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ACLU Sues Denver Police Department for Disclosure of Investigation into Citizen’s Allegation of Racial Profiling


January 28, 2004


The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU) filed suit today against the Denver Police Department (DPD) seeking disclosure of the records of an internal investigation into allegations that Denver police officers engaged in racial profiling, harassment, and used excessive force in an encounter with an African American resident of Denver in April, 2002.


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


The DPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau conducted the investigation in response to a , an honorably discharged 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 by the accused officers.


More than a year after filing the racial profiling complaint, Mr. Johnson received a one-page letter from the Denver Police Department. It stated that the accusation of excessive force had not been sustained. In what may have been a cryptic reference to the charges of racial profiling, however, the letter stated, “Other charges were sustained.” The letter did not state 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 Mr. Johnson’s behalf, requesting disclosure of additional records of the investigation. Those requests were denied.

“Mr. Johnson has made serious allegations that he was the victim of racial profiling,” explained Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “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.”


The lawsuit marks the fifth 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 suits filed in 1996, 1997, and 2000, the ACLU successfully sued to obtain records connected to the DPD’s investigation of complaints that police officers mistreated citizens. Last October, the ACLU sued to force disclosure of the Memorandum of Agreement between the DPD and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Denver provided the agreement the day before a court hearing was scheduled in the case.


The ACLU’s complaint challenges what it characterizes as a longstanding Denver 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.” Even after the courts have rejected Denver’s legal rationale for withholding documents and has ordered disclosure, the lawsuit states, Denver re-asserts the identical arguments as grounds 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 Steven Zansberg, of Faegre & Benson LLP, who is acting as ACLU cooperating attorney in the case. “Disclosure does not harm the public interest; it serves the public interest. As Judge Stern explained in 1998 when he ordered the DPD to disclose records similar to the ones requested in this lawsuit: ‘[D]isclosure promotes the public interest in maintaining confidence in the honesty, integrity and good faith of Denver’s Internal Affairs Bureau.’”


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

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