A Colorado Springs man who was filming a recent traffic stop until he was put in handcuffs by police has joined the ranks of a growing number of Americans who say they feel the need to record encounters with law enforcement.
Ryan Brown's video, taken March 25 when he and his brother, Benjamin, were pulled over in Colorado Springs, is part of an internal affairs investigation at the Colorado Springs Police Department. Police aren't commenting on the investigation or the traffic stop.
The video has gotten more than 30,000 views on YouTube, and is among dozens of recordings of interactions with police. The issue of such videos, and videos taken by police dash and body cameras, has come to the forefront of public debate in the wake of high-profile police shootings and other incidents in recent months. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union encourage such recordings - in fact, it is developing an app that would automatically upload citizen videos so they cannot be erased.
In the March incident, Officer David Nelson, who pulled the Browns over on South Carefree Circle, didn't answer repeated questions heard in Ryan Brown's video to explain why they were being pulled over. The video shows Benjamin Brown in handcuffs, being patted down by Nelson before Officer Allison Detwiler opens Ryan Brown's passenger-side door.
"Now I'm being perceived as a threat because we're being pulled over for absolutely no reason," Ryan Brown says in the video.
Nelson reaches over and unbuckles Ryan Brown's seatbelt and pulls his arm until he is out of the vehicle, with the apparent assistance of Detwiler.
When Brown, 31, is out of the car, Detwiler asks him to turn around, and Nelson appears to push him to the ground, pushing his face into the grass. The video stops abruptly and Brown claims the officers turned off the camera.
A bill being considered this year in the Colorado House would make law enforcement agencies liable for civil damages up to $15,000 plus attorney fees for failing to obtain consent or a warrant before seizing a recording.
The Browns were ticketed that day for municipal offenses - Benjamin Brown for compulsory insurance and obstruction of view, which Ryan Brown said was for a cracked windshield, and Ryan Brown for resisting and interference with a public official. They were placed in separate police cars for what Ryan Brown estimates was 30 to 40 minutes.
"It seemed like forever," he said.
Benjamin Brown said he was scared for his brother's safety as he sat handcuffed in a police vehicle, watching police wrestle him to the ground at gunpoint.
"I was scared that the officer was going to pull the trigger," he said.
The case is concerning to Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
"This looks to me like a case of racial profiling, a case of police investigating what African Americans call 'driving while black,'" Silverstein said after viewing the video and reading the police report.
He couldn't come up with a legitimate reason for police to handcuff Benjamin Brown, who was driving, nor could he see grounds for them to search him.
"The police report reads as though they believe they are automatically entitled to search both driver and passenger for weapons, but the Fourth Amendment case law says that police need to have facts that amount to reasonable suspicion that the person is armed before police can conduct the pat-down search for weapons, one that they conducted on the driver and the one they wanted to conduct on the passenger," Silverstein said.
He added that he did not see evidence of reasonable suspicion in either the video or the police report.
The ACLU encourages people to record their interactions with police. It has developed mobile applications that allow people to record video that's automatically uploaded to a local ACLU chapter, preventing law enforcement from erasing evidence. An app has not been developed for the Colorado chapter.
The Browns say the officers did not explain to them why they had been pulled over, which appears to be against the Colorado Springs Police Department's own policies.
CSPD released to The Gazette a section of its General Orders regarding traffic law enforcement, but the part regarding traffic stops specifically was largely redacted.
"Upon initial contact (with the driver), you should tell the violator why she/he is being contacted, obtain driver's license, registration, and insurance information, and explain what action you intend to take, i.e., citation, warning, etc.," General Order 210 reads. "Do this courteously but briefly ... You should complete the contact quickly without delaying the violator any longer than is necessary."
The order goes on to say that if an officer stops a driver because he or she matches the description of a wanted suspect, the officer should explain the situation to the driver if he or she is determined not to be the party who was sought.
"The importance of incorporating such persons as our partners in maintaining public safety cannot be overemphasized," the order states. "We must always be willing to explain in these situations why we stopped them, and thank them for their cooperation with us.
In Nelson's report, he said he had seen the Browns' car earlier in the day driving slowly in a "high crime area" near Austin Bluffs Parkway and Barnes Road. He noted the car had tinted windows and wrote that he "attempted to turn around to conduct a traffic stop and the vehicle rapidly fled the area westbound." He was unable to catch up because of heavy traffic. Nelson did not indicate whether he turned on his police vehicle lights.
A General Order regarding probable cause for arrest that was obtained by Ryan Brown and shared with The Gazette states that "furtive conduct, without any other information or suspicious circumstances, may not be sufficient to establish probable cause. Furtive behavior may arise from any number of causes that are not illegal."
Nelson wrote in the report that when he later pulled the car over, Ryan Brown told his brother not to cooperate. In the video, Benjamin Brown, 23, is in handcuffs, which are not mentioned in the police report.
Ryan Brown was held at gunpoint by Detwiler when he didn't comply with Nelson's requests to put his hands where he could see them, Nelson wrote in the report.
Last year Detwiler was the first female officer and the department's ninth person since 1975 to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award bestowed upon Colorado Springs officers. On May 30, Detwiler shot Chester Dean in the hip, wounding him. Dean had been shooting at officers and witnesses, police said, and the District Attorney ruled the shooting justified. Dean is next expected in court at the end of May.
Ryan Brown filed an Internal Affairs complaint immediately after the March incident. Police spokeswoman Lt. Catherine Buckley confirmed an Internal Affairs investigation was underway, and said the investigation prohibited her from commenting further.
Buckley provided The Gazette with a statement that Brown gave the police department with his video of the traffic stop, and said that the video is part of the investigation. No one was injured during the incident, the statement said.
Speaking generally about complaints about officer conduct and internal affairs investigations, Lt. Maggie Santos said every complaint is investigated. Some complaints are handled by commanders at the subdivision level, those that are more serious or require more time and resources, or that involve a conflict of interest at the subdivision level, are handled by the Internal Affairs department.
"A lot of times, it's a matter of perception," she said. "It's not because somebody's doing something wrong either on our side or their side, we're just not communicating well."
Ryan and Benjamin Brown appeared in court April 15 for the offenses for which they were summoned on March 25. Ryan Brown said a "not guilty" plea was entered on his behalf. He said his brother pleaded guilty to having a cracked windshield, but is trying to withdraw his plea because he believes the traffic stop was unlawful.
"It's appropriate that an internal investigation is ongoing," Silverstein said. "I hope that the police department will find that the officers need to be held accountable."
Contact Kassondra Cloos: 636-0362
Twitter: @Kassondra Cloos