Lawsuit asking for Denver PD to stop using PepperBalls and sponge grenades moves to federal court

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DENVER (KDVR) – A lawsuit filed against the City and County of Denver, asking for a court to stop the police department’s use of less lethal weapons during protests, has moved from state court to federal court.

The police are “shooting them into a crowd of people with signs who are chanting Black Lives Matter, and that’s why we need this lawsuit to go through because there is no accountability. There’s nothing to stop them from just shooting into crowds of people who they’re frustrated with,” said Gabriel Thorn, one of the plaintiffs named in the suit.

Thorn, who helped serve as a medic for injured people during two nights of protests, said a 40mm sponge grenade launched by police bounced off his military helmet. He said he was also sprayed with PepperBalls. 

“It felt more like being under fire again from back in the olden times when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the military veteran said.  “The biggest issue that I had with the police using these was the indiscriminate nature that they were employing them.

“I mean, just shooting them into the crowds, shooting them with no target discernment, using them on protesters who were just chanting and standing there,” he said.  “If they had been singling out rock throwers with these? No problem.”

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Milo Schwab, features more than a dozen videos and photographs of people being struck or injured by the police while they appeared to be doing nothing to provoke the launch of weapons.

“The city attorney’s office is reviewing the lawsuit, at this time we do not have a comment,” said Jay Casillas, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department.

According to Ryan Luby, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, “our litigation team has not yet fully reviewed the claims, but they are in the queue. Ultimately, it would be up to DPD whether the City should comment this early in the process or not.”

The FOX31 Problem Solvers obtained the Denver Police Department’s operations manual which states weapons like the 40mm launcher “should be aimed at areas of the body with large muscle mass.” 

However, photographs that have surfaced after nights of protests show several people have been struck in the eye and head.

PepperBalls should be aimed “lower center mass, just below the sternum,” the manual says.  They may be used to “incapacitate, safely control, or take into custody an individual whose conduct rises to Defensive Resistance; or when its use is likely to prevent an officer or a third person from being injured by an individual; or to incapacitate an individual who is threatening or attempting suicide; or when ordered by a field force commander or other command officer in crowd control or riot situations.”

One video exhibit shows police firing PepperBalls at Shaiitarrio Brown’s vehicle, while he shouted to them that his pregnant girlfriend, Brittany King, was sitting inside of it.

“I want answers as to why you’re shooting at innocent people who are not protesting, and there’s a pregnant woman in the car,” he said.

Brown said he was driving in the area because he was trying to make a food delivery so he could have enough funds to afford a hotel room rather than sleeping in his car with his fiancée.

He said a police vehicle initially drove by and fired a PepperBall shot that was unprovoked.  When he tried to drive toward a commander to learn more about why someone fired at his vehicle, other officers started launching more PepperBalls at them.

“Those officers could’ve killed my child, and we want some repercussions of that, and we want change and reform in policies,” he said.

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said he is conducting an investigation into the incident and previously told the FOX31 Problem Solvers about his officers’ general conduct during the protests. 

“We recognize, we acknowledge that we always haven’t gotten it right, but we will work together with our community to do it better in the future. If that means identifying folks within our department that don’t adhere to our policy and values, then it’s incumbent that we hold them accountable and do something about it,” he said.

Scott Melin, the attorney who represents Brown, said someone from the police department had left him a message Friday morning.

“Many police officers and agencies do their jobs in an excellent manner, and we thank them for their service and protection,” he said in a statement. “This incident, on the other hand, was bias policing, militarized policing, and abusive policing in clear violation of my clients’ Constitutional rights. Mr. Brown and Ms. King were simply working to earn a living driving for DoorDash, and in response Denver police shot them with upwards of 75 pepper ball rounds that have ultimately threatened the life and health of their unborn baby.”

Brown said King was being monitored at the hospital on Friday, and a specialist was going to examine her throat.

“She can’t hold water down. She can’t eat, and the baby isn’t moving around too much,” said Brown, who indicated King is four months pregnant.

“Nationwide, this may be a singular moment when systemic policing reforms are actually achievable. Ms. King and Mr. Brown sincerely hope that the Denver Police Department will rise to the occasion,” said Melin.

He said the couple is seeking a fair settlement that would include financial compensation as well as institutional reform. 

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