DENVER (AP) – A federal judge has taken the unusual step of asking prosecutors to investigate whether Denver police tried to intimidate a witness in a jail-abuse lawsuit against the city, but experts say such inquiries rarely yield criminal charges.
Nationwide, only about 20 civil rights lawsuits led to criminal charges against officers each year and convictions are even less common, said Nancy Leong, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. The cases are a challenge for prosecutors, who have to prove not just that an officer violated someone’s civil rights but that they intended to, Leong said.
The judge’s request could result in federal oversight of the departments, or it could lead to no action at all, she said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office hasn’t said whether it will pursue Judge John Kane’s request.
The Justice Department opted not to charge three Denver police officers with civil rights violations in a highly publicized 2009 beating case, nor did prosecutors charge sheriff’s deputies in the case of a street preacher who died after Denver sheriff’s deputies restrained him in jail.
Last year, a federal judge overseeing a civil lawsuit involving a 2009 beating outside a Denver diner made the significant ruling that there was enough evidence the police department harbored a culture of abuse and cover-up that the city could be tried for it. But the lawsuit was settled before it came to trial.
The latest allegations against the police and sheriff’s departments came as part of a civil rights lawsuit filed in Denver by former inmate Jamal Hunter, who says a sheriff’s deputy not only failed to protect him during a July 2011 beating by fellow inmates but encouraged the attack. Hunter, now 39, says his cellmate accused him of snitching and beat him, tied him up and burned his genitals with hot water from a spigot.
One of the inmates who participated in the beating, Amos Page, became a witness in the lawsuit, saying in a sworn affidavit that Denver sheriff’s deputy Gaynel Rumer knew about the beating in advance. Kane last week asked prosecutors to investigate Denver police after he listened to a recording of two police officers interviewing Page in March. The judge said the conversation showed a “deliberate process of intimidation.”
A transcript of the interview was among the documents released Thursday. At least six times in the 48-page transcript the officers suggested Page had implicated himself in Hunter’s beating.
Sheriff Gary Wilson said in court filings that he had referred a criminal investigation of Rumer to Denver police, prompting their visit to a state prison to speak with Page. Police Chief Robert White said he’s confident the officers did nothing wrong. Neither returned calls for comment Monday.
City Attorney Scott Martinez said the Justice Department has not initiated a formal investigation, but “the city takes this case and the accusations seriously. We look forward to the opportunity to elucidate the facts of this case through the court system.”
Often prosecutors choose not to pursue cases against officers because they’re hard to prove for juries, said Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Witnesses are sometimes other officers who are reluctant to testify against their own.
“All of it can be rather subjective,” she said.
A formal federal probe is also expensive. A study by the University of Illinois this year found the Justice Department formally investigates only about three police agencies yearly due to the high costs of pursuing such cases.
Kane also requested a more far-reaching investigation into the patterns and practices of the two agencies, renewing hope among some who have brought civil rights suits against the city that federal investigators will also examine their cases.
“It requires a prosecutor with a backbone to file charges against officers,” said attorney David Lane, who represents the family of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher who died in the Denver jail after being restrained by deputies. “It’s a lack of will. Maybe the DOJ will have a more honest mentality.”
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– By Sadie Gurman, AP Writer
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