ACLU Sues Denver Police Over Failure to Disclose Results of Investigation Into Citizen's Racial Profiling Complaint

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
January 28, 2004 12:00 am

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DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a lawsuit today against the Denver Police Department seeking disclosure of the records of an internal investigation concerning a man’s racial profiling complaint.

In today’s case — the fifth such lawsuit in recent years — the ACLU challenged a longstanding police department policy of resisting disclosure of information about how it investigates allegations of police misconduct “unless and until an action is filed in court.”

“The Denver Police Department needs to stop claiming, seemingly automatically, that leveling with the public would somehow harm the public interest,” said Steven Zansberg, of Faegre & Benson LLP, who is acting as an ACLU cooperating attorney in the case. “Disclosure does not harm the public interest; it serves the public interest.”

The ACLU case involves an Internal Affairs Bureau investigation of a citizen complaint of racial profiling, harassment and excessive force filed by Terrill Johnson, an honorably discharged African American Air Force veteran who had never been arrested until the incident that was the subject of his complaint. The prosecutor quickly dismissed the charges lodged against Johnson by the accused officers.

More than a year after filing of his complaint, Johnson received a one-page letter from the police department stating that the accusation of excessive force had not been sustained. However, the letter stated, “other charges were sustained.” The letter did not indicate which charges had been sustained, nor did it state whether any of the officers had been disciplined. The ACLU then wrote several letters to Denver officials on Johnson’s behalf requesting disclosure of additional records of the investigation. Those requests were denied.

According to the lawsuit, Denver Police Chief Gerald Whitman withheld the records on the ground that disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest.”

“Mr. Johnson has made serious allegations that he was the victim of racial profiling,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “The Denver Police Department has told him that some unspecified allegations were sustained, but they claim it would harm the public interest to tell him even which charges were sustained and whether anything was done about it. This kind of unjustified secrecy confirms the need to revamp Denver’s discredited system of police accountability.”

Today’s lawsuit, ACLU v. Whitman, was filed in Denver District Court on behalf of Johnson and the ACLU. In addition to Zansberg, Chris Beall of Faegre & Benson is also serving as an ACLU cooperating attorney.

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