Last summer, Denver police officers decided the First Amendment didn't exist in the city, at least not while they were in the process of helping a naked black man get some medical attention by handcuffing him in the middle of the sidewalk.
Denver PD officers Adam Paulsen and James Brooks noticed journalist Susan Greene filming the incident and decided she needed some law enforcement herself. So they approached her and told her to stop filming by citing an inapplicable law. For whatever reason, they also told her to "act like a lady." Greene was handcuffed and placed in a squad car for 12 minutes before a less-stupid cop contacted these officers and told them to release her.
The whole incident was captured by officers' body cameras, including the repeated suggestion the journalist wasn't "acting like a lady" by contesting the officers' decision to cuff her and put her in the nearest squad car.
Here was the bullshit the cops used to try to shut Greene down:
As Greene detailed in a post the next day, and as the body-cam footage confirms, she approached the scene and was immediately blocked by Officer James Brooks.
He continues to block her as she tries to keep shooting, at one point raising the camera high above Brooks’s head.
Brooks is quickly joined by Officer Adam Paulsen, and the two advise her that she can not take photographs because doing so violates the HIPAA rights of the nearly naked man they have cuffed. HIPAA or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act outlines an individual’s rights to medical privacy.
To be clear, HIPAA isn't violated when officers perform an ultra-weird medical consultation in the middle of public street -- one that involves a strategically-draped towel and a pair of handcuffs. If this man was ultimately taken in for a medical/mental examination and those records were handed over to the reporter, that would be a HIPAA violation. Shooting footage of public servants on a public street performing their public duties doesn't violate the privacy of anyone, medical or otherwise.
The officers also claimed she was interfering with the non-arrest the officers claimed they were not making, apparently oblivious of the fact that they had approached the journalist, rather than the other way around. They also trotted out the "stop resisting" canard to pre-exonerate themselves for their aggressive handling of a person armed with a camera.
Throughout the entire thing -- at least all the way up till the settlement the city is planning to pay Susan Greene -- Denver PD brass acted with useless decorum. Shortly after the incident went public, Police Chief Paul Pazen said people were way too focused on officers ignoring the First Amendment, rather than expressing their concern for the naked person his officers had handcuffed in the middle of the sidewalk.
“It doesn’t appear that you’re asking any questions with regards to how an individual is treated who’s in crisis,” he said at one point in the interview. “That’s really what we all should be focusing in on.”
“In a situation like this, we should look at the whole picture, not just certain segments that could point one person in a bad light.”
Actually, it was two people, chief. And they put themselves in a "bad light" with their actions. The public shouldn't be deterred from asking why police officers are violating Constitutional rights, even if there are other issues at play.
More disheartening was the complaint process, in which one of the officer's supervisors pretty much said filing a complaint would be a waste of everyone's time.
I called Denver Police Department’s District 6 and spoke with Sgt. Shawn Saunders, who supervises Officer Brooks. He said he’d look into the incident and make sure the halo camera footage and other evidence are preserved for review. He gave me the option of filing a formal complaint against Officer Brooks. I told him I’d consider it, but that I don’t have a lot of confidence in Denver’s disciplinary system, which I’ve seen slap officers on the wrists for misconduct far more serious than this, only to have the Career Service Board side with the police union and overturn even the most meager disciplinary measures.
To that, Saunders offered a response that was at once striking yet maddening in its candor.
Yeah, he told me. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in it, either.”
Part of the system works. But it will still be citizens paying for it. Susan Greene is about to receive a payout from the city of Denver.
Denver’s Police Department has agreed to a $50,000 settlement with Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene, whose First Amendment rights officers violated when they wrongfully handcuffed and detained her for photographing police last summer.
The officers who handcuffed and detained her were also punished… by losing two days of pay each.
Finally, the Denver PD will be forced to refresh itself on the contours of Constitutional protections -- basic stuff these officers were certainly aware of before they decided government might beats First Amendment rights.
As part of the settlement, Denver agrees to significantly strengthen First Amendment and sensitivity trainings for police through at least 2024. The department also will update its policies on police bias and search and seizure of recording devices.
We know officers aren't expected to know the intricacies of the laws they enforce. In fact, they're barely expected to know anything about the multiple statutes they use to detain and arrest people. But we should expect them to know just enough about Constitutional protections to realize they can't handcuff a person just for filming them. The thing is, they very likely do know this. Some officers just choose to ignore this knowledge because they think they might get away with it. They didn't here, and now citizens will be footing the bill for these officers and their unwillingness to respect the rights of the people they're supposed to protect.
Filed Under: 1st amendment, adam paulsen, filming police, free speech, james brooks, journalist, susan greene