Special thank to Brian Howey of The Sentinal (via AP Storyshare)
Some officers creating problems with criminal cases continue without consequences or department review
In The Blue is a project of the Sentinel Colorado Investigative Reporting Lab. The Lab’s mission is to engage with readers, journalists, decision makers and residents around impactful accountability reporting that serves all communities of Aurora. The series is an extended look at local police reform and related issues.
AURORA | Brandon Washington ran a red light in April 2017 and smashed into another car in an Aurora intersection. Aurora Police Department Sgt. Jeffery Longnecker, who witnessed the accident, approached the scene to check on him.
When a dazed Washington tried to get out of the car against Longnecker’s orders, Longecker grabbed his arm, and a struggle ensued. Officer Benjamin Petering arrived and, at Longnecker’s direction, tased Washington repeatedly. Officers yanked Washington from the car and kneeled on his back as he struggled.
“I can’t breathe,” Washington, an asthmatic Black man, said repeatedly as officers handcuffed him.
“You can breathe,” an officer can be heard saying in body-worn police camera footage.
Police found cocaine in Washington’s clenched hands and a stolen pistol inside the car, which Washington had recently rented. Washington, who claimed the gun wasn’t his, had a previous felony conviction that barred him from possessing a gun, and he risked decades in prison for gun and drug charges the federal government filed after the car crash.
What might have been a slam-dunk criminal case for the feds instead became a federal civil rights victory for Washington.
During Washington’s criminal proceedings, a judge ruled that Longnecker breached Washington’s Fourth Amendment rights when he searched Washington without probable cause. The judge suppressed the gun and drug evidence, scuttling the federal criminal case and allowing Washington to walk free. Washington then leveraged that judge’s constitutional ruling to sue the police department for the unlawful search and excessive force – a case that ended in the city paying Washington a $125,000 settlement.
Despite the officers’ missteps, the police department conducted no internal affairs investigation of the Washington case, and Longnecker and Petering were never disciplined, according to police records, court documents and statements by department officials.
“That means nobody was communicating about it. Nobody was pulling each other’s coat or holding nobody accountable,” Washington said about his case.
Longnecker is one of at least two officers each named in two separate lawsuits that have been settled by the city since 2018.
The Sentinel’s review of those cases revealed that neither officer was investigated or disciplined by the department for their roles in those incidents, even after they seem to have violated department policies and the constitutional rights of those they arrested. Those cases, just a fraction of the 27 police-involved lawsuits recently settled by the city, highlight a pattern of problematic officer behavior that went overlooked by the department even after it cost the city $19.8 million in settlement payouts and helped land Aurora in a long and costly consent decree.
Joshua Perrott, the second officer, may have violated department body-worn camera policy and the constitutional rights of a teenager in one of the two lawsuits he was named in.
A third officer, Daniel Vieth, was also a defendant in at least two lawsuits during the same period. The Sentinel requested all three officers’ disciplinary records in February, but the department hasn’t provided Vieth’s records.
The cases come to light a year after Aurora entered into a court-ordered consent decree that resulted from a 2019 investigation by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. The investigation, prompted in part by the fatal detainment of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, found the Aurora department engaged in racially biased policing.
The investigation also found that civil rights lawsuits are poor accountability measures for the department, in part because officers rarely receive any feedback or discipline for conduct that triggers lawsuits.
The Sentinel’s findings have raised concerns among policing experts, including Jeff Schlanger, the independent police monitor responsible for assessing the city’s progress under the consent decree.
“We’re going to look at these [cases] and decide whether or not there’s anything that can or should be done at this point,” Schlanger said. “We believe that enhanced supervision is really what is necessary, and that means looking at these incidents as they occur, not waiting for them to accumulate.”
Longnecker declined to comment for this story via a department representative, but he defended under oath his unconstitutional search of Washington during the lawsuit.
“(Any time) you can get a felon with a gun off the street, I think that’s good police work,” Longnecker said in the 2020 deposition.
In the deposition, Longnecker said no supervisor ever discussed with him the judge’s ruling that his conduct was unconstitutional, and he didn’t learn of that ruling for at least seven months. Aurora, like many police departments, does not track these suppression rulings, leaving department supervisors and their officers unaware when courts find they have violated people’s civil rights.
“There are a lot of really important societal interests that are harmed by not tracking this,” said Jonathan Abel, an associate professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, who has studied how police departments track officer misconduct.
