The public is being denied information about Officer Tyler Walker's punishment for slamming a handcuffed teenager onto the floor and breaking one of her teeth in November 2013.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey issued a statement last Friday saying Walker, who remains on the force, was punished for violating a policy on use of force, but Carey refused to say how.
The Independent has sought the Internal Affairs investigation file under the Colorado Open Records Act. It's being withheld pending a civil lawsuit filed by the teen, Alexis Acker, in July in federal court.
Steve Zansberg, First Amendment attorney and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, says the file should be released.
"The fact that there is [a] pending civil lawsuit strikes me as irrelevant to the question if this file should be publicly disclosed now," Zansberg says via email. "When a sworn peace officer was found to have violated departmental policy and was sanctioned therefor, the public is entitled to know how the Department reached that conclusion and what level of disciplinary sanction was imposed."
At issue is a Nov. 21, 2013, incident in which Acker was arrested for kicking an officer. Extremely intoxicated, Acker was taken to Memorial Hospital for medical clearance before going to jail. At the hospital, Walker forced her to sit. She kicked toward him; he then lifted her and slammed her, face first, onto the floor.
Presented as part of the Indy's July 15 cover story on excessive force ("Full force"), the Memorial Hospital video of the incident drew more than 5 million views. After Acker's attorney threatened a lawsuit in May 2014, the department opened an Internal Affairs probe.
On Sept. 4, Carey said in his statement the investigation had concluded and "discipline was imposed." Due to the suit, he added, the department "is unable to provide further comment or details."
The District Attorney's Office said via email, "After careful review of the entire incident, no further action will be taken by this office."
Zansberg says judges across Colorado have ruled completed police internal affairs files are subject to public inspection "with only highly personal and sensitive information — unrelated to the officer's official conduct in question — redacted or withheld." Among those judges, he notes, are Judge Larry Schwartz in 2007, retired Judge Ronald Crowder in 2009, and Judge David Gilbert in 2011 — all of whom presided in the Fourth Judicial District.
"Colorado's Supreme Court, in another case arising in El Paso County, directed police chiefs and sheriffs to redact 'sparingly' from such files 'to provide the public with as much information as possible' about these matters of unquestionable public interest and concern," Zansberg adds.
Moreover, he notes that civil litigants will have access to the IA file, and even if the case is heard by a jury, uncertain considering 95 percent of civil cases are settled without trial, "the court could easily seat a jury of citizens who can impartially render a verdict, notwithstanding the public release of this file."
The jury likely would come from the Denver area, because the case is filed in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Indy Editor Vanessa Martinez says the file should be released for the sake of accountability and transparency.
"We feel very strongly that the residents of Colorado Springs deserve to know as much as possible about this case. And given the precedents, the release of additional information is possible and warranted," Martinez says. "With national attention on excessive-force issues, this could be a real opportunity for CSPD to show it values transparency. Instead, it's forcing us to consider legal action."
City Council on Tuesday approved city representation for Walker and Carey, as long as Walker's actions are not found to be willful and wanton.