DENVER — A federal judge has taken the unusual step of asking prosecutors to investigate whether Denver police tried to intimidate a witness in a jail-abuse lawsuit against the city, but experts say such inquiries rarely yield criminal charges.
Nationwide, only about 20 civil rights lawsuits led to criminal charges against officers each year and convictions are even less common, said Nancy Leong, an associate professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. The cases are a challenge for prosecutors, who have to prove not just that an officer violated someone's civil rights but that they intended to, Leong said.
The judge's request could result in federal oversight of the departments, or it could lead to no action at all, she said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office hasn't said whether it will pursue Judge John Kane's request.
The Justice Department opted not to charge three Denver police officers with civil rights violations in a highly publicized 2009 beating case, nor did prosecutors charge sheriff's deputies in the case of a street preacher who died after Denver sheriff's deputies restrained him in jail.
Last year, a federal judge overseeing a civil lawsuit involving a 2009 beating outside a Denver diner made the significant ruling that there was enough evidence the police department harbored a culture of abuse and cover-up that the city could be tried for it. But the lawsuit was settled before it came to trial.
The latest allegations against the police and sheriff's departments came as part of a civil rights lawsuit filed in Denver by former inmate Jamal Hunter, who says a sheriff's deputy not only failed to protect him during a July 2011 beating by fellow inmates but encouraged the attack.
One of the inmates who participated in the assault, Amos Page, became a witness in the lawsuit, saying in a sworn affidavit that Denver sheriff's deputy Gaynel Rumer knew about the beating in advance. Kane last week asked prosecutors to investigate Denver police after he listened to a recording of two police officers interviewing Page in March. The judge said the conversation showed a "deliberate process of intimidation."
The officers repeatedly suggested Page had implicated himself in Hunter's beating.
Sheriff Gary Wilson said in court filings that he had referred a criminal investigation of Rumer to Denver police, prompting their visit to a state prison to speak with Page.
City Attorney Scott Martinez said the Justice Department has not initiated a formal investigation, but "the city takes this case and the accusations seriously."
Kane also requested a more far-reaching investigation into the patterns and practices of the two Denver agencies, renewing hope among some who have brought civil rights suits against the city that federal investigators will also examine their cases.
But often prosecutors choose not to pursue cases against officers because they're hard to prove for juries, said Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Witnesses are sometimes other officers who are reluctant to testify against their own.
"All of it can be rather subjective," she said.
In Albuquerque, where the U.S. Department of Justice recently issued a scathing report over the Albuquerque police's use of force, no officers have faced criminal charges in connection with 40 police shootings since 2010. However, the city has had to pay out millions in wrongful death lawsuits filed on behalf of families of those killed by Albuquerque police.
The FBI is currently investigating one Albuquerque police shooting — the March 16 case where Albuquerque officers shot and killed a mentally ill homeless man after a long standoff in the Sandia foothills.
A formal federal probe is also expensive. A study by the University of Illinois this year found the Justice Department formally investigates only about three police agencies yearly due to the high costs of pursuing such cases.