumed without her knowledge; that conclusion was amended a year later at TC's insistence.

Upon her release from the hospital, TC returned home, and when she found physical evidence that the officers had missed, she dialed 911 again. This time, Corporal Phillips was among the cops who responded. He seemed sympathetic, and she says that when she asked him if she should try to track down her assailants, he told her that it wasn't a great idea from a safety perspective, "but if I were you, I would be doing the same thing."

TC did manage to find the location of the wedding, and when she peeked inside the venue, she spotted Donald — he stood out because he was the only Black man at the event — later joined by Jack. At that point, she again dialed 911; a couple of officers from the Lakewood Police Department arrived and quizzed the men. Both said they'd done nothing wrong, and they weren't arrested or taken into custody.

The LPD officers urged TC to leave the venue, and she took their advice. But she also reached out to Phillips, who she felt had treated her compassionately, and after he spoke to one of the Lakewood officers on her behalf, she sent him a thank-you email.

Before long, Phillips was regularly texting TC using his personal cell phone, and while some of his messages initially appeared to be benign, they ultimately crossed plenty of lines. "We can always run away to the Caribbean together and disappear forever," one reads. Another talked about how pretty she and her friend were, and a third encouraged her to let him know when TC wasn't with her then-current boyfriend anymore.

In May 2017, after Phillips sent a message saying that he wasn't sure if they should communicate anymore because of the risk that she might blow the whistle on him, TC changed her phone number. But she didn't immediately contact the DPD's internal affairs office about his behavior, she says, for fear that doing so might get in the way of Jack and Donald being prosecuted.

They weren't. The men's DNA failed to score a hit in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, and after TC had difficulty identifying them in a photo lineup, she was told during a September 2017 meeting that the Denver District Attorney's Office wouldn't file charges against the men. The rationale TC remembers being given: "I'd gone to a wedding I wasn't invited to and picked out the only Black male — and what was a jury going to say about that?"

"The Denver DA’s Office starts by believing victims of sexual assault, and we are not in the business of refusing these cases," says Carolyn Tyler, spokesperson for the Denver DA's Office. "However, we have an ethical obligation not to file a case that we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury."

This determination hit TC hard. It wasn't until January 2018 that she felt ready to formally file a complaint against Phillips. Later conversations she had with assorted DPD representatives struck her as rude and dismissive — and even more troubling was the description of Phillips's actions regarding TC in the two-days-without-pay order that was finally issued in April 2018. Then-Deputy Director of Safety Jess Vigil wrote that Phillips had a "personal relationship with a sexual assault victim he met while on duty" and added, "This relationship continued for at least a year and then ended."

This characterization was deeply offensive, says TC, who stresses that she only met with Phillips in person twice, always in the presence of others, and never did anything inappropriate. Indeed, she only kept in contact with him because he was giving her inside information about the investigation. She asked that the order's language be changed "since it was on the record that I had a relationship with the officer, and that isn't true."

The request seemed simple. It's proven to be anything but.

click to enlarge Lisa Calderón has championed the cause. - EMERGE COLORADO
Lisa Calderón has championed the cause.
Emerge Colorado
Around this time, TC got in contact with Lisa Calderón, a well-known figure in Denver thanks to her work as the co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum.

"I think I got on her radar because I'd been very vocal about challenging the mayor," says Calderón, who's now the executive director of the advocacy organization Emerge Colorado. In April 2018, she'd filed a federal lawsuit against Mayor Michael Hancock, the City and County of Denver and other officials, alleging that a $550,000 contract for her Community Re-Entry Program, designed to help inmates transition back into society after serving their sentence, was turned down for reasons of political retribution. The first judge to hear the case rejected Calderón's claim about the program, which shut down at the end of 2017, but the case was reinstated in March 2021.

