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Wrongful deaths to false arrests: Northern Colorado cities pay cash to end allegations against police

Jestine Carter sits in an armchair facing the camera, wearing a pink shirt. Behind her is a side table, lamp, fireplace and mantel with family photos.
Michael de Yoanna
Jestine Carter's husband, Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant, was shot and killed by an Aurora police officer in 2015. The city paid $2.6 million to settle the case.

In the past decade, Northern Colorado’s largest cities settled 205 allegations against police. The cost of those settlements was $50 million, roughly enough to fund a police department the size of Boulder’s for a year. That’s according to a KUNC investigation that found a recurring pattern where victims and their families dropped their allegations in exchange for a cash payout.

Legal experts said the pattern fosters a culture where police leaders and officers are able to sidestep accountability for the most egregious cases facing their departments.

“In many cities, the cost of litigation is simply written off as the cost of doing business and there aren't efforts to look into the allegations underlying civil suits,” said Joanna Schwartz, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and national expert on settlements involving police.

KUNC found settlements for wrongful deaths, excessive uses of force, false arrests, intimidation, violations of constitutional rights and many other allegations after filing a series of Colorado Open Records Act requests. We asked the 11 most populous cities in Northern Colorado — Denver, Aurora, Boulder, Greeley, Fort Collins, Arvada, Lakewood, Longmont, Loveland, Thornton and Westminster — for settlements and data going back a decade.

The largest cities in the region, Denver and Aurora, paid out dozens of settlements from 2011 through 2021. The smaller cities had fewer settlements, but generally adhered to similar patterns of payouts.

The $50 million tally is a snapshot of data made available to KUNC and not necessarily a complete list of all payouts linked to police misconduct. Some cities, including Denver, did not include settlements reached in cases where lawsuits were never filed. And the tally does not include jury awards, like the $14 million awarded last week to protesters injured in 2020 by Denver police. We also did not include new settlements that rolled in even as we sifted through the data.

Police Payouts
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Police Payouts
Listen to Part 2 of the audio story.

None of the cities had a list of settlements readily available for the public to inspect. Some cities even charged KUNC to retrieve the records, revealing a lack of willingness to acknowledge that serious allegations had even occurred.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure and you can't know where the problems lie and where the legal liabilities lie unless you keep track,” Schwartz said. “On the whole, police departments and local governments don't learn from these lawsuits as much as they should.”

Schwartz’s own research on settlements around the country indicates that many police departments fail to treat the allegations as a wake-up call for change — even when huge, headline-grabbing checks are written.

“If a department doesn't look at this information and really reflect upon it, then it's very hard to learn from,” she said.

Schwartz also found that many police departments don’t face any financial penalties for settling. That plays out in Colorado, too. For instance, in Aurora’s $15 million wrongful death settlement with the family of Black massage therapist Elijah McClain, $10 million came from risk insurance and $5 million from the city’s general budget — a hit to taxpayers, but not the police budget.

The details of the $3 million payout for the case of Karen Garner — a woman with dementia whose arm was broken by a Loveland officer in 2020 — worked similarly, according to the family’s attorney, Sarah Schielke. She and other Colorado attorneys said that kind of arrangement is common around the state.

“The money never comes out of the police agencies’ budgets,” Schielke said. “It's paid by an insurer and the insurer doesn't really care about bad publicity.”

Yet cities clearly do. Settlements allow police departments to dodge the public spectacle of trials. Many of the dozens of settlements reviewed by KUNC further clamped down on publicity by requiring confidentiality agreements specifying what, if anything, alleged victims and their families can say about the cases. Some settlements go a step further with non-disparagement clauses that prevent people from making remarks that could be construed as negative about police.

Still frame from a body camera video that shows a woman in a gray hoodie lying face-down on the ground, her arms pinned behind her back by the person wearing the camera.
Loveland Police Department
Body camera video recorded the arrest of Karen Garner on June 26, 2020, in Loveland, Colorado. Garner, then 73, has dementia and sensory aphasia.

A 'media blitz' in Loveland

Loveland is a case study of how years of settling allegations can eventually boil over. Before the Garner case captured national attention, records show the city’s police department had settled six other cases over the course of a decade for an additional $627,500. Those cases name about two dozen police personnel, many of them officers.

Schielke said she was frustrated at that pattern.

“There's too many police departments with long track records of bad behavior and seemingly no turning point where any lawsuit was enough to actually fix anything,” Schielke said.

