Dog shooting update: Lawsuit filed against cop found not guilty, Commerce City

Last month, Commerce City Police Officer Robert Price was found not guilty in a controversial 2012 dog shooting caught on video; see our previous coverage below.

Immediately afterward, Gary Branson, owner of Choe, the dog that was killed, said he would likely file a civil lawsuit in the case, and he was as good as his word. Continue for our interview with Branson's attorney, who offers her take on the verdict and what she sees as a search for justice.

As we've reported, Chloe, described as Branson's therapy dog, was being temporarily kept at a house in Commerce City when she snuck out of the garage. A neighbor, Kenny Collins, called the authorities and recorded law enforcers' actions on a cell-phone camera. The video he shot shows Chloe being tased by a policeman and snared on a catch pole by a community service officer -- the equivalent of animal control in Commerce City. But the policeman, subsequently identified as Price, felt Chloe remained out of control and fired his weapon multiple times, shooting and killing her.

Prosecutors in Adams County subsequently charged Officer Price with animal cruelty. But despite the video evidence, which the thousands of folks on the Justice for Chloe Facebook page see as irrefutable, Price was ultimately cleared of the charge.

Like Branson, who she represents, attorney Jennifer Edwards of the Wheat Ridge-based Animal Law Center was very unhappy about the decision.

"Justice was not gained with the criminal case," she says. "Mr. Branson would have been able to get restitution or some sort of level of justice had there been a guilty verdict. We were headed in the direction of a civil suit even before the not-guilty verdict was handed down, but that definitely sealed its fate."

Edwards was also displeased with Commerce City's lack of outreach after the jurors weighed in: "They've had no contact with us. They didn't try to get in touch with Mr. Branson or his counsel to rectify the situation or to apologize. There's been no effort to correct this wrong."

Although Edwards disagrees with the verdict, she believes "there were a lot of very good reasons" that the jury acquitted Price. In her view, "there were a lot of things missing" from the prosecution's presentation "that should have been put on as evidence -- particularly the necropsy report and a lot of the scientific evidence they had at their disposal that wasn't used. They could have used a more enhanced video, too -- and they didn't call a use-of-force expert or an animal behaviorist to give a voice to what was happening to Chloe during the incident."

Still, Edwards thinks the most important factor in the loss was the judge's jury instructions regarding "choice of evils.... Basically, it meant that even if Officer Price was completely mistaken in his assumption that he was choosing the lesser of two evils" by shooting Chloe, "he could still be found not guilty. That was a very bad thing for the prosecution."

As for the civil suit, it's been filed in federal district court for Colorado and names Price, community service officers Arica Bores and Christopher Castillo, plus Commerce City itself, for what Edwards considers "very appropriate reasons. There was a prior dog shooting there in 2010," involving a police officer and a dog named Zoey, "so they were very well aware there was a potential problem. But they didn't put any new policies or procedures in place, and even though they did do training, we discovered through our depositions that the officers thought it was a joke -- they didn't take it seriously.

"Commerce City has done nothing to rectify the shooting of Zoey in 2010, and as a result, the shooting of Chloe happened in 2012," she argues.

The suit is intended to "send a message," Edwards goes on. "We now have the Dog Protection Act in this state, which is wonderful, and we'll have some mandatory training. But cities need to develop policies and procedures for dog encounters."

More immediately, though, "we're just looking for justice for Chloe," she says. "And I know there are a lot of people in Colorado, and a lot of people outside Colorado, who want the same thing."

Continue for our previous coverage of the not guilty verdict in the shooting of Chloe in Commerce City, including photos and video. Original post, 6;50 a.m. October 3: In November 2012, Commerce City Officer Robert Price shot and killed a dog named Chloe in an incident caught on video. Afterward, Price was charged with animal cruelty in a move his supporters said was motivated by public pressure.

Nearly a year later, Price has been found not guilty. The decision was cheered by Commerce City but slammed on a Facebook page that had demanded justice for Chloe. Photos, videos and details below.

