A Civil Service panel has upheld the firing of one of two Denver police officers fired for lying about their involvement in a videotaped beating outside a LoDo bar, but it reinstated the second officer with back pay and benefits.
Officer Devin Sparks and Cpl. Randy Murr were accused of using inappropriate force in arresting Michael DeHerrera in April 2009 and then lying about it.
Then-Public Safety Manager opted to suspend them, but the light punishment sparked a public outcry, and police reopened the investigations. The officers were then fired, reinstated and then fired again before they appealed to the three-member panel of lawyers, which issued its decision on Wednesday after listening to two weeks of testimony from the officers and a series of witnesses and experts.
Yet the officers' ultimate discipline remains unresolved. City Attorney Douglas Friednash said the city will appeal Murr's reinstatement to the Civil Service Commission. Sparks has not decided whether to appeal his termination.
The three-member panel found that while Sparks knowingly lied and omitted information regarding his use-of-force against DeHerrera, Murr did not lie and his termination was inappropriate. Sparks' use-of-force was excessive, the panel found, and warranted a 30-day suspension.
The city was "profoundly disappointed" by the panel's decision to reinstate Murr, Friednash said. "The evidence provided at the hearing regarding Corporal Murr's deceptive statements and reports was compelling. In fact, the panel found that Corporal Murr falsely reported seeing Michael DeHerrera take a swing at Officer Sparks, yet reinstated him to the police department," he wrote in an e-mail.
A city surveillance camera posted in the area caught what happened next. As Johnson, handcuffed and surrounded by officers, lay face-down on the street, DeHerrera stood several feet away on the sidewalk, talking to his father on his cellphone.
Sparks is seen approaching DeHerrera, grabbing him by the neck and throwing him down on the street. DeHerrera's face is bloodied and his legs limp when Sparks later lifts him from the ground, his hands cuffed behind him. As Sparks places DeHerrera in a squad car, he slams the door on DeHerrera's ankle.
DeHerrera did not cooperate and turned his body away from Sparks when he at first tried to arrest him, the panel said. But the camera footage did not show DeHerrera "blading his body getting ready to hit Sparks," as Sparks had testified.
"Sparks could have tried alternative methods of arresting DeHerrera under those circumstances to respond to the level of passive resistance to arrest...." the panel wrote.
"We understand what the video in this case shows, but the video simply did not reflect Officer Sparks' perception of the event," said attorney Sean Olson, who represented the officers. "From the very beginning, he consistently reported his perception of the event that night, even when he knew the video showed something different. ... He was always truthful."
The DeHerreras settled with the city for $17,500 in 2009 but continued to push for the officers to be punished. Michael DeHerrera's father, Anthony DeHerrera, said Wednesday he was frustrated by the lack of resolution.
"The system they have there is amazing to me," he said. "It's detrimental to everyone involved because it takes so long, not only for us the victims, but the officers. Everyone's lives have been on hold for four years."
Sadie Gurman: 303-954-1661, email@example.com or twitter.com/sgurman