Navy veteran's death after a brawl with Colorado police has escaped public scrutiny
By ELISE SCHMELZER | The Denver Post | Published: May 26, 2019
DENVER (Tribune News Service) — An Aurora man died last year because he couldn’t breathe after police restrained him facedown, sat on him after a seven-minute fight and then waited three minutes before starting chest compressions when they realized he was unconscious.
Aurora police won’t release body camera footage related to the death despite pledges of transparency when David Baker, 32, a U.S. Navy veteran, died in their custody on Dec. 17.
Baker died after a brutal, extensive fight with Aurora police officers who had been called to his wife’s apartment over a domestic disturbance. For seven minutes, three officers punched, wrestled and bit Baker outside the Aurora apartment as Baker resisted arrest, including attempting to choke an officer and to take one of their batons. One officer used a Taser on Baker 11 times for a total duration of nearly a minute, but the shocks had little effect, according to police documents obtained by The Denver Post through an open-records request.
Baker died outside the apartment after several officers piled on top of him as he lay facedown on the sidewalk. The Arapahoe County Coroner found that he died of restraint asphyxia — he couldn’t breathe because of the officers on top of him and the way he was positioned. The coroner ruled the death a homicide and said heart disease and obesity likely contributed to Baker’s death.
During a news conference after Baker’s in-custody death, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz and 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler promised they would have a complete investigation and would be transparent about the findings. However, no details about the incident were released publicly beyond the two statements provided in the 24 hours immediately following Baker’s death.
“Obviously, this is a very serious and important issue that we want to make sure that we are providing the highest-quality investigation and transparency,’ Metz said at a news conference the day after Baker died.
The 18th Judicial District completed a review of the incident, but did not tell the public it was finished nor issue a public letter, as it does with other in-custody deaths. The letters about such incidents generally explain what happened in a death and explain prosecutors’ legal analysis of officers’ actions.
At the same news conference, Brauchler insinuated that the police would release the body camera footage and promised that his office would treat the investigation the same way it does when police shoot and kill someone.
“I know that Chief Metz would if he could — and I suppose he could force it and put it out right now — I have asked him, as I’ve done in the past, ‘Respectfully, please, do not release the body cam until we’ve have the opportunity to analyze the situation,’ ” Brauchler said.
Neither of those things happened.
The more than 400 pages of documents released to The Denver Post detail for the first time how Aurora officers fought with Baker — and even considered shooting him — and the investigation into his death. Baker’s family told investigators that the man had struggled recently with mental health issues. The three officers who responded to the scene said they felt like they were fighting for their lives with a man seemingly impervious to pain.
Baker’s wife told police that Baker had worked in the Navy and had depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD, police documents show. She said that he was abusive and she had tried to get him counseling through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but he had been turned away or given appointments months down the road.
She had asked him to leave the apartment they shared and attempted to obtain a restraining order against him about a month before he was killed, police documents show. Baker had been allowed into the apartment the day he was killed because he asked whether he could take a shower there.
But the situation in the apartment quickly deteriorated, Baker’s family told police. Baker threatened his wife with a kitchen pan and choked his brother-in-law, threatening to kill him.
Three Aurora police officers were called Dec. 17 to the Willowick Apartments for a call about a domestic disturbance.
When the officers arrived at 6:25 p.m., they found Baker fighting another man inside a first-floor apartment, according to the officers’ reports. Baker then turned to the officers, who told him to get on the ground. Baker did not, and instead “continued to flex his chest muscles,” according to one of the officer’s accounts.
One of the officers, Kristi Mason, fired her Taser at Baker, but it had no apparent effect. Baker, who was unarmed, then charged the officers, and the group of four started fighting outside the apartment.
During the struggle, officers used batons, Tasers and their fists. One officer bit Baker. Baker grabbed one officer, Ryan Stoller, by the throat but released him. At least once during the fight, the officers and Baker broke apart, but the officers decided to start fighting with Baker again.
Mason thought about pulling out her gun and shooting Baker, but didn’t know whether she could do so safely.
“Mason was concerned that if the suspect did get pass them what he might do to anyone else,” an interview summary stated. “Mason thought that his intention was to harm or kill us, referring to the officers.”
Eventually, the officers pulled Baker to the ground. Stoller sat on his back while others tried to control his arms and legs. Other officers arrived at the scene, responding to a radio call for help. They tried to hogtie Baker by connecting his restrained back legs to his handcuffed hands.
By 6:34 p.m., Baker had stopped fighting and appeared unconscious, according to a written summary of one officer’s body camera footage.
