The money — all $100,000 of it — didn’t last long.
For Vanessa Peoples, a payout after she’d been roughed up by Aurora police officers brought some relief to her family. It paid bills, allowed for a rare out-of-town vacation, provided college tuition and gave Peoples the ability to buy a car.
“I’m not upset I don’t have the money left because I did accomplish a lot. I had it and things needed to be done.” Peoples said. “I didn’t have to see my mom struggle anymore. For me to take care of my kids and pay my medical bills meant a lot.”
But four years later, Peoples continues to struggle with what happened on the afternoon of July 13, 2017, at her home in Aurora when an officer threw her on the floor, straddled her body and then tied her hands and legs behind her back as she screamed in pain.
She still has a criminal record that prevents her from getting a job. She and her husband can’t afford to move out of her mother’s house into a place of their own. And she suffers from depression, often questioning her actions that day despite the settlement.
“They took something from me,” Peoples said. “They made me feel like I was the one who was wrong. I still think about it and I ask, ‘Why did that have to happen to us?’”
Financial settlements long have been the American way for compensating people wronged by governments and businesses. They bring attention to bad behavior, and the publicity can lead to public pressure that forces change.
But settlements don’t cost a police department or its officers a dime. And they don’t stop police from using unnecessary force — Peoples’ case happened two years before Elijah McClain died after a violent encounter with Aurora police.
And a sudden windfall does not solve all problems for those who, like Peoples, have been abused by police.
“I tell people just because I got that settlement it doesn’t change your life,” Peoples said. “Every time I spent that money, I thought about what happened.”
“Tied me up like an animal”
Four years ago last Tuesday, Aurora police officers walked through Peoples’ front door after they were called by an Adams County Department of Human Services social worker who was trying to interview Peoples about a recent misdemeanor ticket for child abuse.
A few weeks earlier, Peoples had been visiting with a cousin in a local park when one of her boys wandered away from the adults. A woman who lived near the park picked up Peoples’ son and called police even though Peoples quickly came to find the boy. Aurora police issued Peoples a misdemeanor ticket.
On the day police came to her house, Peoples — who had been doing laundry in the basement and is partially deaf in one ear — did not hear anyone knock on her door. After no one answered, the social workers called police because they could see one of Peoples’ sons through a window. Officers entered through an unlocked door.
Peoples was stunned when she turned a corner in her basement and came face-to-face with a police officer — gun drawn — coming down the steps.
Upset that police and social workers were in her home, Peoples called her mother, who was at a doctor’s appointment, and her husband, who was at work, to come home.
The situation was tense as Peoples answered a social worker’s questions with police officers standing around her house. Peoples feared the social workers would take away her children.
“All I have is my kids,” she said.
When Patricia Russell, Peoples’ mother, arrived on the scene, she was livid that police and social workers were in her home. She yelled at everyone as she walked through her front door, taking her grandsons’ hands and leading them into a back bedroom, Aurora Police Department body camera footage shows.
Still, no one threatened the officers or social workers.
An officer blocked the door to the bedroom, keeping Russell and the children separated from Peoples.
When Peoples heard her mother arguing with the officer she stood up and told another officer, who was blocking the hallway, that she wanted to see her mom.
“Stand back,” the officer said, the body camera footage shows.
“No, cause that’s my mom,” Peoples said. “I don’t have to stay back.”
In a split second, the officer grabbed Peoples by the neck and shoved her to the ground. She never raised her hands or her voice, but cussed at the officer as he took her down, according to the police body camera video.
As the officer pinned Peoples on top of a bean bag chair, he and others hobbled her, with her arms and legs cinched behind her back. As he pulled her arms back, Peoples screamed in pain. She called out for her mother.
The officers carried her to a patrol car and shoved her face-down in the back seat as she continued to cry in pain and tell them she couldn’t breathe.
“They tied me up like an animal and carried me out for the whole neighborhood to see,” she said in a recent interview with The Denver Post.
Her husband Tevin Hike, who works as an electrician, raced home when his wife called. He was arrested on a traffic warrant.
Russell was given a citation but was not taken to jail.
With her daughter and son-in-law now in police custody, Russell raced to collect money to bail them out.
She sold a PlayStation. She borrowed from relatives. She used the money that was meant to pay the next month’s bills.
Peoples and Hike were released from jail that night. But the encounter with police would set them back for years.
Abuse of power
After the arrest for obstructing a peace officer, Peoples hired Erica Grossman, a civil rights lawyer with the Denver firm Holland, Holland, Edwards & Grossman, to represent her.
