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ACLU Sues Denver Police Department for Disclosure of Internal Affairs Investigation


July 13, 2000

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU) filed suit today under the Colorado Open Records Act, seeking disclosure of the Denver Police Department's internal affairs investigation of the controversial arrest three years ago of Robert Murphy, who died shortly after being taken into police custody on October 31, 1997.


The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Mr. Murphy's brother, Larry Murphy, marks the third time in recent years that the ACLU has taken the Denver Police Department to court seeking disclosure of an internal investigation of a highly-publicized case involving accusations of police misconduct.


Robert Murphy's death sparked public controversy at the time because two independent witnesses reported that they saw police kick and strike Murphy numerous time in the head, continuing the blows even after Murphy was handcuffed and subdued. One witness reported that police used a metal flashlight.


"The arrest of Robert Murphy generated a considerable amount of publicity," said Blain Myhre, of Isaacson, Rosenbaum, Woods & Levy, who filed the case as an ACLU cooperating attorney. "The public heard the usual promises of a thorough investigation, but the police department has repeatedly refused to release any documents or any details. This secrecy does nothing to restore the public's confidence in the police department's ability to investigate itself."


"After the internal investigation took more than a year to complete, the Chief of Police concluded that the officers did nothing wrong, that no discipline was warranted, and that no policies were in need of revision," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. "But Mr. Murphy's family has never had the opportunity to review the findings of the investigation or the facts that the department relied on for its conclusions."


The lawsuit recounts a series of letters dating back to the fall of 1997 in which the ACLU has repeatedly requested disclosure of information about Murphy's arrest. "Every time we write to the police, there is always some excuse for nondisclosure." Silverstein said. "At first the ACLU was told that we had to wait until the district attorney's office completed its investigation. When that was over, we were told that we had to wait until the police department completed its internal investigation. When that was finally completed more than a year later, we were told that the documents could not be released because the FBI has not yet completed its investigation."


"When Gerry Whitman was appointed interim Chief of Police earlier this year, it appeared that the Denver Police Department was willing to start becoming more open with the public," Silverstein said. "But Chief Whitman relied on the same justification as his predecessors: that the FBI was still investigating."


"The only reason that the FBI investigation could possibly be regarded as pending is if someone has not yet bothered to write a memo to the file closing the case," Silverstein asserted.


"No federal officials are engaged in any active investigation of this arrest that took place almost three years ago. And even if they were," Silverstein said, "disclosure of the requested documents would not thwart the investigation or otherwise harm the public.


According to the very limited information released by police after the arrest, the incident began when Murphy refused a police order to exit his pick-up truck and instead began to empty the contents of a pill bottle into his mouth. To prevent Murphy from swallowing what they suspected to be illegal drugs, police forcibly pulled Murphy from the vehicle. He emerged swinging and kicking, and police took him to the ground and handcuffed him.


Police eventually pulled some cellophane-wrapped packages from Murphy's throat, attempted CPR, and called for paramedics. By the time they arrived, however, Murphy had no pulse. He never regained consciousness, and he was taken off life support several days later. An autopsy revealed six bruises on Murphy's head but no skull fractures. Death was attributed to suffocation from a blocked air passage in combination with cocaine intoxication.


When no criminal charges were filed against the officers, the ACLU filed a citizen's complaint with the Chief of Police on behalf of Murphy's family. The complaint asked the Chief to decide whether administrative discipline was appropriate, either for use of excessive force or for the officers' failure to clear Murphy's air passage in time to save his life. The complaint also asked the Chief to determine whether the police use of pepper spray played any role in Murphy's death and whether the incident suggested that any of the department's policies should be revised.


"What happened next is a classic example of what has been wrong with the system of police accountability in Denver," Silverstein said. "The Public Safety Review Commission was established to provide civilian review of accusations of police misconduct, but it cannot begin its inquiry until the police department completes its own internal investigation. The police department did not complete its investigation until more than a year after Mr. Murphy's death.


The ACLU immediately filed a complaint with the Public Safety Review Commission. More than 18 months more have passed, and the Commission has taken no action, because it has almost no staff and almost no budget. It is set up for failure. Denver needs effective civilian review."


"The Denver Police Department needs to be accountable to the public," Myhre added. "The Department says 'trust us, we investigated.' But that's not good enough. We believe our client has the right to review the police documents and decide for himself."

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