DENVER — A case involving a 19-year-old college student who was beaten after he questioned officers' authority to search the trunk of his car is now the subject of an FBI investigation, authorities said Monday.
The Jan. 15, 2009, case involving Alex Landau is one of several high-profile cases that have raised questions about the Denver police department's policies and procedures and prompted calls for a federal civil rights investigation. The officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing by the police department and no state criminal charges were filed against the officers.
Prosecutors eventually dropped charges against Landau and the city settled the case for $795,000 after Landau filed a lawsuit alleging the beating left him brain damaged.
Denver Police Chief Robert White and Manager of Safety Alex Martinez in a joint statement said the FBI investigation centers on whether Landau's civil rights were violated by the officers involved. The department's policies and procedures are not the target, White and Martinez said.
Denver FBI spokesman Dave Joly confirmed the investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.
"It seems that it's set up to discourage people to make these kinds of efforts," Landau said of complaint process. "Now with the FBI involved, hopefully this would span into a wider investigation, to look into practice and patterns."
A lawsuit filed by Landau months after the stop alleges the traffic stop escalated into violence when one of the officers began to open the trunk of Landau's car and he objected, asking if the officer had a search warrant.
Officers used their fists, a radio and a flashlight when they beat him unconscious and taunted him, according to the lawsuit.
"Where's that warrant now," the lawsuit quotes a male officer as saying as he called Landau, who is African American, a racial epithet. One officer allegedly put a gun to Landau's head and allegedly told him: "You have no idea how close you were to getting your (expletive) head blown off," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleges that officers conspired to frame him on charges that he reached for an officer's gun in order to justify the beating. Those charges were later dropped.
Landau, now 22, said he is studying business management.
An internal police investigation completed in February of 2009 that found no wrongdoing has since been reopened. Police recently re-staged the scene with witnesses walking investigators through the events.
"Our purpose was to be certain we understand the descriptions of the incident given by witnesses, and to reach the right resolution," a statement said. "We will wait until the DOJ's investigation is complete to make a final decision."
Two of the officers involved, Ricky Nixon and Randy Murr, were later fired for separate high-profile videotaped excessive force cases. Nixon was reinstated by a civil service panel and is working in the police department's photo radar division, while Murr is off the force while he appeals his termination.
Nixon's reinstatement is also being appealed by Martinez. Messages left for Nixon and Murr through the Denver Police Protective Association, which assists officers with discipline cases, were not immediately returned.
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After a series of deadly police shootings in the 2000s, Denver established an independent police monitor to oversee investigations. Before leaving for a similar position in British Columbia, former monitor Richard Rosenthal criticized the police for the length of time it takes for internal investigations and also called for a federal inquiry. Washington-based officials with the justice department's civil rights division did not immediately return a message.
"I felt not only discouraged, I felt like somehow cheated," Landau said. "It's been three-and-a-half years."
Under Mayor Michael Hancock's administration, Martinez and the police department have made changes to speed up the officer discipline process.
"The process is extraordinarily lengthy and cumbersome," Martinez said. "I can't fix that with regard to the past. We're hoping we have fixed that to ensure our end of that is done speedily."