Tuesday, 21 Sep 2021

Denver paid $1.1M to police officers fired after beating unarmed man, records show

Two former Denver police officers were paid more than $1.1 million by the city after winning a decade-long legal battle in which they argued they should not have been fired for severely beating an unarmed man in 2009, their settlement agreements show.

The former officers, Devin Sparks and Randy Murr, were fired in 2011 after they beat Michael DeHerrera, then 23, and lied about the incident. DeHerrera was hospitalized after the assault.

The city paid Sparks $420,000 and Murr $593,597 in back pay, according to settlement agreements signed in March obtained by The Denver Post through a public records request.

Both men also received thousands of dollars in exchange for promises to never again work for the Denver Police Department or any other city agency. Sparks received $15,000 for this promise and Murr received $50,000.

“It hurts because we didn’t get any justice,” DeHererra’s father, Anthony DeHerrera, said in an interview. “We’ve been through all this pain and suffering like nothing ever happened. They basically got a 10-year vacation with all their back pay.”

The settlements are the final product of a 10-year court battle between the city and the former officers, who argued that they never should have been fired. The litigation ended last year when the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which left a Colorado Court of Appeals decision in favor of the former officers as the final ruling. The appeals court ruling reversed the firing and said the officers should receive back pay.

“We fought hard to uphold the terminations but unfortunately, for procedural reasons, we didn’t prevail,” Mike Strott, spokesman for Mayor Michael Hancock, said in an email. “Nobody is happy about this outcome.”

The amount paid by the city to Sparks and Murr is 61 times the $17,500 settlement Michael DeHerrera received from the city.

Anthony DeHerrera said his son settled quickly after the beating because he wanted the ordeal over and was assured by the officers’ firings. Michael DeHerrera does not like to talk about the officers beating him but still suffers headaches from his injuries from that night, his father said.

The Denver City Attorney’s Office contacted the DeHerrera family when the settlement with the officers was reached and told them the terms of the agreement.

“It’s like getting punched in the stomach over and over again, like we have been for the last 10 or 11 years,” Anthony DeHerrera said.

The attorney who represented Sparks and Murr did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

The court’s finding in favor of Sparks and Murr revealed a “huge, historic problem” that the city struggled with at the time, Strott said. The police department and civil service process was complex and final decisions could take years. The decisions were also often difficult to uphold, he said.

“We have made strides since then to improve and streamline the process where we can, but anybody looking at this can see that the appeals process here took way too long,” Strott said.

Murr and Sparks contacted DeHerrera and a friend on April 4, 2009, in Lower Downtown after they were kicked out of a bar for trying to use the women’s restroom. Video footage of the beating showed Sparks slam DeHerrera face-first to the ground outside of LoDo bars while DeHerrera spoke to his father on the phone about his friend’s arrest. Sparks then beat DeHerrera with a baton and, after cuffing him, Sparks and Murr yanked him to his feet by his arms and slammed a car door on his ankle as they put him in a police cruiser.

In July 2010, Manager of Safety Ron Perea suspended Sparks and Murr for three days in connection to the incident. A month later, he rescinded that decision and re-opened the internal affairs investigation after video footage revealed the officers lied when they told investigators that DeHerrera tried to punch them. Perea resigned Aug. 31, 2010, amid backlash over how he handled the case.

In March 2011, the city’s new manager of safety, Charles Garcia, fired Sparks and Murr for lying. The officers appealed their firing, which sparked nine years of litigation that brought the case before the city’s Civil Service Commission four times, the Denver District Court three times and eventually to the state’s highest courts.

The Colorado Court of Appeals in 2019 ruled in the officers’ favor because it found that Perea did not have the authority to re-open the disciplinary cases against Sparks and Murr after the 10-day deadline to appeal the decision passed.

“We are acutely aware that this result means that the officers essentially escape the consequences of their conduct, a result that is directly contrary to what the facts compel,” the court’s ruling states. “But agencies and courts must employ just and proper procedures to obtain just and equitable results.”

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