Grossman collected police reports and Aurora officers’ body camera footage and saw a scene that angered her.
“It was a white officer sitting on a Black woman and dominating her,” Grossman said. “He clearly wasn’t afraid. It was domination, an abuse of power thing for him.”
Grossman drew up a draft lawsuit and started negotiating with Aurora’s lawyers about the city’s reputation for over-policing and using excessive force on its Black residents.
“She was treated like an animal and less than human,” Grossman said. “We have tolerated a dual system of justice where police have been historically unchecked by law. They have been allowed to use force that is not remotely required simply to obtain obedience, or for whatever unjustifiable reason.”
Grossman’s arguments prevailed.
On Sept. 4, 2018, the Aurora City Council approved a $100,000 settlement.
None of the officers involved were found to have violated any departmental policies. And the city did not admit wrongdoing.
Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson was not in charge of the department at the time, and police officials said she was not available to be interviewed for this story. In an email, Aurora police spokesman Matthew Longshore wrote, “Chief Wilson’s focus is on the work our agency is doing now and moving forward.”
Spending the money
Peoples lives in a small home near Aurora’s Havana Park. The yard is filled with American flags, figurines of frogs and flamingos, and decorations left over from Easter, Halloween and Christmas. Inside the home, couches, chairs, an aquarium, a television and toys crowd the living room, where family photos and posters with inspirational inscriptions decorate walls.
Since the incident, Peoples and Hike had a third son, Zamari, now 1. Their other boys, Tamaj and Mahjae, are now 8 and 6. Together, the family lives in Russell’s house.
For years, Peoples and Hike have wanted a home of their own but have been unable to afford it.
The settlement wasn’t the answer to that dream.
First, Grossman’s firm took a 40% cut, the standard for lawyers in these cases.
Joanna Schwartz, a former civil rights lawyer and professor at the UCLA School of Law, said lawyers take a risk when pursuing police misconduct cases.
“It’s absolutely true lawyers take a hefty percentage of settlements but it’s also true they make nothing in the cases they lose,” she said. “The way the system works is successful cases are supporting lawyers who are able to take on more risky cases.”
Once Peoples received her portion of the settlement, she went about paying off the family’s debts.
Because her mother used bill money to bail Peoples and her husband out of jail, the family got behind on bills. Late fees and missed payments were piling up. All the debts were settled.
Peoples spent $10,000 on a used Toyota FJ Cruiser — the first car she had ever bought for herself — and she paid for repairs on her mother’s and husband’s SUVs.
She paid off court fines that totaled $5,400 as well as $6,000 in medical bills.
Peoples also spent about $10,000 for her college tuition.
Peoples and Hike took their first big vacation — a weeklong trip to Miami that still brings smiles to Peoples’ face as she looks at pictures on her phone.
“I swear to you it was like a dream come true,” Peoples said. “We were flying and then we saw all those hotels on the beach. It was like being in a movie.”
And she spent an estimated $4,000 on clothes, shoes and toys for her boys.
“It was their money, too,” she said.
Before long, the money was spent.
Bringing attention to a problem
While $100,000 seems like a lottery prize to a lot of people, it’s a drop in the bucket to a major city and its police department.
And that’s the rub for those who question whether settlements have any impact when it comes to police reforms.
Police departments are insulated against the judgments because these settlements are paid through insurance policies. And individual officers rarely have any personal liability on the line, Schwartz said.
“There’s no financial impact on the police department or the officer,” she said. “As far as the financial hit, it’s not impacting them.”
Between January 2017 and February, Aurora paid $2.85 million to people because of police misconduct, according to a database obtained by The Denver Post through an open records request.
The most paid during that period was $1.5 million to the estate of Richard “Gary” Black, an Aurora man killed in 2018 by police in his home after a stranger kicked in his front door in the middle of the night and assaulted Black’s then-11-year-old grandson. That settlement was reached in March 2020.
Other significant payouts included another $285,000 for a 2016 excessive force case and $300,000 for violating a man’s constitutional rights in 2019, according to the database.
But Aurora will spend $128.8 million on its police department in 2021 alone.
Still, settlements can have an impact, especially when they draw attention to police misconduct, Schwartz said.
“These lawsuits can create political pressure on these police departments to reform,” she said.
Settlements bring justice for survivors of police violence, giving clients such as Peoples a financial break as they try to restore their lives and a voice to speak out against police abuse, Grossman said.
“Speaking up for themselves helps victims reclaim some power from it,” she said.