So she decided to go on a “media blitz,” telling Garner’s story. The 73-year-old, 80-pound woman’s family asked for Schielke’s help after employees at a Walmart accused Garner of taking $14 worth of items, including a candy bar and soda, in June 2020, leading to her arrest.

“The family came to me basically saying, ‘We just had to go get our mother from the hospital, and she's charged with theft, resisting arrest and obstruction,’” Schielke said, adding concern for older people with mental health issues in Loveland like Garner.

In April 2021, Schielke finally went public with the suit, highlighting body camera footage of Officer Austin Hopp walking up behind Garner, who was on her way home, asking, “Do you need to be arrested right now?” Garner eventually turned, smiled at Hopp, then shrugged and turned away. Hopp grabbed her, pinned her to the ground in a struggle and, later, with another officer, against a patrol car.

Schielke also shared tape showing Garner untreated for her injuries in a jail cell as officers replayed their own body camera footage, laughing.

People around the world hurled condemnation at the nation’s “Sweetheart City.” In an April 30, 2021 press conference, Loveland Police Chief Robert Ticer acknowledged the “outpourings of concerns from people in our community, in our state, in the United States, and international.”

“Our goal at the Loveland Police Department has always been to make our community proud,” Ticer said. “We failed and we are very sorry for that.”

He went on to admit that he had not been aware of everything that had happened to Garner.

“There were individuals here in this organization that knew about the case, obviously, but the specifics to the serious bodily injury, that was the first time I was notified of that,” he said.

In the aftermath, several officers resigned, including Hopp, who earlier this month pleaded guilty to felony assault of Garner.

Requests for comment from Ticer for this story went unanswered. Last week, Loveland announced Ticer would be leaving the department, naming an interim chief. Ticer had promised change in the wake of the Garner incident, including training for officers, along with a review of allegations of excessive uses of force going back to 2019.

Other departments – from Boulder to Denver – have similarly come to grips with high-profile cases in recent years. These cases are often fueled by body camera videos, which are increasingly common and, under state criminal-justice reforms passed in 2020, will be required for almost all local law enforcement officers in the state no later than July 1, 2023.

Sheneen McClain stands outdoors in front of the camera, facing left, speaking into a loudspeaker.
David Zalubowski
Sheneen McClain speaks during a rally and march over the death of her 23-year-old son, Elijah, Saturday, June 27, 2020, outside the police department in Aurora, Colorado. McClain died in late August 2019 after he was stopped while walking to his apartment by three Aurora Police Department officers.

Families tried to force change in Aurora

Some families who settled allegations of police abuse with cities have tried to reform departments. They’re rare, but a handful of settlements reviewed by KUNC stipulated that police departments review or change policies, involve communities in decisions and oversight, and overhaul department staffing to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

That includes a pair of settlements in Aurora hammered out after police killed two men more than a decade apart. The settlements were reached years before police confronted Elijah McClain, a death that sparked worldwide concern and outcry.

The first of the two settlements traces back to the 2003 death of another Black man, Jamaal Bonner. Aurora police shot him in the back three times with an MP-5 submachine gun at an East Colfax Avenue motel during a sting gone wrong. The attorney for the case, Darold Killmer of the Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman firm, said Bonner apparently startled as officers rushed in, guns drawn.

“They blame it on a split-second-decision-making, life-or-death situation, which of course, they caused,” Killmer said. “They set the whole thing up.”

Bonner was not armed. Eventually, in 2007, Aurora agreed to settle the case with a payout of more than $600,000 for Bonner’s family.

The family also received promises of change, some specific to police sting operations, others more general, according to an apology from police attached to the settlement: “In an effort to avoid a tragic result like Mr. Bonner’s death in the future, the Aurora Police Department has reviewed a number of the policies around use of force, sting operations, and other operational procedures, and has made changes to minimize the possibility of harm.”

Despite that promise, in the years that followed, the Aurora Police Department continued to pay cash to alleged victims and families to settle cases. Aurora provided a spreadsheet outlining 42 settlements in the last decade, a tally of roughly $22 million, in response to a KUNC Colorado Open Records Act request.

Five more wrongful death settlements were reached in that time, too, according to the records, including one for $2.6 million in 2016 that went to the family of Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant, another Black man killed by police.

Jestine Carter, his wife in Aurora, recalled in an interview how news headlines portrayed Carter-Vinzant as a fugitive parolee. She painted a different picture of him as a man of the world who taught himself multiple languages and a great cook with a keen sense of humor.

“Very smart man,” she said. “Intelligent, and just... He was an impeccable father.”

