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Police beating? Reasonable force? Weird camera moves?: Inside the Michael DeHerrera video

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Today, the Office of the Independent Monitor released a report about the April 2009 beating of Michael DeHerrera, with the OIM's Richard Rosenthal and Manager of Safety Ron Perea coming to very different conclusions about a video of the incident. Rosenthal thinks the two Denver Police officers involved acted dubiously and weren't honest in subsequent reports. Perea disagrees. Meanwhile, the DPD stresses that an angle change in the video wasn't an attempt to cover up the worst of the confrontation.

In the soundless video, on view below, DeHerrera can be seen talking on a cell phone when Officer Devin Sparks begins pounding on him, apparently unprovoked. Shortly thereafter, the camera pans away, with Sparks, DeHerrera and another officer, Corporal Randy Murr, relegated to relative specks in the lower left-hand corner of the frame. Only later does the image refocus on the main action.

The images came courtesy of a High Activity Location Observation camera, abbreviated HALO -- and as Jared Jacang Maher reported in the June 2009 Westword feature "Smile! You Could Be on the Denver Police Department's Candid Camera," they can be manipulated by an operator.

Did the operator on that evening see controversial behavior on the part of a DPD officer and purposefully move the lens away? No, according to DPD spokesman Detective John White.

"That particular camera is on a pre-set," he says. "Now, we do have operators that manage or can manipulate the cameras. But when it kind of panned back, you can still see what was going on -- and then, our operator refocused back in after the pre-set."

In other words, White says the operator essentially overrode the pre-set camera move in order to capture Sparks's behavior, rather than doing so to obscure it. He adds that "the video was provided by us," presumably further undermining conspiracy theories.

What the HALO camera captured was more than enough to convince Rosenthal that something terribly wrong took place, both at the time of the fisticuffs and in the subsequent reports of Sparks and Murr. In a report with the succinct title Monitor Concerns Regarding the Manager of Safety's Findings & Imposition of Discipline in a Case Involving Inappropriate Force and Commission of Deceptive Acts by Officers in the Employ of the Denver Police Department, he lists what he describes as "numerous inaccuracies contained in Officer B's Statement of Probable Cause and his Use-of-Force report -- Sparks being "Officer B:"

1. The complainant was clearly not "1 foot away" from the incident. In fact, he was anywhere from five to ten feet away from where his companion was being taken into custody and more than ten feet away from Officer B.

2. Although the complainant does appear to be yelling, the video does not show him attempting to interfere in the officers' arrest of his companion.

3. There is nothing in the video to suggest that Officer B ever advised the complainant "numerous times to get back and he refused." In fact, Officer B was clearly engaged in the arrest of the complainant's companion at that time and he cannot be seen verbally or physically engaging the complainant until after Officer A pointed out the complainant and told Officer B to make the arrest.

4. Although the complainant was not complying with Officer B's orders to put down his phone, he never made any aggressive movement toward Officer B and the statement that the complainant "spun to his left attempting to strike me in the face with a closed right fist" is pure fiction. It is unreasonable to conclude that Officer B perceived the complainant to be a threat before he decided to throw the complainant to the ground. The only reasonable explanation for Officer B's statement that the complainant made an aggressive move towards him, is that Officer B was trying to come up with a rationale for his having taken the complainant to the ground, (and having caused injury to the complainant's face).

Perea's opinions, which are reproduced in their entirety in the document directly linked above, could hardly be more different. He writes:

The video, when viewed in isolation, seems to portray the subject officers as overly aggressive for the situation. There is no audio, and it appears that there is a man on the phone ignoring but not being overtly aggressive towards the officer when the officer takes him down. The video, however, does not tell the entire story...

There are witness statements that support that Subject Officer A was pushed by both Complainant 1 (the suspect already on the ground in the video) and Complainant 2 (the one that is later taken down on video) while on the other side of the street, off the visibility of the HALO camera. The two men then ran across the street. Witness testimony, as well as the statements of Complainants, supports the assertion that both men were quite intoxicated at the time. Complainant 1 was taken down and officers were in the process of arresting him when the incident with Complainant 2 occurred. While Complainant 1 was on the ground Complainant 2 called his father; he was upset and was talking loudly. On the tape Subject Officer A can be seen pointing to Complainant 2, and although there is no audio, from available information it appears he was telling Subject Officer B to arrest Complainant 2 for assaulting a police officer. Subject Officer B approached Complainant 2, who was still on the phone. Someone (apparently a civilian standing behind Complainant 2) grabbed his arm as Subject Officer B's hand moved towards him. Complainant 2 pulled away (or "bladed") by turning his right shoulder and arm away from the officer. While it is clear from the HALO camera that he is on the phone and does not appear ready to hit the officer, from the officer's position he was confronting someone already known to have assaulted one officer who then pulled his arm back at the shoulder with a closed fist.

Subject Officer B could have easily believed that Complainant 2 was going to take a swing at him, even with the phone in hand. Subject Officer B reasonably took him to the ground. Complainant 2 did fall to the ground and go into a fetal position, and the officers arrested him. He was clearly injured when he fell, which is apparent in the video. The video does pan away at one point during the time Complainant 2 is on the ground so some of this encounter is not visible...

While there can certainly be debate whether the force was excessive or inappropriate, looking at all available evidence I do not believe excessive or inappropriate force could be proven.

Page down to see the raw video footage included in a Denver Post article, as well as an extended ABC News report on the subject. A warning about the latter: You'll have to sit through a commercial first.

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