Sometimes civil rights lawyers not only try to win large financial amounts for their clients but also force change within police departments.
In 2016, Aurora announced its largest settlement ever when the city agreed to pay the family of Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant $2.6 million after the unarmed Black man was shot and killed by one of the city’s police officers.
That agreement included what city officials described as “non-economic terms,” although they did not disclose specifics in their announcement. The chief at the time, Nick Metz, said he changed departmental policies in the wake of the fatal shooting by reorganizing the department’s internal affairs unit, rewriting its use-of-force policy, creating a professional standards division and establishing an independent review board to look into police misconduct.
Still, excessive force and civil rights violations keep coming. And a potentially big one is pending.
Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man, died in August 2019 after a violent encounter with Aurora police officers who placed him in a chokehold and held him face-down, and after paramedics injected him with the sedative ketamine.
McClain became a household name in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer led to nationwide protests over police treatment of Black people and other minorities. His mother Sheneen McClain has sued the city.
The Floyd and McClain deaths prompted change in Colorado, including the creation of a new law that puts financial liability on individual police officers found at fault in excessive force or civil rights violations. Thus far, no law enforcement officers have been required to pay a portion of a settlement.
Meanwhile, Aurora continues to restrain people with hobbles — a technique called “hog-tying” by the general public — where cuffed hands are connected to cuffed ankles via a waistband. It’s a controversial technique that can inhibit people’s breathing when they are left to lie face-down for extended periods, and the U.S. Department of Justice warned police departments of its dangers as far back as 1995.
In 2020, Wilson fired Officer Levi Huffine for ignoring a woman’s cries for help after she fell face-down onto the floor of his patrol car while hobbled. He never stopped to check on her even though the woman was pleading that she couldn’t breathe and that her neck was hurting.
The Aurora Police Department has started moving away from hobbling people, but it is still allowed, per department policy.
The agency is buying a new piece of equipment called the WRAP, which allows officers to restrain people while keeping them in an upright position. The department has a small number now but plans to issue one to every patrol car, according to a statement from the agency.
Wilson, in an emailed statement, said she is committed to using the best practices when it comes to using force on people.
“As chief of police, I am committed to evaluating new ways of operating and serving our Aurora community. Over the past 18 months, we have proactively examined our use of force policies. This includes evaluating the tools we use to successfully and safely restrain combative subjects,” Wilson wrote.
Trying to move on
During the past year, Peoples cared for her baby while shepherding her older boys through their elementary school classes at home. She also finished her studies, earning certificates in legal office work and nursing.
Just days before graduation, Peoples felt confident things might finally turn around for her family. Along with earning her diplomas, Peoples filed paperwork at the Adams County Courthouse to have her criminal record sealed. It will take months and will involve a hearing before a judge before her record is hidden from the public.
The obstruction charge from the day she was arrested was dismissed as part of the settlement. And she pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor child abuse charge after she was offered probation and required to attend parenting classes. It was a decision that was less risky than a possible jail sentence if she went to trial, Peoples said.
Plus, she would be allowed to have her records sealed if she avoided more trouble.
That was easy enough for a woman who previously had never run afoul of the law.
She felt confident that with her criminal record wiped clean and two diplomas in hand she would soon find a good job.
“I’m getting everything lined up right now,” she said in early May. “I’m so excited I can’t think straight.”
Peoples planned a Memorial Day weekend party to celebrate Zamari’s birthday and her graduation. Family and friends ate hot dogs and pizza and danced to hip-hop in the sunroom. She bought two birthday cakes for the occasion.
Carletta Taylor, who is Peoples’ closest friend, said she has watched her friend suffer self-doubt as she recovers from the police encounter. She encourages Peoples to speak against police violence.
“Make people pay attention,” Taylor said. “Your voice is all you got.”
But six weeks later, Peoples’ criminal record remains in the public view and she still doesn’t have a job.
She floats between frustration that things haven’t improved for her family and pride that she is able to speak about police violence and push for change in her community.
“I’m still standing. I’m still here to testify to what these clowns did to us. A lot of people don’t get to be here to do that,” she said.
Shortly after her college graduation, Peoples wrote her feelings on a piece of notebook paper, explaining why she wants to tell people about what happened to her on that July day in 2017.
“I just hope and pray that by me telling my story will help people across the world be able to speak about their story and be at peace about it because even though my incident happened almost four years ago, it still haunts me,” she wrote. “But I try my hardest not to show it because I have to be strong for my boys.”
The photojournalism for this story was supported by the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.