Among those concerns is a lack of accountability when officers violate people’s rights that can result in police repeating unconstitutional arrest techniques, Abel said. Departments also miss out on an important way to monitor officer conduct and arrest outcomes. Ultimately, allowing unconstitutional policing to go unchecked can cost prosecutors cases that might have been straightforward convictions.
Not tracking suppression rulings can also be a liability for police departments. That’s because rulings by judges in criminal cases that an officer may have breached a defendant’s constitutional rights make it easier for those defendants, once charges against them are dropped, to file and win civil rights lawsuits.
“A federal judge had already said his Fourth Amendment rights were violated, that the officers did not have probable cause to do a search, and they nevertheless did so,” Darold Killmer, a civil rights attorney who represented Washington in his lawsuit against Aurora, said about that case. “What left is there to prove?”
Aurora’s Interim Police Chief Art Acevedo, along with Schlanger, who’s monitoring whether the city is abiding by the consent decree, both say the department should start tracking suppression rulings. Acevedo said he would discuss with Schlanger the possibility of including them in future reviews of officer behavior.
“A lot of times people think (suppression rulings are) malicious and a lot of times it’s just lack of experience or (that officers) need better training,” Acevedo said. “Everybody has a role to play. And it’s not just the police department…It’s the judges, it is the judiciary, it is the defense bar, it is the prosecutors. We all have to be at the table when it comes to accountability.”
The only internal review of Washington’s case was by the department’s Force Review Board, which ruled that the officers followed department policy when they tased Washington and pinned him to the ground. Department policy, however, allows officers to tase suspects no more than three times for a total of 15 seconds, except in extreme circumstances. Petering tased Washington four times for a total of 22 seconds. The report by the board – which is made up of several department representatives – did not address that discrepancy.
During his career at the Aurora Police Department, Longnecker has been named as a defendant in at least four civil rights lawsuits. None of the lawsuits triggered investigations by the department into his behavior, according to his disciplinary records.
Longnecker was briefly a defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit over a 2004 fatal police shooting. A judge dismissed the case after the mother of the plaintiffs, who were children, failed to secure an attorney to represent them.
Longnecker was sued in 2013 for using excessive force for his alleged involvement in an arrest that chipped a bank robber’s tooth. The city settled the case for $5,000 to cover the cost of the man’s dental care.
In 2018, Longnecker was sued for allegedly violating an Aurora hospital employee’s rights by illegally impounding the man’s car, refusing to return the car and accusing the man of eluding Longnecker, being on drugs and driving drunk. The city settled the case for $38,000.
Although these lawsuits did not trigger internal affairs investigations, the department has probed Longnecker’s conduct at least seven times because of complaints alleging racial profiling, unprofessional conduct and a 2012 incident in which Longnecker shot a suspect.
The Sentinel’s review of those complaints found that in five of the seven reports by the department, investigators gave no indication that they interviewed Longnecker. Investigators cleared him in every complaint, most of which were determined to be unfounded.
“In some cases, a review of (body-worn camera footage) or speaking to others on scene negates the need for further investigation or interview,” department spokesperson Faith Goodrich wrote in an email when asked why Longnecker wasn’t interviewed during the investigations.
Some report details were so vague it was difficult to determine the circumstances of the incidents. The report about the 2012 shooting, for example, indicates Longnecker was investigated for allegedly firing at or from a moving vehicle, a potential policy violation, but the three-page report includes just three sentences describing an incident in which a man carrying a shotgun refused orders by police to drop it. Longnecker shot the man in the chest. The report does not indicate whether the man survived. Investigators ruled that Longnecker followed department policy, but they did not include their reasons for that determination, nor how a vehicle was involved in the shooting.
The next year, internal affairs investigators compiled a far longer report about a much less serious allegation by a man who said Longnecker and his colleagues were rude and failed to provide their business cards to him when they broke up a hotel party he was attending. Unlike the report about the 2012 shooting, the 11-page investigation included extensive details about the circumstances of the complaint, many of which were written by Longnecker himself, and notes from Longnecker’s commander that the superior would discuss the incident with him and other supervisors who were on the scene. Nevertheless, the man’s complaint was ruled unfounded.
The only documented discipline Longnecker seems to have received in his 25 years as an Aurora officer was for accidentally firing his gun while at his home. Longnecker later said he self-reported the shooting. The department suspended him without pay for 10 hours.
In the deposition, Longnecker said he wasn’t interviewed by internal affairs officers responsible for investigating several of the complaints filed against him.
