Two years ago, when Joseph Valverde was shot and killed by a Denver police officer in broad daylight at a public park, the incident got less attention than might otherwise have been the case — and for a very unusual reason.
A short time after Valverde's death, on the same July day, what many saw as an even more shocking police shooting took place: the gun-down of Ryan Ronquillo, a suspected car thief who was killed by police in a vehicle outside a funeral home, where he'd gone for the viewing of a friend who'd taken his own life.
Unlike Ronquillo, Valverde had a gun in his possession when police swarmed in — and because he was in the midst of conducting a drug deal at the time, he didn't fit the mold of a sympathetic victim.
But now, mere weeks after a lawsuit was filed in the Ronquillo case, Valverde's mother, Isabel Padilla, who wrote a deeply emotional letter to us after her son's death, has followed suit — and the claims in the two documents are strikingly similar. The Ronquillo suit maintains that police didn't give Ryan a chance to surrender before opening fire, while attorney Raymond Bryant, who's representing Padilla, believes that Valverde was in the midst of giving himself up when Officer Justin Dodge pumped five shots into his body.
Moreover, Bryant has compelling evidence to support his assertions. Enhanced video of the shooting appears to show that Valverde had let go of his weapon and was in the midst of raising his hands when the bullets struck. In addition, audio caught by documentary filmmakers who just happened to have a camera rolling nearby when the shooting took place suggests that Valverde wasn't ordered to drop his gun until after he was shot, not before.
The video and the audio, caught in an excerpt from the documentary Tom's Life, are shared below, along with the lawsuit. Warning: The media content may disturb some readers.
On July 2, 2014, Bryant says, "police were engaged in an undercover drug buy — and Mr. Valverde went to Overland Park," located at 1075 West Florida Avenue, "to engage in that interaction."
Unbeknownst to Valverde, the police "had planned a full-scale SWAT operation to seize him and take him into custody," Bryant continues. "They threw out a flash grenade in an attempt to distract him, and four to six SWAT members surrounded Mr. Valverde."
Valverde was armed "for self-defense, because drug deals can be dangerous," Bryant maintains. "But he wanted to get rid of the weapon. You can see on video taken from a police helicopter that he took the gun out of his pocket, and he did it in a way that's very different from a point-and-shoot scenario. Anyone who wants to use a weapon in an aggressive manner will pull out the weapon and point it at the target — brandish the weapon or wave it around. But Mr. Valverde didn't do that. He extended it to his right side at the height of his pocket and dropped the weapon while, in the same fluid motion, he put his hands in the air in a clear surrender position."
Here are a series of screen captures from the video that illustrate Bryant's description. In the first, Officer Dodge can be seen approaching Valverde with his gun drawn and pointed. Valverde, for his part, has a weapon in his right hand, but it's directed down and away from Officer Dodge.
In the next image, the gun appears to be out of Valverde's grip and his hands are going up.
Image three captures the moment when the bullets strike Valverde. He begins curling up, buckling.
The fourth screen capture shows Valverde on the ground, and while the image is grainy, there seems to be blood on the pavement near his body.
Bryant feels that this footage "clearly contradicts" the accounts given by officers at the scene — and so does the audio from Tom's Life.
"The officer said he could see the muzzle of the gun, and the video shows that the gun was never pointed at the officer and Mr. Valverde dropped it before he was shot," Bryant allows. "And in these kinds of scenarios, officers are supposed to give a warning command that can be complied with — and they need to give someone an opportunity to comply with these commands. But the audio is clear. You can hear the officers say, 'Get down,' but there is no command to drop the weapon until after five shots are fired."
The lawsuit highlights other instances in which Bryant argues that Denver police officers "shot prematurely." Incidents cited include Ronquillo's, as well as the fatal shooting of Jessica Hernandez in January 2015 and the daylight killing of Dion Damon this past April. Hernandez was killed while sitting in a reportedly stolen vehicle in a Denver alley; Damon, a suspect in a bank robbery the previous month, died from police bullets fired as he sat in a car near the Denver Art Museum. Neither had a gun.
In all of these cases, Bryant says, "officers saw what they perceived to be a threat but shot before the threat became imminent. And this is critical. This is a fundamental problem with the way Denver trains its officers, and it's made worse when officers are excused in excessive-force situations over and over again."
Indeed, all of the officers in these cases were cleared by Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, and Bryant says Dodge "was actually commended. He was given a medal of valor based on false statements that Mr. Valverde approached him and raised a gun, forcing him to heroically do what he did in order to protect the other officers. But this isn't true, and the city knows it. The city had the video and could see the discrepancies. But instead of suggesting that the officers did something wrong, they gave out spun information to make it seem as if the shots needed to be fired, all to cover up this unnecessary use of force."
From the beginning, Padilla, Valverde's mother, felt the officers had stepped over the line. In her 2014 letter to Westword , she wrote, "Police never stop to think of what it does to the families, especially the moms," she wrote. "As a mother of a murdered child, I can't tell you in words what it's done to my life and how much I have cried. I will never be the same. These officers that chose to be trigger-happy have a family to go home to at night. They don't sit crying like we do. I've cried every single day since he was murdered."
She added a reference to both Valverde and Ronquillo: "I have a message for these officers who are supposed to be trained in these situations: They could have Tased them or used rubber bullets. Who are they to be the judge if our sons lived or died? Both of them should have been able to be judged in the court of law."
Padilla wants the police action that killed her son to be examined by a court, too, and Bryant thinks city officials "have a duty to set the record straight — but they don't. They protect the officers, and then the officers think they can get away with shooting first."
Look below to see the police helicopter video of the shooting and the excerpt from Tom's Life. The gunfire in the latter clip can be heard at just past the 45-second mark, after which images from the shooting can be seen. The lawsuit follows.
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