Denver wins record number civil rights claims

10:03 PM, Dec 20, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER - Police actions -sometimes caught on camera - cost Denver taxpayers millions of dollars.

But Denver says it's fighting a record number of what it calls 'civil rights' or 'excessive force' claims, and winning.

"The city is definitely not making out a blank check when people bring a lawsuit," said outgoing city attorney Doug Friednash.

Sometimes the city doesn't have much of a choice but to settle, according to Friednash. 

The case known as the "Denver Diner" incident is one of them. In 2009, two officers were fired for wrongdoing, the city was sued, and settled in 2013 for $360,000.

"You have to, in that case, make a business decision and also act responsibly," Friednash said.

Friednash has been on the job since 2011. He said cases like the one caught at the Denver Diner are rare. 

"Sometimes the public will see that as more of the rule, when it's truly an exceptional exception," he said.

The Denver Diner case is the only excessive force claim the city settled this year, the lowest number in nearly 10 years.

By comparison, according to numbers provided by the City Attorney's office, the city settled 11 use of force claims in 2004, eight in 2005, 11 in 2008, and seven in both 2011 and 2012. The total bill is more than $10 million.

"I think cities generally are a target," Friednash said.

Friednash says in the last 12 months, the city has taken six cases to court and won.

In 2013, an additional 17 cases were dismissed before going to the jury. Friednash said he added people to his litigation section to help fight suits brought against the city.

In 2007, the city had one trial for excessive force. In 2008 and 2010 there were no trials. In 2011 there were two.

"It makes it clear the city is not going to write blank checks," Friednash said. "We're not going to settle cases just because you brought it. And you need to know that there is a good chance, in every single case we'll vigorously defend it and you better be prepared to go the distance because we will be."

The city's fighting stance doesn't appeal to everyone, including defense attorney David Lane.

"Robert Duran should be paid," Lane said. 

According to court documents, in March of 2009 Robert Duran was in the Denver jail, arrested for an alleged assault. 

Denver sheriff's deputy Steven Koehler assaulted Duran, and the incident was caught on camera in the jail elevator.

Duran sued and the jury awarded him $40,000 in damages. Koehler doesn't have that kind of money and Denver says it doesn't have to pay.

"Denver is taking a position. 'No, we are not paying a penny on this because Koehler was not acting within the scope of his duties when he did this,'" Lane said. "Our position on that is that is nonsense."

Lane said the city has a responsibility to pick up the tab.

"He [Koehler] was acting within the scope of his duties as a deputy sheriff when he did this. I think we're going to litigate that issue in Federal court and Denver has an extremely weak position in that regard," he said.

"I don't think the taxpayers should foot that bill," Friednash said.

He vowed the city will continue to fight the cases it can.

"We're going to do it responsibly, we're going to be good stewards of the public trust," said Friednash.

Friendash leaves his post in January. The new city attorney Scott Martinez gave 9NEWS this statement about his plans, "As Deputy City Attorney for the last two years I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Doug Friednash to amass the resources needed to take worthy cases to trial. 

The talent and courtroom budget are now cemented in to place and we intend to build the strongest public law firm in the country on that foundation. As the incoming City Attorney, I intend to continue using those resources to protect the City and the taxpayers' wallet. 

We will be fair, judicious, and analyze each case on the merits. However, anyone thinking of suing the City should be prepared to go the distance."

"We are grateful to the city attorney's office for carrying these cases forward. We respect the process and the outcome," Denver Police Chief Robert White said in a statement.

President of the Police Protective Association released the following statement:

"it's been a long time coming. The PPA has pushed for this type of a policy from the city attorney's office for years. I'm very pleased they have decided to fight these frivolous, meritless lawsuits. I believe that 99 percent of these lawsuits that are filed should never have been settled. It's a great day for the city of Denver and the citizens of Denver to stop this practice on lawsuits with no merit."

The city fired deputy Koehler. His attorney didn't respond to 9NEWS requests for comment.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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