During the deposition, Washington’s civil rights lawyer, Darold Killmer, asked Longnecker, who is white, if he thought it was thorough investigative work not to interview an officer accused by a civilian of racial profiling.
“If the investigator can explain why there’s no need to interview the officer, then yeah,” Longnecker said.
Acevedo, Aurora’s interim police chief, said such a lax approach won’t fly under his leadership.
“When an allegation comes in, I expect it to be fully investigated,” he said in an interview. “And a very basic part of investigating a complaint is talking to the officer.”
Though it’s unusual for officers to have so little knowledge of complaints against them, policing experts say it’s relatively common for officers not to learn that a judge has ruled their conduct unconstitutional.
“There’s not a great feedback loop for prosecutors to tell police officers what’s happened to their cases,” Abel said. “Part of the problem here is that officers are doing things on the street that are disconnected from what later becomes of the case.”
Patrol officers respond to numerous calls every day, making it difficult for them to follow each resulting criminal case to its end. And officers are frequently discouraged from following these cases so they can focus on making arrests.
“We’ve trained officers over the years, ‘Don’t be so invested in a case where you make it personal,’” Acevedo said. “You do your job and then you let the rest of the system do its job.”
Experts say prosecutors don’t routinely notify departments of suppression rulings unless they notice a pattern of suppressed evidence. Those patterns can be difficult to detect given that multiple offices, from city attorneys to district attorneys to federal prosecutors, are responsible for these cases.
The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado filed the federal gun and drug charges against Washington after his 2017 traffic accident, but the prosecutor and a spokesperson refused to comment on the case or say whether the office informed the Aurora PD of the judge’s ruling that Longnecker’s search was unconstitutional.
Aurora is required under the consent decree to develop an early intervention system that will track various aspects of officer behavior such as civil rights lawsuits, sustained complaints and disciplinary outcomes in order to alert the department when concerning patterns arise. Acevedo said he planned to discuss with Schlanger options for adding suppression rulings to that list.
It is unclear when the department will actually launch the early intervention system, in part because, as the consent decree monitor’s latest report shows, private companies the city has hired to develop the system have fallen behind schedule.
The report also approvingly noted Acevedo’s commitment to reform, saying that while the department had missed some deadlines, it is on track to meet its requirements under the consent decree.
The department has been rocked in recent years by a slew of incidents involving officer misconduct and what many have called indifferent disciplinary responses by department leadership.
In 2018, a woman accused Sgt. David Sandoval of stalking and harassing her, and an investigation by the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office concluded Sandoval should be criminally charged with harassment and domestic violence. Sandoval instead received a 240-hour unpaid suspension after admitting to using a department database to find the woman’s address. He faced no criminal changes by the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and not only kept his job, but he was also promoted to lead one of the department’s special Direct Action Response Teams. He was never barred from investigating the same crimes he was accused of committing.
Aurora’s former interim Police Chief Dan Oates came under fire last year for reversing discipline against former Division Chief Cassidee Carlson after she helped Detective Julie Stahnke in an incident where Stahnke violated a restraining order protecting Stahnke’s estranged wife.
According to Denver Police records, Stahnke was charged with domestic violence after police were called to the Denver home of Stahnke and her estranged wife. Stahnke was arrested and jailed in late 2021. Carlson picked Stahnke up from jail the next day and drove her to Stahnke’s Denver home. The domestic violence charges against Stahnke were later dropped.
Oates rejected recommendations from his own Police Chief’s Review Board to discipline Carlson and instead promoted her to division chief, prompting accusations of favoritism.
Carlson recently announced her retirement from the department. Acevedo said the investigation into Stahnke’s behavior is still open, but “we should have a resolution pretty quick.”
Since his appointment as interim chief in December, Acevedo changed department policy to mandate that the internal affairs bureau launch investigations into officers charged with crimes as soon as those charges are filed, rather than after the cases are adjudicated, as was previous practice at the department.
Some community leaders say the lack of investigations and discipline in these and other cases sends a clear message to Aurorans.
“It’s bad enough that we have to be concerned about the actual criminals,” said Topazz McBride, a pastor at Restoration Christian Fellowship. “But if we can’t even feel safe around the people who are hired to protect us and keep us safe, then it’s a double jeopardy.”
In its review of Aurora PD’s discipline practices, the Sentinel found that Officer Joshua Perrott may have violated the department’s body-worn camera policy and the civil rights of a Black teenager during his involvement in the teen’s arrest.
