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Police "excessive force:" Denver quietly settles James Watkins suit over another LoDo incident

Eric Winfield
This week's feature, "The Asphalt Jungle," examines how better policing, including surveillance cameras, helped to quell years of street violence during Let Out in lower downtown.

But cameras are also capturing more Denver cops using dubious arrest tactics in dealing with intoxicated suspects. On the heels of the disturbing April 2009 video of Officer Devin Sparks using a sap on Michael DeHerrera, the city has settled another, similar lawsuit claiming excessive force in a late-night LoDo arrest.

James Watkins, 28, claims Denver police tech John Ruddy and Sergeant Randy Penn used excessive force and left him with facial lacerations and other injuries after an encounter in the 1800 block of Market Street (the site of much of the mayhem outlined in my story) on April 4, 2009 -- the same night that DeHerrera and a friend got into a fracas with two other officers a few blocks away.

Watkins had just left LoDo's Bar & Grill, apparently accompanied by a woman he'd met there. In his version of the encounter, Ruddy and Penn began chatting up his lady friend while on foot patrol, prompting him to say something like, "Cops suck." He claims the officers chased him after he took out his cell phone, struck him several times, and drove him face-first to the ground.

Attorneys for the officers claim that Watkins was belligerent and intoxicated, having consumed "at least two Long Islands... several beers, and at least one shot of Jägermeister, a high-octane liquor." They say he threatened to assault the officers, chest-bumped Penn, refused to follow their orders and resisted arrest.

They also allege that he kicked a paramedic in the head and spat blood at medical personnel who tried to provide aid once he was taken to a hospital.

But charges against Watkins for allegedly assaulting an officer were later dropped. His lawsuit against the city was scheduled to go to trial this week, but a settlement was reached last Friday. The amount of compensation has not yet been disclosed and must first be authorized by Denver City Council.

A passerby apparently captured at least some of the encounter on his cell phone. The defense maintains that the video is of poor quality and, as in the DeHerrera case, doesn't tell the "whole" story. Among documents produced in the case are internal police records that show both Ruddy and Penn, a veteran officer with twenty-plus years and multiple commendations, also have collected several citizen complaints and numerous use-of-force reports.

Denver has settled a series of lawsuits over police conduct in LoDo for five-figure sums in recent months. DeHerrera and his friend Shawn Johnson received $15,500. In May Eric Winfield, the artist thrashed by cops (including one who lists cage-fighting as a hobby) after a 2007 World Series game, received $40,000 for his injuries.

Page down to see a court filing that gives the police version of what happened in the Watkins arrest, as well as a summary of the officers' complaint records:


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