Video: Denver Police named in excessive force lawsuit over deadly shooting

Posted at 11:33 PM, Jul 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-26 13:22:28-04

DENVER, Colo. -- Two Denver Police shootings in the same day two years ago, have led to two new lawsuits against the city.

The families of Joseph Valverde and Ryan Ronquillo have separately sued the city, and officers involved in the deaths of the two men on July 2, 2014. 

Valverde was shot and killed by SWAT in an undercover drug deal at Overland Park near Santa Fe and Florida Avenue.

A few hours later, Ronquillo was shot and killed in a vehicle in the parking lot of the Romero Family Funeral Home near 47th Avenue and Tejon Street.

Valverde's mother is suing the City of Denver and Sergeant Justin Dodge, the SWAT officer who shot and killed Valverde.

Surveillance video recorded from an airplane monitoring Valverde during a Metro Gang Task Force operation shows Valverde reach in his waistband for a gun. What he does with it and what happens next is the heart of the lawsuit.

"You can see here, he pulls out something black and drops it right in front of the car, puts his hands up and that's when he gets shot," said Raymond Bryant, the attorney representing Valverde's mother.

Bryant, from the Civil Rights Litigation Group, watched the surveillance video with Denver7 and referenced why he believes excessive force was used.

"You don't see a person brandish a weapon, wave it around like he's going to use it. You don't see somebody raise a weapon or point it at anybody," said Bryant. "He pulls out something right here, it's a black something. He immediately drops it on the ground, then he's shot."

Undercover Drug Deal

Here's the backstory on the undercover drug buy. 

According to interviews with the officers involved in the Metro Gang Task Force operation, Valverde had previously sold AK-47s to the undercover officer. The undercover officer said that Valverde had told him "every time he provided an automatic, he had an automatic with him."

Valverde showed up to the park with $53,000 in a backpack. The undercover officer was supposed to be selling him cocaine. When Valverde thought the undercover officer was calling for someone to bring the cocaine over, the officer was really calling for backup.

The video shows a vehicle arrive with SWAT team members. When they get out, the undercover officer dives face down on the sidewalk, while Valverde backs up to the front right of the vehicle he was near. A flashbang goes off and three SWAT officers approach from behind him on the right side of the vehicle he is standing near.

Dodge gets out of the driver's seat and approaches Valverde from the left side of the vehicle. Valverde reaches into his waistband a few times. Just as he's shot by Dodge, his hands start to rise and appear to be empty.

"He pulled out the gun and instead of brandishing it or pointing it, he instead extended it out to his side and dropped it in front of the car," said Bryant. "All motion connected to that weapon appears, clearly, to be intent to get rid of it. This person wanted to give up, not only his weapon, but he wanted to surrender himself."

"Why shouldn't I think, 'Yeah, the police did the right thing, he took a gun out?'" asked Denver7 reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"Because the gun wasn't used in a threatening matter. It's that simple," said Bryant.

Lawsuit Challenges That Police Have "Shoot First" Practice

Besides seeking justice for Valverde's mother, the lawsuit seeks to change policies within Denver Police.

"The case represents just one of a string of Denver Police incidents reflective of a 'shoot first' deadly force practice, utilized by DPD officers and ratified by the Denver Police Department, in which officers routinely fail to issue reasonable commands and reasonable warnings, and provide no reasonable opportunity for targets to respond or surrender themselves, before discharging their weapons during police seizures.

"…Denver must recognize this case as an example of precisely what not to do during a police encounter, and implement new policies, training, and disciplinary efforts so that officers do not repeat the same mistakes by 'jumping the gun' and using premature, unnecessary, and excessive use of deadly force in circumstances where restraint is most reasonable."

Former Law Enforcement Officers Review Video For Denver7

Two former high ranking law enforcement officers watched the video for Denver7, given what they were able to see, both agreed that the shooting was in line with what they have previously taught. They both separately commented that Valverde still would have been connected to the gun if he ditched it and was arrested. They also said he would likely be alive if he did not reach for the gun.

Denver Police Policy On Deadly Force

One of the reasons Denver Police policy authorizes an officer to use deadly force is when they reasonably believe it's necessary to defend themselves or a third person from what is reasonably believed to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.

"The question for police officers can't be does somebody have a weapon or not, when deciding whether or not they're authorized to use excessive force. They can't just say, 'I saw a gun. I had to pull the trigger.' They are trained to detect movements that are aggressive and are designed to take the lives of others," said Bryant. "They should have taken note of the fact that he had his arm out to his side, that he dropped the weapon, and that his left hand was up while he was doing that, followed by his right hand, in one continuous motion."

Documentary Film Crew Captures Shooting Audio

Based on documents obtained by Denver7, police interviews with other officers after the shooting reveal slightly different variations of what happened before the shooting.

One officer said he heard someone shout, "Gun." Another officer said he heard, "Show us your hands" and "Get on the ground."

Near the Platte River, a documentary film crew was interviewing a homeless man when the shooting occurred.

In the film crew's video, you can hear the 'boom' of the flashbang, then in the distance you can hear, "Get your hands up" and "Get on the ground." You then here five bangs, a woman scream and then, "Drop the gun."

Dog Walker Defends Valverde

The scream from that audio is from a woman walking a dog behind Valverde. The video shows the flashbang scare both the woman and the dog.

"As I turned and looked, I saw the SWAT team behind me with their big guns," said Sara. "I think it all went so fast, I don't think he got a chance, a fair chance."