Aurora officers responded to a suburban neighborhood Aug. 12, 2016, to investigate a call about a man with a gun and discovered a nearby house party instead.
Perrott arrived at the house as his colleagues spoke to a group of people standing outside. As the officers turned their attention to the party inside, Perrott turned off his body-worn camera, an apparent violation of department policy, which requires officers to keep their cameras on during all interactions with the public.
According to other officers’ body camera footage and police reports, Officer Troy Raines approached the house and ordered the party-goers outside. Among the group was a Black 17-year-old boy. As he walked outside, Raines ordered him to remove his hands from his pockets. The teen complied.
“Don’t look at me like that!” Raines shouted at him, footage of the incident shows. “Turn around and put your hands down by your side now! You want to get dumped?”
According to Raines’ police report, the teen then lowered his hands toward his waistband. With Perrott’s help, Raines grabbed the boy by the arm, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him.
The Sentinel has chosen not to identify the teen because he was a minor at the time.
Perrott reactivated his body camera shortly after the incident, several minutes after officers arrived at the house. Police body cameras capture 30 seconds of film preceding officers hitting record and Perrott’s camera still captured some of the incident. Raines also appears to have turned his camera off during the arrest.
They are not the only officers to stop recording in the midst of an interaction with the public.
A 2020 internal audit of the department’s body-worn camera system found that officers stopped recording in the middle of interactions with the public in nearly 60% of the videos reviewed. In more than three-quarters of those videos, officers did not say in the recordings why they were interrupting them, as required by department policy. A review of Perrott’s camera footage shows he did not state why he interrupted the recording.
The audit also found that 99% of body-worn camera videos were not reviewed by department supervisors, though 86% of supervisors reported in a survey that they reviewed their officers’ camera footage. A review of Perrott’s disciplinary records found no indication that a supervisor reviewed his camera footage from his run-in with the teen.
After Raines and Perrott arrested the teenager, he was charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly refusing to obey Raines’ orders. In his police report and sworn court testimony, Raines said it took the 17-year-old boy five to six minutes to exit the home after Raines ordered everyone out of the house.
“Our original call was a person with a gun,” Raines testified in court, according to courtroom transcripts. “Although his clothing didn’t match the initial description, given the timeframe between our arrival to him coming out…my concern and opinion is that it was plenty of time for someone to change their clothing.”
According to Raines’ body-worn camera footage, the teen exited the house approximately 30 seconds after Raines ordered everyone out.
Perrott and Raines declined interview requests via a department spokesperson.
A municipal court judge found the teen not guilty after ruling there was insufficient evidence to back the charge.
Before being tackled and arrested by the officers, the 17-year-old played high school football and had an active social life, the teen’s father said. Afterwards, his mental health declined.
“He just spiraled,” said his father, who the Sentinel chose not to identify in order to protect his son’s identity. “He would hide in his room.”
The teenager, now an adult, declined to comment on the case but gave his father and attorney permission to be interviewed for this story.
The teen’s family sued Raines, Perrott and the department for unlawful arrest and excessive force. The city settled the case for $51,500.
Still, the department never investigated Raines and Perrott’s use of force against the teen or their apparent manipulation of their body cameras. Neither officer was disciplined.
“A minimal amount of force was used to affect the arrest and there were no injuries,” department spokesperson Faith Goodrich wrote in an email. “Therefore, it did not fall under the use-of-force reporting structure at the time.”
Goodrich said the department’s use-of-force reporting procedures have since been restructured.
Perrott was sued again in 2021 for failing to intervene when another officer allegedly unlawfully arrested and used excessive force against an Aurora man. The city settled that case for $24,500. Perrott was never investigated or disciplined for his role in that case, either.
Like Longnecker, Perrott was disciplined only once while working for Aurora PD, when he carelessly handled and discharged a gun in 2016. He received a 10-hour unpaid suspension, department records show, which was subtracted from his annual paid leave.
Troy Raines has been sued on at least three previous occasions while an officer at the Boynton Beach Police Department in Florida for allegedly violating arrestees’ constitutional rights. In 2018, he was one of three Aurora officers who fatally shot Antonio Sanchez Jr., a suspect in a separate shooting, after Sanchez pointed a gun at police. The 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office ruled the shooting legally justified.
Raines has since been promoted to detective.
>>>>In The Blue series is produced by Sentinel staff journalists Max Levy, Philip Poston, Carina Julig and Kara Mason with investigative journalists in residence Brian Howey and Trey Bundy.