A police officer in Aurora, Colorado, admitted Thursday to ignoring a Black woman's cries for help after she fell head-first while hogtied in the back of a patrol car for nearly 21 minutes in August 2019. Video footage of the incident, first shown by the city on Tuesday, is part of an appeal hearing for former police officer Levi Huffine, who was fired over the incident in February.
The video, timestamped shortly before 5:30 p.m. on August 27, 2019, begins with a woman later identified as 28-year-old Shataean Kelly kneeling on the ground with her hands in the air after allegedly getting into a fight with another woman.
Huffine handcuffs her, and when the audio picks up roughly 30 seconds in, Huffine is heard saying he had deployed his Taser. When Kelly tried to tell the officer that she wasn't responsible for the incident that police responded to, he told her to "shut up." Huffine said during his Wednesday appearance at the hearing that the Taser did not pierce Kelly's skin.
Minutes later, Huffine and another officer put Kelly in the back of the police car. When she leaned towards the other side of the vehicle and attempted to open the car door, Huffine told another officer he was going to "hobble" her for "trying to get out of my car." Police then took her out of the car and put her facedown in nearby grass.
Officers held Kelly down while her feet and hands were tied behind her back. During his hearing, Huffine said he used a cord "like a nylon rope," known as a hobble, to connect her hands and feet to a waist chain placed under her stomach. The footage showed at least two other officers standing and watching a few feet away.
One officer asked Huffine if they needed to call the medical team, but Huffine said no. Two officers then picked her up by her shoulders and feet and placed her in the back seat of the patrol car.
A camera in the backseat showed Kelly screaming that she was in pain and that she could not breathe. For the first few minutes, she continuously asked for him to help her sit up, and when he did not do so, she became verbally aggressive. She then slid headfirst to the floor of the vehicle.
Kelly then slid farther down onto the floor, eventually with her feet above her head. She sobbed and apologized for several minutes, and repeatedly said she couldn't breathe.
"I don't want to die like this, officer. ...I'm a good person I'm just under the influence," she said, adding, "This is some slavery sh*t. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry God ... It hurts so bad ... Please don't let me die back here."
"Master, I'll be good," she pleaded minutes later.
When she arrived at the detention center, a female officer opened the door and immediately asked, "Honey, why are you head down like that?"
"He was gonna kill me," she repeatedly told the female officer.
When the female officer told Huffine "that didn't look pleasant," Huffine responded, "She was in the seat, but she decided she wanted to roll, so."
During questioning on Thursday, Huffine said Kelly "wormed" herself over the back seat of the car and "put herself on the floorboard."
He also said he exited the police vehicle for one minute and four seconds after he arrived at the jail, leaving Kelly inverted in the back seat. He said he did so to secure his gun, and that not securing his gun prior to helping Kelly would have been a policy violation — but he admitted leaving her in the car was also a violation.
Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who fired Huffine, said every time she watches the footage "it seems to get worse." Wilson overruled a recommendation from the Chief's Review Board that Huffine be penalized with a 180-hour suspension, according to CBS Denver.
"That is not what we're hired to do. We are not judge, jury and executor. We are not to treat people inhumanely like they don't matter," Wilson said during the hearing, which took place over Zoom. "[Huffine] is lucky that she did not die in the backseat of that car because he would be, in my opinion, in an orange jumpsuit right now. This is not what I expect from my officers."
"I'm angry," she added. "Every time I watch this it makes me sick."
Huffine on Thursday accused the police chief of "character assassination."
"I am not the person that was painted by the chief of an officer who inhumanely treats prisoners. … It was character assassination is what I would consider it," he said. "That is not me. I am not somebody who is out there to punish people. That is not my position. I'm out there to protect, to protect the individuals who need us the most."
He also said Thursday that while he had heard and understood Kelly's repeated cries for help, of being in pain, and her inability to breathe, he chose to ignore it because there were no other factors present and he was judging the experience based on his "15 years of transporting prisoners."
When asked by assistant city attorney Isabelle Evans, "So you think your experience is enough that you can tell whether someone's faking it or telling the truth when they say they can't breathe without looking at them?" Huffine responded, "Correct."
But he said that despite her pleas, he had "no clue" she had fallen to the floor. "There was no way [to see Kelly in the backseat] with the way I was positioned in the vehicle. With the way I set my vehicle up every day, it is impossible for me to see a prisoner who is in the floorboard of my vehicle."
When questioned on the comment, he admitted that if he had turned around he would have seen her feet in the air, indicating she was upside down.
Huffine said at the Wednesday hearing that after watching the body cam footage, he believed there was "absolutely" a better way he could have handled the situation. Most of the Wednesday hearing focused on his background in law enforcement, while the Thursday hearing focused on the transport.
At the end of the hearing, the city's civil service commission will either uphold Huffine's termination or give him his job back with a lesser sentence, CBS Denver reported.
The Aurora Police public information officer told CBS News the department will not be releasing a statement as the hearing is ongoing.
Wilson said during the hearing that the video reveals Kelly was clearly panicking, and that the department trains officers about the risks of hobbling people.
"We train on the fact that people can die, especially in a hobbled position, and then you put her inverted on her neck," Wilson said. "She's saying she's feeling like her neck is about to break. I don't know how many times she says she can't breathe. I don't know how many times she asks for help, and I felt as though his actions were punishing her."
Kelly could have suffered from "positional asphyxia" from being in that position, Wilson said, adding that people placed into a hobble are meant to be kept on their side and taken out of the position as quickly as possible.
Regarding the escape charge the officer had administered against Kelly based on her trying to open the door handles in the back seat of the patrol car, Wilson said "those door handles will not open," and that "there's no escaping that car."
"There was no reason to hobble her," she said.
Huffine is not facing criminal charges for the incident because Kelly was not physically injured during the encounter, Wilson said.
When he first arrested her, Huffine could be heard on body camera footage saying he would charge her for fighting in public. But he eventually charged her with assault and battery during the alleged fight, and injury to property, abusive language or threats, altered or befowled property, and escape for her conduct during the arrest, according to the official summons cited in Thursday's hearing. He said he "would have asked" to change the escape charge to attempted escape.
She was charged with injury to property for allegedly damaging the inside of the patrol car door — but Huffine said Thursday that the car didn't need any repairs. Huffine also charged her for abusive language or threats, he said, because "she could've kicked us." City attorney Evans walked through the municipal code with Huffine during the hearing, and they agreed the charge only applies in situations where there's an "immediate threat."
The city has dropped all criminal charges against Kelly. The other woman involved in the fight was not arrested or charged, Huffine said.