Carter-Vinzant had eight kids, one with Carter, and was working to find a new path in life after leaving prison on parole, but the path got rocky in March of 2015.

“We had an altercation and the police were called and he didn’t want to go back to jail so he cut off his ankle monitor,” she said.

That sent an alert to officials. In the ensuing days, Aurora police formed a team to track Carter-Vinzant down. It acted on information characterizing him as a drug abuser with violent tendencies. Officers surveilled him on March 6, and as he walked down a suburban street, they closed in quickly. Carter-Vinzant made what officers described as a jerking movement, seeming to remove a hand from his pocket. That’s when an officer shot him.

“One shot, high-powered rifle, straight to my husband's chest,” Carter said.

Just like Bonner, Carter-Vinzant was not armed. Though a grand jury cleared the officers, the settlement wasn’t only for money. Also like Bonner’s family, Carter-Vinzant’s family demanded police reforms to save lives in the future and got them incorporated in the settlement.

KUNC obtained the Carter-Vinzant settlement, marked “Confidential,” through an open records request.

It detailed specific changes around gun handling and highlighted what is described as a “wholesale rewrite” of the use of force policy for the unit that shot Carter-Vinzant, as well as broader changes that would create more review of uses of force with the idea of reducing unnecessary escalations and deaths.

Yet the pattern of settlements continued, including the largest of its kind in Colorado history last year for Elijah McClain’s family.

“The only thing that the officials in Aurora can do is give money,” his mother, Sheneen McClain, said in an interview. “Elijah is priceless. There'll never be nobody like him.”

Joining the interview was one of Sheneen McClain’s Denver attorneys, Qusair Mohamedbhai. His firm – Rathod Mohamedbhai – also worked hard on the Carter-Vinzant case, which led him to turn to his client to offer her an unexpected apology.

“We may have had an opportunity to prevent Elijah's death,” he said. “While at the time we felt that the advances we had made were positive and were dramatic, clearly they were not enough, and for that, Sheneen, we’re sorry.”

Two people in the foreground hold up a giant black sign with a photo of Elijah McClain that reads: "Justice for Elijah McClain, 1996-2019"
David Zalubowski
In this June 27, 2020, file photo, demonstrators carry a giant placard during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain outside the police department in Aurora, Colorado.

A reform effort after McClain's death

Yet one provision of the Carter-Vinzant settlement made a difference in terms of what the public sees of police interactions – more body cameras for officers.

The cameras were recording in August 2019, when Aurora police stopped Elijah McClain for looking “sketchy.” He hadn’t committed any crime, but insisted that he wanted to continue going home. Officers eventually wrestled him to the ground, placed him in a carotid hold, and handcuffed him. Later, paramedics sedated McClain with the powerful anesthetic ketamine. In an ambulance, he went into cardiac arrest and, days later, was taken off life support in the hospital.

Though police were initially cleared in the case, George Floyd’s death and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests sparked a second look, including a Patterns and Practices investigation by the state Attorney General Office. Finally released last year, it highlighted a police culture in Aurora beset by problems. Officers, it concluded, used force against people of color almost 2.5 times more often than white people and that people of color were more likely to be stopped and arrested. It also found that people at risk for adverse treatment, like those with mental health issues, couldn’t rely on officers, as well as a trend where officers unnecessarily escalated encounters, resorting to force.

Soon after, Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said she agreed with the findings in a press conference.

“A lot of things have come to light,” she said. “A lot of things that we're not proud of. A lot of things that I had to deal with via terminations or even arresting some of our own.”

She asked the community not to lose sight of the “good things” happening in the city but also said that her department was “not going to shy away from reform.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks at a news conference in Denver, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.
David Zalubowski
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks at a news conference in Denver, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in which he announced that a civil rights investigation had determined that the Aurora Police Department has a pattern of racially-biased policing.

Wilson declined a request for an interview to talk about those reforms, as well as KUNC’s findings about past settlements and attempts to change the department. Requests for interviews with City Manager Jim Twombly and Mayor Mike Coffman were also declined. The city instead provided a statement.

“As we have stated previously, city leaders began implementing new changes at the city’s public safety agencies immediately after the tragic death of Elijah McClain and well before litigation was filed in the case,” the city of Aurora said in a statement to KUNC. “City leaders determined that a settlement was the right thing to do, was in the best interests of the city, its employees, the community and Elijah McClain’s family, and would lessen the emotional and financial costs of protracted litigation for all parties involved. It brought a certain outcome and finality to the case.”