As we've reported, Chloe was being temporarily kept at a house in Commerce City when she snuck out of the garage. A neighbor, Kenny Collins, called the authorities and recorded law enforcers' actions on a cell-phone camera. The video he shot shows Chloe being tased by a policeman and snared on a catch pole by a community service officer -- the equivalent of animal control in Commerce City. But the policeman, subsequently identified as Price, felt Chloe remained out of control and fired his weapon multiple times, shooting and killing her.

Most viewers of the video didn't see evidence that Chloe was a threat to the public, as the police maintained. As such, community outcry over the shooting was considerable at venues such as the Justice For Chloe Facebook page, which currently has more than 4,700 likes. Several weeks later, the Adams County District Attorney's Office filed an animal cruelty charge against Price. But while this move was cheered by many observers, it was denigrated by the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, which decried what it saw as a lynch-mob mentality fueled by the video. Here's an excerpt from its open letter:
Under public and political pressure the department suspended its administrative review and sent the matter to the Adams' County DA's office for review. We know that District Attorney Don Quick and his office were inundated with outside complaints about the incident from certain interested groups. In this caustic atmosphere his office found itself under the eye of the media on what had fast become a controversial politically sensitive event.
Dave Young, the current 17th Judicial District DA, who took over for the aforementioned Don Quick, subsequently issued a statement in reply to the police group's implications about bowing to the public's will in the matter. "Our office makes decisions on the filing of criminal charges based upon thoughtful consideration of the evidence, not based upon outside influences or the status of the offender," he maintained.

Assistant District Attorney Jess Redman echoed this assertion in a January interview with Westword. While he couldn't comment directly about the facts of the Price prosecution, he said, "What I can tell you is, we handled this just as we handle every case. We're provided information from a law-enforcement agency or conduct our own investigation, and any filing is based on evidence. And we're going to let the evidence speak in a court of law."

In the end, though, the jury was not convinced.

Continue for more about Office Robert Price's not guilty verdict, including photos and videos. Price's attorneys contended that their client had acted in defense of the community service officer, who was having difficulty controlling Chloe on the catch pole even after the animal had been tased. Their argument is that the dog was charging at her when Price opened fire.

The jury ultimately sided with Price -- and shortly after its verdict, Commerce City released the following statement:

"We thank the jury for a thoughtful conclusion to an emotionally charged event. Commerce City places the highest value on the safety and well-being of our community, our citizens and our employees. Our police department is committed to the vision of setting the standard of excellence for public safety and service in the region. Now that the verdict has been rendered, the chief of police will complete the administrative review, taking the appropriate next steps to positively move the department forward."
Even before the review's completion, however, Price, who's been on administrative leave, will return to duty.

Gary Branson, the dog's owner, was far less pleased by the trial's resolution. In a conversation with 7News, he shared his view that the incident could have been handled better and suggested that he will file a civil lawsuit against Price.

The reaction on the Justice for Chloe Facebook page was much less politic. A post-verdict timeline post reads:

There are times when I am embarrassed to be part of the human race. This is one of those times. Humans fail animals every single day and here again humans have failed Chloe. Here was the opportunity to hold an officer accountable for his out of control actions. Videos do NOT lie and the video clearly shows he was WRONG in his actions. It is because of the actions of some that the police as a whole are not respected, that they are feared and hated, and why the majority do not believe in justice. It has NEVER been about revenge but about holding Price and others like him accountable for their actions. For those that have criticized the motives of this page, the admins, and others like it let's see how you feel when it is YOUR pet that is murdered. Let's see if you will be so forgiving and critical then. Although I am deeply disappointed in the jury and our legal system this will only serve to strengthen my resolve and make me work all the harder for change. It WILL happen because we will NOT give up or give in. That I promise.
Look below to see the 7News report, followed by raw footage of the events that led to Chloe's death.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Robert Price in court: Dog-kill cop's charges not fueled by public pressure, DA's office says."

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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