She did not want to be identified beyond that because of concern about police reaction.

"I'm nervous about police retaliation. I have, in the meantime, become an activist for Joe (Valverde) in the community and I don't want to be targeted," said Sara.

"What do you think about that operation happening with you right there?" asked Zelinger. "They actually did tell me I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I did continue to ask why would they do this in the middle of the day," said Sara.

Why Dodge Told Investigators He Fired His Weapon

During an interview following the shooting, Dodge is asked many questions about the events leading up to the shooting and the shooting itself. The following explanation is describing the moments right after he exits the SWAT van.

"…he's pulling and I think it was on third, or maybe the fourth time, but it's, it's somewhere he's pulling. And the gun comes out and I actually now can see not only just the butt of it where I - I knew it was gun based on what I saw, but then I actually saw it break his, his pants. And I could not see the barrel of the gun. At which point I'm now coming up -- you know -- and he -- again steps -- he's, he's moving at the same time he's bringing it up. And his wrists -- I can see wrist break. And right as his wrist break I c-…I see the muzzle. And it was at that point that I started moving, because I knew I was going to engage him at this point. So I started moving -- as soon as I saw his wrist break and I saw that muzzle, because it looked like it was coming up to me, and that's when I shot him."

Later in the interview, Dodge is asked again why he shot.

"I shot because I saw the barrel, and I thought he was going to shoot me," said Dodge.

"When the officer says, I fired on him when I saw the muzzle of the gun, and you compare that to the video, where Mr. Valverde put the gun out to his side and dropped it, I think you can see that this officer must have known that he did something wrong," said Bryant. "The truth is the officer probably saw gun and fired his weapon immediately, which is too soon, it's not an imminent threat."

Dodge Also Brought A Less Lethal Weapon

In the interviews conducted by police after the shooting, one of the SWAT officers said that Dodge was supposed to have a .40 mm less lethal weapon; a rubber bullet gun.

During his own interview, Dodge explained why he grabbed his rifle.

"…when he sees me I see - he backs up and starts reaching in his pocket, and that's the same time I'm coming out, and I'm grabbing my rifle. And I also have a .40 mm less lethal in the car. And the whole idea was is if he runs, if does anything where he's not, where he's not a threat that I can grab that. And we have the dog, and we have a .400 mm for that less lethal option. And I had them both sitting next to one another. And when I saw him doing what he was doing I intentionally grabbed my rifle, because I thought, I thought he--

"…he's -- it's a possibility being armed. And he wasn't, he wasn't trying to run -- he wasn't trying to get away from me at this point. Um, so that's why I grabbed my rifle instead of the .40 mm."

Shooting Deemed Justified By District Attorney

The Denver District Attorney found the shooting to be justified.

"Metro-Swat tactical operations rely on speed, distraction and show of force. As a result, such operations rarely result in casualties – the tactics usually result in the subject’s arrest before he or she can react. However, Metro-Swat officers are trained to act quickly and decisively when a subject does attempt to bring deadly physical force to bear, and they are equipped to assure -- as much as possible -- that they will prevail in a deadly force encounter. In this case, Sgt. Dodge’s quick actions assured neither that he, Det. Rodriguez nor any of the other Metro-Swat team members were injured or killed. It is clear from the witness statements, the physical evidence and the surveillance video that Sgt. Dodge acted to save his own life and the lives of the other officers approaching Valverde from Valverde’s imminent use of a deadly weapon. As such, Sgt. Dodge is to be commended for his bravery and the leadership he displayed."

However, both District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and the city's Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell, questioned the time and location of the operation.

"While we rarely comment on tactical issues, this operation plan – which was not one devised by the Denver police department’s Metro-Swat unit but, rather, by MGTF commanders – does give me cause for concern. The decision to execute the take down in a well-used park near a popular bike trail in the middle of the afternoon on a summer day could very well have resulted in injury or death to innocent by-standers. In fact, it did affect an innocent bystander, and that she and others were not injured is a tribute to the training and professionalism of Denver’s Metro-Swat bureau. I voiced my concerns with the MGTF Board," wrote Morrissey.

"The (Office of the Independent Monitor) was concerned about the choice of arrest time and location. The potentially high-risk arrest was executed in a well-used park in the middle of a summer afternoon, which could have compromised public safety," wrote Mitchell.

Mitchell also took exception that Dodge received a commendation for this incident before the Use of Force Review Board determined whether this incident was within or out of policy.

Dodge received a commendation on April 9, 2015. The Use of Force Board determined this incident was within policy on May 18, 2015.

Attorney Cites Recent Shooting Deaths In Lawsuit

Denver Police are also being sued by the family of Ronquillo, and Jessica Hernandez's family has said they also plan to sue.

Ronquillo's shooting death was the same day as Valverde. He was wanted for domestic violence and car theft. He was in his vehicle at the Romero Family Funeral Home, when police boxed him in. Ronquillo backed the car over the sidewalk, then police said he grazed one officer and nearly hit another. He was shot and killed.

In January 2015, Hernandez was spotted in a stolen car in a north Denver alley. Police said she drove at an officer at a high rate of speed and that's when she was shot and killed. Denver Police changed policy after this shooting, saying officers are no longer supposed to shot at a moving vehicle unless they are under fire.

"The Denver Police officers here, just like in the Ronquillo case and the Jessica Hernandez case, don't seem to understand what imminence is in an imminent threat," said Bryant.