The Aurora officials we wanted to interview also declined to speak about the Carter-Vinzant settlement of 2016, noting it was settled before any of them were with the city. The city also said that discussion of the settlement would be “improper” because it is considered confidential.

However, the city provided a long list of reforms – some implemented in recent years, many others implemented after Wilson became chief in early 2020. Aurora last year agreed to independent monitoring after the release of the Patterns and Practices investigation to help improve the department. It signed a consent decree that allows the state to turn to the courts and intervene if officials refuse to make progress.

“While all department policies are living documents subject to review and modification, the city of Aurora has a contract with the Criminal Justice Institute to advise and rewrite the entire Use of Force policy to ensure it follows new state legislation and the consent decree agreement,” the city added in its statement.

The Aurora Police Department is working towards changes, said state Attorney General Phil Weiser, who is watching the process closely.

“I recognize it's not easy to change culture and to make this sort of progress,” Weiser said in an interview in his Denver office.

Asked about the Bonner and Carter-Vinzant settlements and those past efforts to change police, Weiser pointed to the consent decree, noting its unique powers.

“Our department now has public authority to oversee patterns or practices of civil rights violations,” Weiser said. “In the past, there might be private settlements — I'm not familiar with the one you mentioned — that don't have the same oversight capacity that we do.”

He added that changes are expected to take years to implement.

Several police officers in body armor and face shields stand outdoors between trees in front of the camera, most of them facing the left side of the frame.
David Zalubowski
Officers in riot gear guard the police department Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Aurora, Colorado, during a rally and march over the death of Elijah McClain.

KUNC obtains Aurora police diversity numbers

Families are not as optimistic as Weiser that the department will change. That includes Jestine Carter.

“No,” Carter said, shaking her head and laughing dismissively.

“(There is) still racial profiling,” she said, still shaking her head. “I don't know... I don't know.”

The settlement for her husband also aimed to make the Aurora Police Department more diverse. According to it, the department reaffirmed “its commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive police department that mirrors the community that it serves.” Similar hope about improving diversity was also voiced almost a decade earlier in the Bonner settlement. In it, the department agreed to work collaboratively with communities of color to “support recruitment activities,” revise materials to appeal to a broader demographic, and make other changes aimed at bringing more officers of color and women to the department.

To track what progress had been made, KUNC asked Aurora for police diversity demographics for 2007 (the year of the Bonner settlement), 2017 (the year after the Carter-Vinzant settlement) and 2021.

The city responded that diversity numbers were not readily available to the public. So KUNC filed another Colorado Open Records Act request and obtained them.

The takeaway from those records is that over the years since 2007, the Aurora Police Department did not make significant progress toward mirroring the city’s population.

As of 2021, only 4.2% of the department's staff is Black, while about 16% of the city’s population is Black. The department has only five Black people above the rank of sergeant and three Black women on the force. In 2007, 4.6% of the department’s staff was Black, with two Black people above the rank of sergeant in the department and four Black women on the force.

Other minority categories made some progress, but still fall far short of mirroring the community. Asians make up 6% of Aurora’s population in 2021, but only 2.9% of the police department staff; 28% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, compared to 12.1% of staff. Those numbers are up from 2007, however, when just 1.2% of staff was Asian and 7.1% was Hispanic or Latino.

Women have remained chronically underrepresented in all those years, with little change.

Improving diversity in the department is a major goal of current reforms, Weiser said. Part of the issue, he said, can be traced to the hiring pipeline.

“We identified some concerns about how the Civil Service Commission processes had operated and called for changes in approach to it,” Weiser said. “We recognize that's going to require some work. The city has said they're willing to put in that work, and the consent decree monitor is going to oversee it.”

Aurora added in a statement to KUNC that it has contracted with a public safety recruiting firm to attract employees “that are more reflective of our diverse community.” The department has also implemented a diversity, equity and inclusion program to train personnel.

Sheneen McClain said a police force that better reflects the community can prevent deaths like her son’s.

“You have got to have somebody that looks like you that can understand what you're going through so that there's some type of understanding,” she said.

Three police officers and two paramedics are facing criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter charges in Elijah McClain’s death.

Sheneen McClain said she wants them to face murder charges.

She added that what officers often need when they encounter someone is basic “humanity.” Weiser told KUNC that officers around the state could be trained to have “soft skills,” including empathy.

But Sheneen McClain is skeptical that ideas like that will work.

“You can’t be trained to have humanity,” she said. “You either got it or you don’t.”

Officers who escalate situations and hurt people, she added, simply should not be allowed to wear a badge.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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