DENVER (KDVR) — A man who says he was shot in the eye with a police projectile and blinded during the springtime George Floyd protests in downtown Denver is suing the City and County of Denver in federal court.
“I’m hoping (this lawsuit) means a chance to review what happened, (and) tell my story,” said Russell Strong, who is named as the plaintiff.
Strong now wears a prosthetic eyeball after his was removed due to his injury.
“Maybe at the end…there could be a positive impact on the relationship between the police and our community,” he said.
Strong said he carried a sign that read, “No Justice, No Peace” during the May protest at Civic Center Park.
“I certainly didn’t go there with the intent of causing mischief, you know what I mean? It was a peaceful protest in the park. I’m holding a peace sign,” he said. “A lot of people feel like it was about saying, ‘F the police,’ and for me, it’s not about that. It’s about trying to uplift the community and the relationship between the citizens and the police. The police are just as much a part of this community as the citizens, and so, I’m not there trying to have a war between me and the police.”
Strong said he was holding his sign when someone shot him in the face.
“Without even giving warning to those they promised to serve and protect, Officers in Denver opened fire on the protesters,” the lawsuit said. “Defendant Officer Doe took aim, fired, and shot Mr. Strong in the head with a Kinetic Impact Projectile (‘KIP). The impact knocked Mr. Strong to the ground and blood began flowing from his eye socket.”
Identifying the officer involved
The suit names an unidentified officer, Officer Doe, as a co-defendant with the City and County of Denver because attorneys and police who investigated the incident have said they’ve been unable to identify the specific person who struck Strong in the face.
The Denver district attorney also declined the case for criminal charges for that reason.
“Both Denver police and Aurora officers were on scene at that time. Without knowing the answers to who or what hit Mr. Strong, there is simply not enough evidence for us to file a criminal case,” said Carolyn Tyler, in November.
The suit claims Officer Doe was “employed by either the Aurora Police Department or the DPD.”
“We have every reason to believe that we will be able to identify the officer who shot Mr. Strong and took his eye, but even if not, we’re prepared to hold the City of Denver accountable for its policies and its customs that allowed for this to occur,” said Matt Cron, an attorney representing Strong and a partner at the Rathod Mohamedbhai civil rights firm.
“The problem in this case is that so many officers were using force that it becomes difficult to pinpoint exactly which officer is responsible,” he said.
Aurora police say case is unfounded
Although it is not currently named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the Aurora Police Department previously told the FOX31 Problem Solvers it conducted an internal affairs review of the incident but determined the case to be unfounded.
“After reviewing all of the video footage surrounding this event, investigators were unable to determine where, which agency, or who may have caused damage to Mr. Strong,” said Officer Matthew Longshore, a spokesperson for the Aurora Police Department, in a November email to the FOX31 Problem Solvers.
In an email this month, Longshore told the FOX31 Problem Solvers he was previously unaware of any other ongoing APD investigations or reviews related to Aurora officers’ use of force during the Denver protests.
However, APD confirmed that there are three current Use of Force cases related to the May and June protests that are being handled by a force review board.
“The Media Relations Unit, at the time, was not aware that this review was happening,” Longshore said, referencing a fall inquiry by the Problem Solvers in which APD did not disclose these other ongoing reviews. “The status is ongoing. There is no timeline for completion.”
Denver Independent Monitor’s Review
In December, Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor released a 69-page analysis of the police response during the protests and found “extremely troubling” police tactics and an inadequate system for tracking when and how officers were using less lethal munitions, like the 40mm sponge grenade, against protesters.
The report also accused some officers of deploying weapons at protesters who posed no physical threats.
“We observed examples of DPD officers deploying less-lethal munitions…at persons who were verbally objecting to police behavior and not engaged in apparent physical resistance,” the report said. Those incidents, some of which were captured on body-worn camera, have been referred to DPD for further review.
As expected, the City and County of Denver told the Problem Solvers it could not comment on a pending lawsuit.
The Denver Police Department website suggests police leaders are making progress with changes related to recommendations made by the Office of the Independent Monitor.
“The department began proactively implementing changes even before the release of the report by the Office of the Independent Monitor. Those changes include the areas of: Use and tracking of less-than-lethal munitions, processes for documenting the use-of-force during a protest response, affixing body-worn cameras and officer identification to officers’ protective equipment, improving dispersal orders, and addressing concerns related to our mutual aid partners,” the website says.
“We recognize there is still work to be done and we will continue to focus our efforts on implementing changes to improve upon existing policies, training, and procedures,” the site says.