DENVER (AP) — A Colorado police officer fired for ignoring the cries for help from a Black woman riding in his cruiser upside down while restrained said Thursday he did not know she had fallen off the back seat into that position and, based on his experience, he did not believe she was in trouble.
During a civil service commission hearing over whether he should get his job back, former Aurora police officer Levi Huffine said he was sorry for what happened to Shataeah Kelly, whom he arrested on Aug. 27, 2019, after she allegedly refused to stop punching a woman in a park.
Huffine said he placed his body camera in the back of the car for a 21-minute drive to jail partly to protect himself from Kelly, who had accused officers of targeting her for her race. Video from his body camera shows Kelly, who says she was intoxicated, at first berating him for arresting and hobbling her, with her wrists and ankles pulled behind her back. Then, she slides onto the floor with her head lodged behind the driver's seat and her feet in the air. Several times she says she cannot breathe and that her neck is about to break and pleads with Huffine to help her. Later, she says she cannot believe she is “suffering like this for being Black" and addresses the officer as “master" and promises to be good.
“I'm sorry. It was a mistake but I had no clue she was in an inverted position in the backseat of my car,” said Huffine, who also said he thought Kelly fell off the seat because she had been “worming” around.
While Huffine's defense said the cruiser's protective barrier and his duty belt prevented him from turning around and seeing Kelly on the vehicle floor, Huffine acknowledged he could have seen Kelly's feet in the air on the passenger side of the vehicle had he turned around. Assistant City Attorney Isabelle Evans suggested Huffine ignored her because he was angry at the woman, whom he had referred to as “just another drunk” while talking to Police Chief Vanessa Wilson. Huffine denied acting out of anger but said he did not believe her, later explaining that he did not hear any signs of labored breathing. He also said he wanted to get her to the jail and out of the restraints in rush hour traffic as quickly as possible, seeing that as a better option than pulling over and waiting for an ambulance.
Huffine's lawyer, Carrie Slinkard, said the department had longed ignored safety concerns from officers about transporting hobbled prisoners in patrol cars and it was unfair to discipline Huffine for following the policy that was in place at the time. It was changed as a result of what happened to Kelly, who did not suffer any physical injuries.
Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and protests over racial injustice and police brutality, the Aurora Police Department came under renewed scrutiny over the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man confronted by police after someone reported him as suspicious. No officers have been fired over their involvement with McClain although Wilson fired three officers this year over photos mocking a stranglehold he was placed in.
Wilson, who has vowed to regain the community's trust, also fired Huffine, overriding an advisory group's recommendation that he only be suspended.
At the start of the hearing, Evans addressed the pressure the city's police department is under to change and said that starts with everyone being treated with respect, regardless of their circumstances.
“Justice demands that we be better than what you see in this video,” she said.
The commission is not expected to announce a decision on Huffine's fate for at least another week.