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Colorado Springs, police agree to pay $212,000 to settle racial profiling lawsuit

April 20, 2017 Updated: April 21, 2017 at 6:49 am
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Ryan Brown, left, stands outside the Colorado Springs Municipal Court with his lawyer Megan Downing Wednesday, May 13, 2015 after a hearing. Brown was the passenger in his brother's car when they were pulled over by Colorado Springs police at the end of March, frisked and handcuffed without explanation. The ACLU is now representing them after the inccident was recorded on a phone video. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The City of Colorado Springs has agreed to pay $212,000 to settle a racial profiling lawsuit claiming city cops unlawfully targeted two African-American men during a 2015 traffic stop.

Ryan Brown, 31, recorded the stop on his cellphone, which showed Colorado Springs police officers aggressively pulling him and his 22-year-old brother, Benjamin Brown, from their vehicle at gunpoint for reasons officers declined to reveal. The video made national news, getting more than 165,000 views.

Benjamin Brown was cited for obstruction of view because of a cracked windshield, to which he pleaded guilty. Charges alleging Ryan Brown obstructed a peace officer were dropped.

Police maintain officers did nothing improper, but the department will be tweaking some of its policies to better define when officers can search, seize and arrest, according to the terms of the settlement.

"I knew that what happened to my brother and me was wrong, and that I needed to speak up," Ryan Brown said in a statement through the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on his behalf. "I am grateful to the ACLU of Colorado for holding the police accountable, for standing up for our rights, and for winning policy changes that will hopefully prevent others from having their rights violated."

Some of those changes include removing language that allows officers to consider an individual's refusal to cooperate as probable cause for a search or arrest. The department is also reiterating constitutional protections to record police without fear of unjustified seizure. The changes will be posted online by July 1.

In a statement late Thursday, the Police Department denied the brothers had been subjected to any mistreatment and claimed the ACLU on several occasions had inaccurately portrayed the CSPD as routinely violating citizens' rights. The decision to settle the lawsuit was made, the department said, to spare the city the high cost of contesting it and avoid the risk of a larger award if the city did not prevail in court.

"The Colorado Springs Police Department, together with the Office of the City Attorney, made the difficult decision to settle the Brown case," the department's statement read. "Although CSPD sincerely believes the claims of racial profiling were unfounded, the decision to settle was based on comparative analysis of the high cost of legal proceedings and the risk of financial liability in the event the city did not prevail in every aspect of the lawsuit.

"However, there has been a complete and thorough Internal Affairs investigation of this incident, and it was determined that the actions of the officers did not violate Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) policy."

Under the agreement, $212,000 is to be paid within 15 days, with $153,292.60 going to the Browns and the rest to cover the ACLU's legal fees. The men also will get to talk to Police Chief Pete Carey.

"The racial profiling that Ryan and Benjamin Brown endured is still, unfortunately, all too common for young men of color," ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a written statement. But he praised the city for doing "the right thing by agreeing to fair compensation."

Law enforcement agencies across the nation have been accused of racial profiling in a number of deaths of black citizens, largely sparked by the controversial Michael Brown shooting and aftermath in Ferguson, Mo. Some agency's policies held up under the public microscope, while departments like Baltimore were subject to an overhaul.

The traffic stop happened in March 2015 as the Browns were driving a block from their home in a predominantly white neighborhood. At the time, police didn't identify why the brothers were stopped, but later said they had seen the Browns' vehicle earlier that day driving slowly through a "high-crime area," language that is law enforcement code, the lawsuit claimed, for "driving while black."

According to the ACLU statement, the following led to the lawsuit and settlement:

A Taser-wielding officer ordered Benjamin Brown, the driver, out of the car. He was handcuffed, searched without cause, and detained in the back of a police vehicle, even though he had been cooperative, no weapons or contraband were found, and there was no evidence to suggest that he had been involved in a crime.

Ryan Brown then began recording the officers on his phone. He repeatedly asked officers why he and his brother had been stopped, but received no reply. Officers then forced him out of the car and pushed him face down in the snow. He was searched and handcuffed at gunpoint. Officers took his phone, stopped the recording and tossed it in the snow.

Ryan Brown filed a complaint with CSPD over the incident, receiving a letter in June 2015 informing him that the department had conducted a "complete and thorough" investigation and found that the officers' conduct was "justified, legal, and proper."

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in federal court last October, then engaged in nearly six months of negotiations with the city and Police Department about policy changes and compensation.

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Joel Millman contributed to this report.

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