Judge Seems Likely To Make Denver Face 2020 Protest Claims

By Daniel Ducassi | June 6, 2024, 9:41 PM EDT ·

A Colorado federal judge on Thursday appeared inclined to reject Denver's bid to end claims that it encouraged police to use excessive force against social justice advocates in 2020, pressing the city to explain how its law enforcement policies didn't amount to indifference to violating protesters' rights.

U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Domenico noted during a hearing that the protests in the spring and summer of 2020 were largely "anti-police," and said there were "troublemakers" who were taunting police officers.

"Shouldn't a well-run police department know that it's very hard to resist and be careful about training their officers to deal with that … and doing what they can to discourage officers from allowing themselves to be goaded into an unnecessary response?" Judge Domenico asked an attorney representing the city and county of Denver.

Further, he asked if a city wanted to ensure officers didn't engage in bad behavior, then wouldn't it make sense require them to keep their body cameras on and promptly file reports about use of force at protests. The question cited law enforcement policies that didn't require these things and were referenced by plaintiffs as part of their contention that the city should be on the hook for injuries to protesters.

And if Denver's policy allowed officers to have their body cameras off during protests and doesn't require them to promptly report on use of force at protests, then, the judge inquired, isn't it reasonable to conclude the city took a position "that we know there will be [overreactions] … but we're okay with that?"

Counsel for Denver, Andrew D. Ringel of Hall & Evans LLC, answered by arguing it would be a reasonable jump if this were all happening again today. Ringel said Denver police "had never experienced anything like this" and didn't have the benefit at the time of "the lessons that were learned and known now."

Still, Judge Domenico pointed out that the plaintiffs in the present case didn't appear to be engaged in problematic behavior, yet were injured regardless. He asked if the city had a moral duty to pay for its aggressive tactics to end the unrest.

"Why shouldn't the city, if it's going to take a fairly aggressive approach, deal with the fact that aggressive approach is going to injure some innocent people?" the judge posited. "Why shouldn't the city just be liable for that?"

Ringel said Denver settled claims lodged by "numerous protesters," but added, "we're not there with these eight people today."

On the other side, S. Birk Baumgartner of Baumgartner Law LLC, representing the protesters, slammed the "indiscriminate" use of crowd-control chemical agents, like tear gas, and rubber bullets by Denver police, along with what he described as insufficient training, lack of body camera usage, detailed use of force reports and officers made anonymous by riot gear.

"We have the city deploying officers with complete anonymity, no accountability," Baumgartner said.

The city didn't have an official policy endorsing the violation of protesters' rights, but had "a sort of wink-wink policy," he told the court.

Clifford L. Beem of Beem & Isley PC, also representing the protesters, told Law360 after the hearing Thursday that when law enforcement agencies and the political leaders who hold power over them don't put a stop to abuses, it leads to a deterioration of public trust in police.

"If you can't trust the people who are supposed to be protecting us and keeping us safe, then we're in bad shape," Beem said.

Representatives of the city and county of Denver did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The protesters are represented by Clifford L. Beem, A. Mark Isley and Danielle C. Beem Of Beem & Isley PC and S. Birk Baumgartner of Baumgartner Law LLC.

Denver is represented by Andrew D. Ringel, Katherine N. Hoffman, Edmund M. Kennedy and Alexandria L. Bell of Hall & Evans LLC.

The case is Barbour et al. v. City and County of Denver, case number 1:21-cv-02477, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

--Editing by Covey Son.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!