An officer then called paramedics, who had been stationed nearby.
While police waited for paramedics, Baker remained facedown on the pavement for more than a minute and a half. Officers discussed whether or not Baker still had a heartbeat and was breathing. They then turned him on his side and eventually rolled Baker onto his back and started chest compressions. Three minutes had passed between the time they called for paramedics and when they started compressions.
Paramedics with Aurora Fire arrived at 6:38 p.m. and found Baker had no pulse. They transported him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Three officers suffered minor injuries during the fight, including one officer who got a Taser probe in his pinkie.
When asked whether any of the officers faced discipline in connection to Baker’s death, Aurora police spokesman Anthony Camacho said the agency is still reviewing the incident.
“The case is still going through various reviews,” he said. “It is not at the place yet where information can be released.”
At the news conference immediately after the death, District Attorney Brauchler promised to investigate the incident as if it were an officer-involved shooting. But his office veered from how it handles shooting deaths and did not issue a full decision letter about the inquiry or notify the public that the inquiry was finished.
Rich Orman, senior chief deputy district attorney, investigated the incident and found that none of the officers involved broke the law, according to a brief letter to Metz dated March 19 and provided to The Denver Post.
But the short letter is not standard for the office when dealing with officer-involved shootings, nor even for a recent Taser death in the same judicial district. In an Elbert County Taser death case from April 2018, the DA’s office released a seven-page letter, which it posted online. The full letter included a narrative of the events in question as well as a legal analysis of the Elbert County sheriff’s deputies’ actions.
“We conducted a thorough review,” Orman wrote in an emailed statement about the disparity in the Baker investigation. “In conducting our review, we examined all of the body-worn camera footage, recorded interviews, and reports generated by the police investigation. After this thorough review, based on the facts, and the fact that the death was not the result of the police using a weapon of any kind, we determined that a short letter to the police was appropriate.”
Aurora police rejected The Denver Post’s request for the body camera footage, in part, because it showed Baker’s young children. The department does not have the technology to blur faces in videos, said Robert Boisselle, open records coordinator for Aurora police. The department also declined to provide an edited copy of the video that would have excluded the moments the children were in the picture.
“The deceased male and his surviving family members, in addition to juveniles present at the scene, all have varying expectations of privacy interests,” Boisselle wrote in a letter to The Denver Post. “To protect these individuals from unnecessary harassment and public scrutiny, while preserving the victims’ privacy and personal dignity, it was decided the privacy interests of the involved individuals outweigh any public purpose to be served by disclosure of the videos.”
Boiselle said he was not sure whether Baker’s family had been consulted regarding the release of footage.
The police department is not obligated under Colorado law to release the body camera footage, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. But there is inherent public interest in footage and documents when a member of the public dies during an interaction with police, he said.
“The point of having body cameras is to have more evidence of an officers conduct and how they interact with the public,” he said. “If you never see that, it kind of defeats the purpose of having the footage.”
The day after Baker’s death, Aurora police asked the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office to not release Baker’s autopsy report because it would “result in a substantial injury to the public interest,” records show. The office did release the report to The Denver Post in April. The Aurora police documents also include an Aurora Fire Department report about Baker’s death, but the report is entirely redacted.
Multiple officers who responded to the apartment that night told investigators that Baker appeared to be high, though the coroner found only traces of marijuana during a toxicological exam.
One officer said Baker appeared to exhibit symptoms of excited delirium, a physical condition that makes someone aggressive, seemingly impervious to pain and paranoid. The existence of the condition is debated between law enforcement and medical experts, but the Arapahoe County Coroner’s report on Baker’s death noted that “a component of excited delirium cannot be definitively excluded.”
Law enforcement have struggled for years how to deal with people exhibiting symptoms of excited delirium. The Denver Sheriff’s Office changed its policies on restraints and positioning and agreed to train deputies further on excited delirium after a man died in the Downtown Detention Center while being restrained by six deputies.
Michael Marshall asphyxiated in the Downtown Detention Center after the deputies held him facedown and used wrist and ankle restraints, similar to Baker. The city later paid $4.6 million to Marshall’s family before they filed a lawsuit.
The new Denver sheriff’s policy states that a person should be turned on their side or be allowed to sit up as soon as possible. Denver public safety agencies also use a protocol to help first responders safely work with people exhibiting symptoms of excited delirium.
Aurora police policy allows officers to use leg restraints in violent incidents, but strongly cautions against connecting restrained feet to handcuffs.
Aurora police said the case was still under review when asked whether the department had changed any of its policies in response to Baker’s death.