Wayne Lolotai is no longer a member of the Boulder Police Department, but his legacy lingers. The City of Boulder has just been sued over his 2019 attack on Sammie Lawrence, a young man who walks with the assistance of a cane — one of multiple allegations of excessive force directed against Lolotai before his resignation from the Boulder force this past September.
While Lolotai is gone, attorney Darren O'Connor, who represents Lawrence, stresses that the problems he exemplifies are not. "We have an issue with racist and anti-homeless policies in Boulder," he says. "We've made national headlines for these reasons far too frequently."
Boulder's response to the lawsuit, which was filed March 15, is simple: "The city does not comment on pending litigation," says communications manager Shannon Aulabaugh. She offered more details about Lolotai's hiring for our May 2019 story about a separate suit filed against Lolotai by Kelly Clark, whom he shoved to the ground while she was observing the arrest of another suspect.
Before joining the Boulder Police Department, Lolotai, who played football for the University of Hawaii and the University of Northern Colorado, was employed as a deputy for the Denver Sheriff's Department. But his stint with the agency was short-circuited by a December 2014 encounter with Denver Detention Center inmate Isaiah Atencio Arguello. Lolotai was caught on video roughly pushing Arguello down a set of metal stairs, after which he and another colleague manhandled him. An investigation followed, and in June 2015, before the inquiry could be completed, Lolotai resigned — but not before applying to sign on with the Boulder Police Department.
Lolotai wasn't brought aboard at that time, but he joined the BPD in 2016 — and in a previous interview, Aulabaugh pushed back on any negative assumptions about the process. "The City of Boulder does not hire police officers who have any sustained use-of-force allegations," she said. "Any assertion that the Boulder Police Department directs officers to resign before they can be found guilty of a use-of-force allegation in order to be hired by the City of Boulder is absurd and completely inaccurate."
Nonetheless, Lolotai was involved in several controversial incidents during his time working for the Boulder police — among them slapping away a phone from a woman who was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing, and being among the officers who pulled guns on Zayd Atkinson, a Naropa student of color, on his own property. Atkinson eventually received a $125,000 settlement from Boulder over the matter. And while the Clark lawsuit was dismissed in February 2020 over a technicality (a judge determined she came closer to the officer than the eight feet specified in a Boulder statute), Lolotai resigned late that summer during an investigation into his reported association with an Instagram account that was viewed as celebrating police violence.
Here's a video on the subject (its contents may offend some viewers):
Here's how attorney O'Connor explains the latest complaint against Lolotai and how it relates to what he sees as the Boulder Police Department's antipathy toward the homeless:
"Sammie Lawrence was present at the Mapleton ballfields on April of 2019, just hanging out, when he saw friends who were sitting on the ground get approached by Officer Lolotai," he relates. "He decided to monitor what was going on, to observe how his friends were treated by the police — and he has knowledge of his own about how rough the police treat people experiencing homelessness."
Lawrence "has a seizure disorder and uses a walking aid," O'Connor continues. "He could not have approached more slowly or more deliberately. He was not posing a threat in any way when he came on the scene. He got about ten feet or more from Officer Lolotai and didn't interject anything, didn't say anything. He was just watching — but Officer Lolotai told him to step back and put down his weapon." That was the cane.
In O'Connor's view, this command "is ridiculous on its face. There was no action on Sammie's part that indicated a threat or the intent to use his walking aid as anything other than a walking aid. The only time he even lifted the walking aid off the ground was to show that there was a rubber piece on the bottom to assist him with walking. He didn't brandish it or anything like that — but Officer Lolotai tackled him anyway, and he was charged with obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest."
Although these charges were later dropped, O'Connor says the city defended Lolotai's actions "from day one." And before taking the case to court, he adds, an attempt to negotiate was blocked when Boulder City Attorney Tom Carr warned him about possible sanctions that could be assessed against him for filing a frivolous lawsuit.
This case is anything but, O'Connor maintains: "The harm and trauma to Mr. Lawrence are real, and they're upsetting — and so is the city's lack of responsibility. This isn't just a legal matter. This is harm to a very peaceful, loving young man's psyche and his ability to walk in the world without fear. But instead of coming to the table and having a meeting of the minds about all of this, Boulder's city attorney simply refused to even have a discussion."
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