ACLU Sues Denver Police for Records of Internal Investigations Related to "Spy Files" Controversy

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
June 14, 2005 12:00 am

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DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado today filed a lawsuit against the Denver Police Department seeking disclosure of the records of internal investigations that were prompted by the Spy Files controversy in 2002 and 2003.

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

“Once again the Denver Police Department has stonewalled, refusing to disclose even a single page of the requested documents,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “And once again, the Denver Police Department has claimed that disclosure of these public records would somehow be harmful to the public interest. The department has it backwards. Sunlight is good, and disclosure furthers the public interest.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Stephen and Vicki Nash as well as the ACLU. The Nashes, longtime political activists in Denver, learned in 2002 that the Denver Police Department had been systematically monitoring their lawful political activities and keeping files on their political associations. The Nashes, who have no criminal records, were falsely branded in the department’s Spy Files as “criminal extremists,” a label that accompanied the Nashes’ files when the police distributed them to third parties.

The Nashes were part of a class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU that challenged the police department’s practice of keeping files on peaceful activists. The lawsuit settled in 2003, when the police department adopted a new intelligence policy that sharply restricts police from compiling files on First Amendment activities.

That settlement, however, did not resolve a citizen complaint the Nashes filed in 2002 with the Public Safety Review Commission. That complaint asked for a full investigation as well as discipline of the officers responsible for spying on the Nashes and falsely branding them as “criminal extremists.”

Twenty months later, in March 2004, Police Chief Gerald Whitman finally responded with a brief two-paragraph letter. The letter said that the Denver Police Department had found sufficient evidence to conclude that department regulations had been violated. It also said that as a result of the investigation, changes had been made to department policies. Chief Whitman’s letter provided no information about which regulations had been violated, which officers were responsible, whether discipline was imposed or any other details.

Invoking the Colorado open records laws, the ACLU asked Chief Whitman to disclose the records of the investigation of the Nashes’ complaint. The ACLU also asked for the records of two additional internal investigations that had been prompted by the Spy Files controversy. Those requests were denied.

“The ACLU of Colorado is committed to challenging the Denver Police Department’s repeated and unjustified refusal to disclose public documents about how it investigates allegations of police misconduct,” said Silverstein.

This is the sixth time in recent years that the ACLU has filed suit after the Denver Police Department has claimed that disclosure of requested records would harm the public interest. In lawsuits filed in 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2004, the ACLU successfully sued to obtain records connected to the police department’s investigation of complaints that officers mistreated citizens. In 2003, the ACLU sued to force disclosure of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Denver Police Department and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Denver provided the requested document the day before a court hearing was scheduled in the case.

According to Silverstein, the courts have repeatedly rejected Denver’s legal rationale for withholding documents. Nevertheless, Silverstein said, Denver re-asserts the identical arguments as ground for withholding similar documents when the next request comes along.

“The Denver Police Department needs to stop claiming, seemingly automatically, that leveling with the public would somehow ‘harm the public interest,'” said ACLU cooperating attorney John Culver, of Benezra and Culver, who filed the case today in Denver District Court.

A copy of the complaint in Nash v. City and County of Denver is online at: /node/35443.

For information about the ACLU’s national effort to prevent police and FBI spying on people based on their political or religious beliefs, go to

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