A photo of Naphtali Israel's car occupied by family members whose identities have been disguised to protect their privacy.Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP
A point repeatedly made at Denver rallies over the past week is that law enforcement bias against African-Americans takes place every day across the country. This truism is reinforced by video showing an awful episode in the life of Naphtali Israel and his three stepdaughters, who were held at gunpoint outside a local Safeway store by Denver police officers last month in what appears to be an enormous overreaction to a dubious 911 call.
"It was definitely horrifying," says Israel. "I felt like I walked into a nightmare. I felt like my life was in jeopardy, and it was frightening for my stepchildren, because they thought I was going to be killed."
Attorney David Lane of Denver's Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, who represents the Israel family and compiled the clip — which includes 911 call audio and images from a HALO camera and Denver Police Department body cams — stresses, "This is clearly not an isolated incident. We've seen video after video of black people being on the receiving end of excessive police force simply because they're black."
The incident, which took place on May 7 at Safeway's 6220 East 14th Avenue store, was prompted by a 911 call in which a manager said, "Can you guys just do a quick drive-by here? I'm told there's a black guy in a white hoodie sitting in a Cadillac by himself in the parking lot, and he has a gun."
Lane notes that sitting in a car with a gun isn't a crime — but even if it were, very little about this account was accurate. Yes, Israel is black, but he wasn't wearing a white hoodie and he was inside the store; he'd initially gone there with the kids and bought them some treats, then sent them back to wait in the vehicle while he made additional purchases. The children — ages two, seven and fourteen — left the doors of the Cadillac open, at Israel's recommendation, because it was a hot day, and they should have been clearly visible to passersby, since the car's windows aren't tinted.
Nonetheless, a DPD sergeant responded to the 911 call by pulling his gun on the children. The HALO footage doesn't have any audio, but the fourteen-year-old, who was so terrified by what happened that she wet herself, says the cop ordered her to take her "fucking hands off the steering wheel." The teen was actually holding her two-year-old sister, who crawled into the parking lot after she was released, prompting more alleged profanities from the sergeant: "Get that fucking kid back into the car!"
About fifteen seconds later, Israel emerged from the store, after a woman rushed inside and called out for "the father." He was immediately placed in a pair of handcuffs, which were only removed after a search revealed that he had no weapon on his person.
Here's the video compilation:
Store management and police on the scene subsequently apologized to Israel, and Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen has reached out to Lane's firm to set up a meeting. Israel is open to such a conversation and promises to give Pazen an earful.
"I definitely feel like the officer who pulled out his gun when he came on the scene should be disciplined," he says. "I also feel there should be some type of liaison in civil-rights cases."
To illustrate the need for such a liaison, he offers this: "I went down to the precinct to file a complaint. The officer there asked who I was making the complaint against, and I said, 'This is the officer, and this is the date and the situation.' He said, 'I have to get a sergeant to come and help you' — and then I stood outside for 45 minutes, and no one ever came and helped me."
He adds, "They don't want to make a complaint against another brother in blue."
Will Israel be filing his own legal complaint? "We'll talk to the Chief of Police, see what Denver says and go from there," Lane says.
Israel says that his seven-year-old is having bad dreams about what took place, and the fourteen-year-old is in therapy over the trauma she experienced. He, too, is having problems dealing with the aftermath. "I had just dropped off my newborn with my fiancée before I took the kids shopping," he explains. "So not only could my daughters have ended up dead, I could have ended up dead, and I might not have been able to enjoy a relationship with my newborn."
What he witnessed, he continues, "is officers that, in my view, were simply out of control, and that don't have any type of respect for African-Americans. If a call is made about a black man, they're going to come with aggression. I fully believe that if it was a white man sitting in a car with his daughter at a Safeway and a call went out, it would have been approached totally differently."
His goal, he says, is to get "justice for my girls. They went through a lot, and they're still affected by what happened. So I don't want this to be whitewashed and have no reform come of it."
While Israel focuses on that goal, Lane says that he's also exploring another possible complaint "against the Denver police for targeting journalists during the crackdown — specifically targeting them with pepper balls, rubber bullets and tear gas. As long as these police agencies from the top down act like they're military occupying forces in hostile territory, these are the things that will happen. But once they actually believe they're here to protect and serve the people they live with, this kind of behavior will stop."
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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.