Should Denver Police Be Allowed to Beat Suspects Who Swallow Drug Packets?

In its newly released 2015 Annual Report, on view below, the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor, which oversees law-enforcement activity in the area, focuses on two specific areas.

The first involves unauthorized use of electronic databases, including the National Crime Information Center and the Colorado Crime Information Center, for non-law-enforcement purposes — something that's happened at least 42 times, according to Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell.

And the second? The lack of clarity in rules pertaining to use of force when police officers encounter a suspect who tries to swallow contraband — usually packets of drugs.

As an example of possible problems with the imprecise rules in such cases, the report cites an incident we've covered extensively: the beating of David Flores back in August 2014. The pummeling, as well as the tripping of a pregnant woman, was caught on camera — see the video below. Yet the officers involved were exonerated, and the Denver Police Department energetically defended their actions.

As we've reported, the video in question was captured by Levi Frasier, a bystander to the altercation, which took place near the intersection of West 5th Avenue and Federal Boulevard.

According to Frasier, police approached a vehicle occupied by a man subsequently identified as Flores when the suspect shoved a white sweat sock into his mouth.

The presumption: The sock contained heroin, and Flores was trying to swallow it.

Shortly thereafter, Officer Charles "Chris" Jones IV and other DPD personnel took Flores to the ground, yelling "Spit the drugs out! Spit the drugs out!" And to assist him doing so, Jones punched Flores in the face six times.

Here's one image from the video....

...and another that offers a closer look at Flores amid the pummeling:

As this is going on, a woman with Flores, Mayra Lazos-Guerrero, can be heard screaming. She approaches the scrum and extends her leg, at which point she's tripped to the ground.

Here's one image from that sequence....

...and another:

Frasier captured these actions on his tablet, and the officers noticed, with one of them announcing, "Camera." Afterward, Frasier says the officers demanded to take possession of the device and deleted the video. But at home, he told the station was able to sync his tablet to the cloud and retrieve the footage.

Flores, for his part, was badly injured in the melee. Fox31 obtained this shot showing a wound on the back of his head, presumably from the impact of his skull on the pavement while he was being slugged.

Much of the subsequent controversy over the story involved Frasier's claim about forced video deletion. But the police department also denied doing anything wrong when it came to punching Flores.

Here's an excerpt from a DPD statement about what happened, issued under the heading "ACCURACY MATTERS."
A violent struggle, prompted by the suspect, was already underway. This left the officers with limited options for recovering the evidence and preventing ingestion and a likely medical emergency. The officer chose not to grab the suspect's throat (to prevent him from swallowing) but instead opted to strike the non-compliant suspect several times. We feel this was the better of the two choices. These strikes did cause the suspect to comply with the arrest and to relinquish the narcotics.
Independent Monitor Mitchell has a completely different take on the subject.

"First, medical research reflects that when foreign bodies such as drug packets are swallowed, they generally pass through the body within 12-24 hours without medical intervention," the report states. "At that point, they may be recovered and used as evidence in criminal proceedings, if necessary.

"Second, to be successful at causing arrestees to spit out potential contraband, strikes may often be serious enough to risk potential injury," the passage continues. "In Denver, between 2013 and 2015, there were at least 2,037 incidents in which one or more DPD officers used force, and DPD data indicate that a high proportion of the uses of force that involved strikes resulted in injury to community members. Similarly, the use of strikes to remove contraband from the mouths of arrestees may also be dangerous for officers, who may be bitten or otherwise assaulted during those uses of force.

"Third, some police departments have recently prohibited the use of strikes to remove potential contraband from the mouths of subjects or gone even further — forbidding the use of any force at all for this purpose. This includes the Seattle Police Department, which adopted a new Use of Force Policy that distinguishes between a suspect who is attempting to put possible contraband into his mouth and one who has done so and is attempting to swallow it."

With these factors in mind, Mitchell recommends that "the DPD revise its Use of Force Policy to provide specific guidance on what types of force are permitted and prohibited, to remove potential contraband from the mouths of persons being placed under arrest," as well as to "prohibit the use of strikes to force persons being placed under arrest to spit out potential contraband."

Continue to see the original Fox31 report about the David Flores incident, followed by the 2015 Annual Report by the Office of the Independent Monitor.

Denver Independent Monitor 2015 Annual Report.pdf

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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

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