DPD racial profiling charges: The continuing costly saga of Sgt. Speelman

There are mellow cops and in-your-face cops.Then there are cops like the Denver Police Department's Perry Speelman, the subject of at least 18 internal affairs investigations dating back to the 1990s, many triggered by complaints of alleged "unnecessary force" or "discourtesy."

Precisely how many complaints Speelman has generated is unknown. The DPD tends to be tight-lipped about officers' internal affairs records when the complaints are deemed to be groundless, and the disputes involving Speelman apparently haven't hurt his career; he's now a DPD sergeant. But a lawsuit, just filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in response to conduct by Speelman and others during a traffic stop last year, seeks to pry loose internal affairs records that the DPD insists on trying to keep secret -- a battle the department has lost again and again, in five previous challenges by the ACLU.

"When it comes to violating the open records laws, the Denver Police Department is a habitual offender," says the ACLU's Mark Silverstein in a press release.

The current lawsuit stems from a traffic stop of Ashford Wortham and Cornelius Campbell, two African-American males who were on their way to LoDo one Friday night in February 2009. Wortham and Campbell say they were pulled over by Sgt. Speelman and two other white officers for no reason, ordered out of their car at gunpoint, then searched, handcuffed and subjected to racial slurs. After a check with dispatch turned up no outstanding warrants, Wortham (the driver) was issued a ticket for allegedly failing to wear a seatbelt and other minor violations.

Wortham filed a complaint with the DPD's Internal Affairs Bureau, claiming to have been a victim of racial profiling. The subsequent investigation concluded that Wortham's complaint was unsubstantiated -- in other words, the officers did nothing wrong. But Denver County Court Judge Aileen Ortiz-White saw the matter differently. After some inconsistent testimony by Speelman at a hearing, she dismissed the charges against Wortham, finding that the police conduct in the stop was "extreme, profane and racially motivated" and that Wortham and Campbell were "unlawfully detained for an unreasonable time and without reasonable suspicion."

But when Wortham and Campbell tried to inspect the IAB file on the incident, their request was denied. The DPD argues that it's "contrary to the public interest" -- not to mention the "privacy interest" of their officers -- to release internal affairs records when no misconduct has been found.

The ACLU disagrees, of course, seeing a high degree of public interest in disclosing what Speelman and the other officers do and say while wearing the uniform, particularly when a judge has found evidence of racial profiling. It's a point the organization has pursued successfully five times before.

One of those cases, back in 2004, involved another racial profiling complaint by an African-American male. The DPD had to give up the files concerning the officers involved, including one Perry Speelman, whose history of internal affairs complaints at that point tallied seventeen. Speelman was one of the defendants in a subsequent civil rights lawsuit, which the city settled for $75,000.

Steve Zansberg, lead counsel on the current case, says DPD's policy regarding the release of internal affairs records has been far from consistent -- or reasonable.

"Police have no expectation of privacy with respect to what they do on the job," he says. "What makes their position on this so egregious is that it's a blanket denial of every word in the file. Any citizen should be able to see a complaint summary for any officer."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast