Judge slightly alters order on Denver police use of tear gas

DENVER (AP) — A judge is limiting police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other non-lethal weapons against people protesting against police brutality in Denver.

In a temporary restraining order issued Friday night, U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson said four people who filed a class-action lawsuit against the city accusing police of using the weapons to assert dominance and suppress their right to protest had made a strong case the police had used excessive force.

Jackson said police often have a “thankless job” and should be able to defend themselves. However, he said they have failed to police themselves at the protests. The judge said an on-scene supervisor with the rank of captain or above must approve the use of any chemical weapons and projectiles — and only in response to violence or destruction the supervisor has personally witnessed.

Jackson modified that part of the order Saturday at the request of the police department to say lieutenants could also approve the use of the weapons; the city had argued it did not have enough captains to safely comply.

The judge ordered police not to aim the non-lethal weapons at people’s heads and groins, as the plaintiffs alleged had been done, and to use body cameras.

The plaintiffs presented videos of police firing pepper spray at protesters who were speaking or yelling at police but not acting violently and of police firing projectiles at a person serving as a protest medic who was helping an unconscious person.

“Those videos show that the officers had ample time for reflection and were not dealing with dangerous conditions. Named plaintiffs were attacked with rubber bullets, tear gas, etc, allegedly solely on the basis of their presence at the demonstrations, their viewpoint, or their attempts to render treatment to injured protestors,” Jackson wrote.

Denver police said the judge's order is largely consistent with its use-of-force policy. However, the city filed a motion late Friday night seeking a few alterations because of staffing issues and the technical limitations of body cameras. The department also said it wanted to “correct the record” about rubber bullets.

“Denver does not use such munitions,” the filing said.

The city asked the judge to allow officers with a rank of lieutenant or above, rather than captain or above, to approve the use of chemical weapons; lieutenants are one rank below captains. The department has only four captains and one commander responsible for the downtown core, the filing said, so it also needs lieutenants to be able to authorize the use of the irritants.

“Without this ability, officers will not be able to receive the immediate direction they may need when faced with dangerous circumstances and will not be able to act to protect themselves or others,” the filing said.

In addition, the city said it was problematic to require officers staffing the protests to run their body cameras at all times. First, it said, many officers are filling in from other jurisdictions and might not have body cameras. But for those who do, running the cameras constantly would quickly wear out the batteries and the storage capacity, possibly rendering them useless when they are needed to record confrontations.

Jackson on Saturday said the police did not need to run their cameras when nothing was going on in front of them, but he said he expected any acts of confrontation to be recorded — “and if that means increasing the supply of batteries, so be it.”