Driving While Black in Colorado Springs Is Even Riskier Than You Thought, ACLU Says

Since last year, as we've reported, the Colorado Springs Police Department has been under intense scrutiny over a controversial traffic stop involving Ryan and Benjamin Brown. Both men were busted, and Ryan was face-planted in the snow despite having done nothing wrong, as documented in a video accessible below.

The original rationale for the stop: a cracked windshield.

Now, the Browns, with assistance from the ACLU of Colorado and attorney Darold Killmer of the Denver law firm Killmer & Lane, are suing the CSPD. But as noted by ACLU of Colorado communications director John Krieger, the complaint goes beyond the incident itself.

"The suit is challenging the Colorado Springs Police Department's custom and practice of engaging in racially biased policing and conducting baseless, racially motivated stops and searches of young black men," he says.

This assertion is backed up by facts and figures. According to an ACLU analysis of CSPD data, Krieger maintains, "African-American men are as much as 161 percent more likely to be pulled over by police in Colorado Springs than would be expected given their proportion of the population."

The aforementioned video, recorded on March 25, 2015, offers a vivid example of this phenomenon. The clip begins with Ryan, in the front passenger seat of the vehicle, asking, "What's the reason you pulled us over, officer?" He adds, "I'm recording this. Police officers pulled us over for no reason. I got this on camera."

At that point, Officer David Nelson, who's also named in the lawsuit along with Officer Allison Detweiler and Steven Biscaro, a sergeant subsequently called to the scene, asks Ryan for identification.

"I have my ID and I'm recording this, just to let you know," Ryan says.

"Pass me your ID, please," Nelson responds. "Keep your hands where I can see them."

"Am I under arrest?" Ryan asks. "You failed to identify yourself, so I don't know who you are."

"You know, sir, I'm a police officer with the City of Colorado Springs," Nelson replies

"You failed to identify yourself," Ryan says.

Nelson tells him, "You need to cooperate. I just need your ID now."

"You failed to identify yourself," Ryan continues. "My hands are visible. I have the recorder recording. My brother is being put in handcuffs" — and indeed, the camera captures Benjamin's cuffing on the driver's side of the vehicle. "We were pulled over for no reason. He still has not identified why he pulled us over."

A few seconds later, Officer Detweiler can be seen pointing a taser at Ryan through the front passenger side window.

"Now I'm being perceived as a threat because we're being pulled over for absolutely no reason," Ryan says.

Around then, the passenger door is opened, and Nelson reaches toward Ryan, who asks, "Am I being placed under arrest?"

"You're not under arrest," Detweiler says.

"I'm asking for a reason we're being pulled over," Ryan emphasizes.

"I'm not pulling you over," Nelson says as he begins tugging Ryan from the vehicle.

"Why are you pulling me out of car? Sir?" Ryan wants to know. He adds, "Take your hands off of me. I have not did nothing. I have not did nothing. I have no weapons. I have no weapons. You have no reason to pull me out of the car. This is assault."

"Turn around. Turn around," Detweiler repeats as Nelson forces Ryan to the snow-covered ground and begins putting cuffs on one wrist. Ryan says, "You see this? You see this? Excessive force."

These are the last words heard in the video.

Benjamin, who was searched, handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle during Ryan's rousting, was eventually accused of driving with an obstructed view — a charge to which he pled guilty "under coercion," the lawsuit says. (The document states that the plea was entered without counsel, and his multiple attempts to withdraw it were rejected.) Ryan, for his part, was cited for "obstructing and resisting" — a charge that was eventually dropped, after the CSPD shrugged off his complaint about Nelson's behavior in what ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein previously characterized as a "boilerplate letter."

The matter didn't end there. The ACLU made an open-records request for documents related to the investigation, and among the information it received was a report in which Officer Detweiler criticized Nelson's conduct. Here's a key passage:
I do think that he [Ryan Brown] escalated things unnecessarily by his behavior in the car and his unwillingness to just be cooperative with the police, but I have to tell you, working with Nelson as much as I do that his — I don’t know how to put it. His – the way he escalates himself so rapidly, I think, sometimes escalates things more than they need to be, and it’s frustrating. He just thinks — he gets so excited that his ability to take things up here, brings things up there, and that’s frustrating for me. I feel like I’ve been put in sort of a bad spot by that, but having said that, the guys in the car were obviously not very cooperative, or at least, the passenger wasn’t because I tried to do my best to keep it sort of calm.
In another conversation, Sergeant Biscaro likened Nelson to "a BB in a boxcar to start with, so he — he's kind of excitable." However, Biscaro added that he didn't think Nelson was "anything over the top."

The lawsuit has a considerably different take. In addition to castigating police behavior in the Browns' stop, the complaint argues that "Colorado Springs has a custom, policy, and/or practice of doing the following to minority individuals: (1) engaging in racial profiling at the initial stop of individuals; (2) searching them without reasonable suspicion that they are armed or dangerous; and (3) unnecessarily detaining them for extended periods of time in an effort to build some basis for arrest."

Additionally, the suit contends that "African-American males are stopped by the Colorado Springs Police Department 97 percent more often than would be expected based on their proportion in the population in Colorado Springs as of the 2010 Decennial United States Census" — and that figure goes up to 120 percent when looking at men of driving age and to 161 percent during daylight hours, defined as the span between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

This last stat is particularly important in Krieger's opinion, because "during the daylight hours, that's when you can most easily tell who you're pulling over."

The officers in the Brown matter have received no discipline related to the incident. "The fact is, this stop was reviewed at the highest levels of the Colorado Springs Police Department, and they found their actions to be justified, legal and proper," Krieger says. "The department sees nothing wrong with the conduct of the officers, and that speaks volumes when it comes to protecting the rights of young African-American men."

Here's the video and the lawsuit.

Ryan and Benjamin Brown v. Colorado Springs

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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