In a recent review of his first year heading the Denver Police Department, Chief Paul Pazen touted a revised use-of-force policy approved last year that's resulted in a 21 percent decline in such incidents during 2019's first half, in part because of a focus on de-escalation to prevent a seemingly minor matter from blowing up into a major fracas.
A case involving Kristyn Stonskas and Quennel Steele demonstrates why this technique is so important. On Monday, September 16, Denver City Council quietly approved a $500,000 payment to resolve legal claims made by the pair (represented by attorney Michael Fairhurst of Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP) regarding an episode that happened just over two years ago, before Pazen took on his current role.
As you'll see in body-camera videos on view below, what could have been a simple traffic stop rapidly devolved into a thoroughly unnecessary physical altercation for which taxpayers now must pony up.
The scenario began playing out on the evening of January 26, 2017. Stonskas was only a short distance from her home when an officer tried to pull her over, apparently because she didn't leave as much room as he would have liked before turning in front of him — though that's unclear from the videos. At one point, the officer says he'll explain the reason for the stop, but that doesn't really happen owing to subsequent events.
Here's the first video, which begins while the officer is still in his car.
Rather than immediately pulling over when the officer briefly turns on his siren, Stonskas continues into her driveway, where Steele is waiting. According to attorney Fairhurst, the couple's young children were witnesses to what went down, but they're not seen in the videos.
The passions of Stonskas and Steele are certainly high during their interactions with the cops — the officer who made the initial stop, as well as one who was called to the scene shortly thereafter.
At one point, Steele can be heard asking, "What the fuck is this? You calling for backup for a white girl and a black dude? ’Cause you stay in the ’hood? You act like this in Park Hill. Is that your district?"
The officer reacts to these questions with silence, prompting Steele to wonder, "You going to say something? I been doing this for a long time. You look like a kid to me, bruh."
"Doing what?" the officer wants to know.
In response, Steele says, "Doing this fake-ass shit you police do, where you're harassing people who just got the fuck off work, who pay taxes. That's what the fuck I've been doing, bruh."
"I've been working twelve fucking hours today," Stonskas grumbles.
At that point, the second cop returns to his car with Stonskas's license and insurance information, and when he returns, the first officer gestures toward Steele and says, "Keep an eye on this guy. He's really amped up."
"No, he's fucking not," Stonskas interjects, adding, "You're a fucking asshole. You pulled me over for no reason."
Shortly thereafter, things go from bad to worse, as documented in the second video.
Stonskas is clearly unhappy when an officer makes moves to restrain Steele, and when she moves toward them, the first cop tries to hold her back, prompting her to snap, "Get your fucking hands off me! Get your fucking hands off me!"
He doesn't, and within seconds, the officer takes Stonskas to the ground. Before long, both she and Steele are beneath a pile of law enforcers. Standing out among her shrieks is this sentence: "What the fuck are you doing?"
In the exchange, Fairhurst reveals, Stonskas suffered a traumatic brain injury and a torn vertebra in her neck, among other harms. Steele, for his part, wound up with a collapsed left lung, a fractured left rib and a traumatic brain injury of his own.
The accusations against the pair constituted further pain. Steele was accused of interference with police and resistance, both misdemeanors, while Stonskas was hit with an allegation of second-degree assault, a felony that could have led to a three-year prison sentence.
In the end, Steele was found not guilty at trial, while the charges against Stonskas were dismissed. But the city of Denver didn't get off scot-free.
"This case is yet another unfortunate example of Denver taxpayers footing the heavy bill for officers of the Denver Police Department who subject innocent citizens to excessive force with impunity," Fairhurst maintains in a statement. "In Denver, customarily, law enforcement who violate the Constitution are not even disciplined, much less fired, for it. They are never prosecuted for it. And they are not trained to behave better in the future. None of the defendant officers here appear to have even been told that they did anything wrong. These instances of serious misconduct are going to happen again and again, at great expense to taxpayers and to the community’s trust in its law enforcement, until there is a cultural change in Denver that begins at the top. No one is above the law, especially those who are responsible for enforcing the law."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.