DENVER (AP) — A suburban police agency near Denver is facing more scrutiny for its officers’ treatment of Black people after a video emerged showing a woman begging to be lifted up after she fell to the floor in the back of a police cruiser with her hands and feet cuffed behind her.
In the police body camera video, she says she can’t breathe several times and calls the officer “master” as she pleads with him at one point.
Aurora police officer Levi Huffine was fired for his treatment of Shataeah Kelly, whom he arrested on Aug. 27, 2019, for allegedly refusing to stop fighting with another woman in a park. The video of her arrest and the approximately 20-minute drive to jail was shown Tuesday at the start of a hearing to determine if Huffine can keep his job.
Aurora police previously came under scrutiny following the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man confronted by police after someone reported him as suspicious.
Huffine’s body camera video shows the handcuffed Kelly moving around in the back of the police cruiser toward each door, apparently trying to escape, after removing her seat belt. Huffine tells her that he is going to hobble her — link together cuffs around her wrists and ankles — for trying to get out of the car.
While hobbled and laying in the back of the cruiser, Kelly, who says she was intoxicated, screams and berates Huffine but then pleads with him not to let her ride that way. Eventually she slips off the seat, her head tilting down behind Huffine’s seat and her legs in the air. Kelly says she cannot believe she is “suffering like this for being Black,” her neck is about to break and she is sorry.
“How many times to I have to beg you master? Master, I’ll be good,” she says shortly before arriving at jail, where a female detention officer who opens the car door says, “Honey, why are you head down like that?”
The officer looks at Huffine and says, “That didn’t look pleasant.” He responds that Kelly was in the seat and decided to roll.
A disciplinary review board recommended that Huffine be suspended for 180 hours, but police Chief Vanessa Wilson decided to fire him, saying he made a bad decision and showed no remorse,
“He’s lucky she did not die in the back seat of that car, because he would be, in my opinion, in an orange jumpsuit right now,” she told the commission on Tuesday. She also said that Kelly’s use of the term “master” haunted her.
Wilson, named as the department’s permanent chief in August, has promised to work to regain public trust following the death of McClain and the treatment of Black girls pulled from a car that officers wrongly suspected had been stolen.
Dr. Paul Taylor, an assistant professor and law enforcement instructor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affair who is an expert witness for Huffine, testified Wednesday that Huffine would not have been able to turn around and see Kelly on the floor from the driver’s seat because of the partition behind him and because of his duty belt and bulletproof vest.
He said most police departments do not allow hobbled people to be transported without a seatbelt as Aurora did before Wilson changed that policy. He said Aurora’s previously policy put prisoners at “extreme risk” but it was unfair to single out one officer for punishment rather than focusing on its overall approach and training. He noted that Kelly said she could not breathe before the cruiser left but none of the officers there were concerned enough to call for an ambulance.
Huffine began testifying Wednesday before the city’s civil service commission but was not expected to talk about Kelly’s transport to jail until Thursday.
The commission is not expected to announce a decision until early October.