Calderón, who'd previously worked as a victim's advocate, says she immediately recognized the damage done to TC, as well as her resilience. "She came prepared with all of this documentation, and what I saw appalled me," she recalls. "It was very clear-cut that this officer had tried to take advantage of someone who had reported a sexual assault. But where I really got involved was because they wouldn't change the record implying that it had been a dating relationship. She strongly objected to that mischaracterization, and I couldn't understand why they wouldn't make the change. It didn't seem to be a big ask. For twelve years, I worked as a legal director on behalf of crime victims, and that included correcting records. It's part of empowering their voice, so that they can say, 'This is what happened to me, in my words, not the system's words.'"

The system at the DPD put plenty of obstacles in front of TC. Sergeant David Timmerman of the Internal Affairs Bureau blocked her email address in June 2018 (Timmerman did meet with her on several other occasions). And in July 2018, Deputy Director of Safety Vigil hung up on her — a move preserved in an audio clip, because TC made it her practice to record her conversations with city representatives. Since Colorado is a one-party-consent state, such recordings are legal.

That September, she recorded a conversation with Eric Williams, who also had the deputy director title at the Department of Public Safety. He defended the "personal relationship" phrasing, saying, "It's one of those things that we are not interpreting it in any intimate kind of way, and I hope that you would do the same." He also suggested that he was going the extra mile by talking with her at all. "I will tell you this is very atypical for a deputy director-level person to actually call out and have these conversations," he said. "It's not something that we generally do, so when I tell you that, that you are getting access and that you are being listened to, I mean that."

Neither Vigil nor Williams is still with Public Safety.
click to enlarge Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen met with the assault victim. - KENZIE BRUCE
Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen met with the assault victim.
Kenzie Bruce
For more than a year, TC was unable to make direct contact with Denver's next head of Public Safety, Troy Riggs, despite many attempts. But in February 2020, a month after Riggs stepped down and three months before Hancock named Murphy Robinson as his successor, Chief Pazen agreed to meet with her and Calderón, and the results struck her at the time as a breakthrough. "I'd made this binder of all this information, and when he heard the call with Jess Vigil, he seemed visibly shocked that it had happened," she recalls. "We had limited time, but he said he was going to look into things."

A Zoom call with Pazen and Calderón in May 2020, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, appeared to have gone even better. During the session, Pazen said: "You presented a very good point and evidence with the text messages. I agree. No relationship. Maybe pursue a relationship. No friendship, and that means that you were never involved in any kind of friendship or anything else." About possible changes to the order, he stated, "We are working on that, and hope to have an answer very soon."

Just as meaningful was when Pazen "very genuinely apologized," TC says. "He wasn't proud of how the department had treated me, that it didn't represent its values, and he acknowledged the missteps." With Calderón's support, TC mentioned her idea about participating in training, and Pazen seemed receptive: "He said, 'I think that's great. We can learn from her story.'"

Shortly thereafter, TC was put in touch with a DPD detective who was supposed to help make the video and training program a reality, but the process dragged out through the remainder of 2020 and much of 2021. And the timing of an August 11 sit-down had another complication: It took place one day after Calderón published a piece in Westword headlined "Op-Ed: Murphy Robinson Accused Me of Racism. Here’s Why That's Sexist and He Should Resign." In her essay, Calderón lambasted Robinson for telling CBS4 Denver that she and Councilwoman CdeBaca had discriminated against his newly hired white woman staffer, dubbing the assertion "patently false."

Because Calderón had already moved to her position at Emerge Colorado, she didn't attend an August 25 follow-up meeting; TC was accompanied by a representative from the Blue Bench, which describes itself as "Metro Denver's only comprehensive sexual-assault support and prevention center." As TC recalls: "Chief Pazen said the Department of Public Safety wasn't going to change the order, and he wouldn't tell me who made the decision. I asked him, 'Does this have anything to do with the current situation between Murphy Robinson and Lisa Calderón?,' and he wouldn't answer me."

