‘I can’t breathe’: Body cam footage released at fired officer’s appeal hearing

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AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) – The words “I can’t breathe” were repeated dozens of times by Shataeah Kelly. They were captured on body cam in the back of an Aurora police cruiser on Aug. 27, 2019, long before the world heard of George Floyd in Minneapolis and his identical dying words, “I can’t breathe.”

Kelly survived, but Officer Levi Huffine, who left her in the back of his patrol car for 21 minutes with her head down on the floorboards, her hands and restrained behind her back, was fired.

On Tuesday, Huffine’s appeal to get his job back went before the Civil Service Commission of Aurora.

The 37-minute body cam video had never been released before and some may find it troubling to watch.

It begins soon after Kelly has been tasered by Huffine.

Kelly had called 911 from the Martin Luther King Jr. Library to complain about a man she said approached her aggressively.

But it was Kelly who was arrested for disorderly conduct after officers said she appeared drunk and became combative when they approached her.

Once Huffine puts Kelly in the patrol car, she appears on body cam to slide around the back seat.

Huffine is heard on his body cam accusing Kelly of trying to escape, so he takes her out of the car and puts a hobble on her, which effectively ties both her hands and her feet behind her back.

Kelly is then placed on her side in the backseat of the patrol car.

“You’re going to make me ride the whole way like this?” Kelly is heard on asking officer Huffine on the body cam. To which Huffine replied, “Yes, I am.”

Moments later, Kelly slips head-first onto the floorboard and immediately screams for help.

“Officer, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. Please help me, please, please help me. Please, officer. Officer, please lift me up,” she said.

Kelly’s screams and cries for help would go on for 21 minutes. 

When the patrol car finally arrives at the Aurora police station, body cam shows a detention officer opening the back door and saying, “Honey, why is your head down like that?”

The detention officer would look at Huffine a minute later and say, “That didn’t look pleasant.”

Huffine responded, “She was in the seat and decided to roll.”

After Kelly was removed from the patrol car, body cam shows her looking at Huffine saying, “Look at my face. You couldn’t lift me up?”

At Tuesday’s appeal hearing, Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson testified for several hours.

“If that doesn’t upset you watching that video, if that doesn’t make you sick, watching that video, I don’t know,” said Wilson, immediately after the video was played.

The department’s disciplinary review board originally recommended Huffine receive a 180-hour suspension (about 22 days) but Wilson overruled the board and fired Huffine.

“He’s lucky she did not die in the back seat of that car, because he would be, in my opinion, in an orange jump suit right now,” said Wilson.

The chief later testified that Huffine in his pre-disciplinary meeting with her referred to Kelly as “just another drunk.”

At one point in the body cam, while still begging for help, Kelly is heard saying, “Master, I’ll be good.”

It’s that one remark that haunts Wilson the most.

“As an African-American female that she denigrates herself to the point that, where she is so asking for help that she doesn’t know what to do, that she actually calls him master — that to me is disgusting,” Wilson said.

Wilson has since changed department policy so that officers are no longer allowed to transport hobbled suspects in the back of a patrol car.

The appeal hearing continues Wednesday and Huffine is expected to testify to try to win his job back.

The Civil Service Commission is expected to issue a written decision sometime in October.

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