From that point on, TC says, she was essentially frozen out by Pazen and Robinson. A short time after Thanksgiving, Bee Ling Withers, the DPD's business operations administrator, called to say that "the training was off the table, and that this had been communicated to me — which it hadn't," TC recalls. "Nobody reached out to me. I didn't receive any emails or voicemails. Nothing." Afterward, she made repeated requests that material she'd loaned to the department for the training be given back, to no avail, and when she made a special trip to the department to pick it up in early January, she left empty-handed. Only after Westword contacted the Department of Public Safety and the Denver Police Department for this story did a representative from the DPD's crisis services bureau contact her with an offer to facilitate its return.
click to enlarge Armando Saldate is up for confirmation by Denver City Council as the next head of Public Safety. - DENVERGOV.ORG
Armando Saldate is up for confirmation by Denver City Council as the next head of Public Safety.
Department of Public Safety spokesperson Jacobs had this to say about the training video: "About two years ago, the Denver Police Department proposed an opportunity for [TC] to contribute to officer training, and that dialogue had many stops and starts. The training has since been completed in partnership with other stakeholders."

Denver Police spokesman Schepman offers this: "DPD presented the opportunity to [TC] to contribute to training curriculum, made a good-faith effort over an extended period of time to bring it to fruition, and that door remains open."

The DPD has not shared the training material with Westword. According to Schepman, the "curriculum regarding sexual assault investigations is delivered to recruit officers at the Denver Police Academy, is victim-centered, includes content from End Violence Against Women International, and meets Colorado POST [Peace Officers Standards and Training] standards. Rules and regulations, including 'conduct prejudicial,' is covered in separate trainings."

TC learned about these developments from Westword, not Denver officials. She says that Schepman's comment about a door remaining open directly contradicts what she was told in late 2021, and characterizes the invitation as "damage control."

As for the city's reluctance to change the language in the order against Phillips, that was a topic of discussion during a recent public forum, thanks to Calderón and Dr. Robert Davis, coordinator for the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, a community-based initiative formed in the wake of the 2020 social justice protests sparked by the murder of Minneapolis's George Floyd. On January 25, the task force staged a Zoom meeting with Saldate, and TC's case was a major focus. Davis, who'd spoken to Saldate about the issue in advance of the meeting, and Calderón spent about ten minutes pressing the issue. In response, Saldate admitted that he hadn't been able to look into the situation but promised that he would.

Here's a recording of the meeting. The section about TC begins just past the 49-minute mark; she's not named in the conversation.
Saldate did indeed issue a revised order, which no longer uses the word "relationship" and refers to TC as a "victim." But TC, who received the order late on February 14, is troubled by some of the wording, including a passage that says Phillips "saw her in person on at least two occasions"; there were only two, she emphasizes. She's also puzzled by a sentence that notes, "Officer Phillips has no prior Conduct Category C, or higher, violations within the specified timeframe of five (5) years that would mandatorily increase the penalty level" of the two fined days he was given in 2018, even though he'd been disciplined for soliciting a prostitute in 2017 — a Category F offense.

And she had to find out for herself that Phillips was named in a November 2005 excessive-force lawsuit filed by David Nettles that was later settled by the City and County of Denver for an undisclosed sum. In verifying this last connection, the DPD's Schepman points out that "there was no internal-affairs complaint or discipline for Officer Phillips associated with that incident."

To TC, the lack of communication in advance of the order's revision resulted in her once again being cut out of the process. Saldate "never asked to verify any information," she says. "I’m insulted, and it appears that he just wanted to put his name on a document for good-face purposes, not actually caring about the deeper issue."

As a result, "I guess I keep fighting," she says. But then she adds this: "Not 'I guess.' I do."

Calderón is in awe of TC's persistence despite the disrespect she's suffered over such a long period of time.

"I believe they consider her a pain in their ass, and they are tired of hearing her mouth," Calderón says. "And I know that's true about me, too. They do not like to hear from mouthy women, and the fact that she has not given up this fight after so many years of not being believed, not being listened to, speaks so much about her character and her strength. She's a petite woman who can hold her own with the bigwigs, and she has found her voice in a way that is unapologetic."

The bottom line for TC is simple. "This is an officer who was supposed to be protecting and serving the public, but that's not what he did for me," she says. "And I'm not going to stop pursuing justice until I clear my name."

Click to read the September 2017 Zachery Phillips discipline letter, regarding the prostitute-related offense; the April 2018 discipline letter, involving his harassment of TC; and the February 2022 revision of the 2018 letter.
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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