Blind Eagle man awarded $400K in Denver police brutality case
EAGLE COUNTY — Phillip White is blind and has been since he was 11 years old. White, who is 80 now, was just trying to get back to Eagle from a conference in Denver, where he was learning how technology can help the visually impaired.
He and his attorneys, Mari Newman and Darold Killmer, said that during an encounter, Denver police officer Kyllion Chafin slammed White’s head against a counter in a Greyhound station, opening a gash in his forehead, and handcuffed him so tightly it may have caused permanent nerve damage in his hands and wrists.
That, they said, is an excessive use of force against an elderly blind man.
A jury agreed and awarded White $100,000 for his injuries and another $300,000 in punitive damages. The judge also ordered Denver to pay court costs and White’s attorney fees.
“The punitive damages are designed to send a message not only to this officer but to police everywhere that this sort of treatment will not be tolerated in a civilized community,” Newman said.
White, at 5-feet 2-inches and 140 pounds, blind and 77 years old at the time of the incident, is nothing like an intimidating or threatening figure, Newman said.
“When all is said and done, the judgment against this Denver officer will be well over half a million dollars, not including the money that Denver will be paying to the lawyers it hired to defend the case.”
On May 22, 2012, White was in a downtown Denver Greyhound bus station, trying to take a catch a 12:15 p.m. bus to Vail. From there, he could catch a van back to his home in Eagle.
The Greyhound was sold out, so the ticket cashier told him to stick around, in case there were no-shows. The station manager also told White he could wait in the station, according to White’s lawsuit.
It’s unclear what happened that caused a Greyhound security guard to tell White he was trespassing and call Denver police, but he did.
When Chafin arrived, White asked if he could touch his badge, to confirm that Chafin was who he said he was.
“He had almost been robbed once by a person impersonating a police officer,” Newman said.
Touching the officer’s badge is how he determines whether it’s legitimate or whether he’s being conned by an impostor, Newman said.
“There’s no legitimate reason for a police officer to refuse such a reasonable request,” Newman said.
White was on his phone talking with a 911 operator through all of this.
The officer insisted that White hang up the phone, and that made him even more nervous, Newman said.
The police came in ready to make an arrest, Newman said.
“Instead of treating this almost 80-year-old man with some respect, he immediately transformed what should have been a conversation with an elderly disabled gentlemen into an excessive use of force,” Newman said.
The officer handcuffed White so tightly that his wrists were injured and his hands went numb, causing what may have been permanent nerve damage, Newman said.
Then he slammed White’s head into a counter, opening a gash in his forehead.
White was taken outside and police sat him down on the ground, where a police sergeant tried to secretly interrogate him, Newman said.
“While this elderly blind man with overly tight handcuffs was sitting on the floor with blood running down his face, a sergeant showed up and interrogated him, trying to get him to justify their excessive use of force,” Newman said.
“Can you imagine this?” Newman said. “Mr. White was saying his hands were going numb, but instead of taking care of him, the sergeant starts a secret video interrogation.”
On the video you can hear White ask the sergeant, “Can I feel your …?”
The sergeant cut him off, saying, “No, you cannot feel my badge.”
White was taken to jail where he was held until after midnight. He was released at 1 a.m. into one of Denver’s more unseemly areas.
“Denver released an elderly blind man onto Colfax Avenue, at 1 in the morning,” Newman said.
Police alleged various crimes, charges the District Attorney immediately dismissed “because they were patently ridiculous,” Newman said.
White went to the hospital the first thing the next day.
White and his attorneys filed their lawsuit in federal court, asking for a jury trial.
The trial lasted five days last week, including a day and a half for the jury to come back with a ruling at 5 p.m. last Friday that Chafin used excessive force, and ordered Denver to pay damages.
“What happened to Mr. White is horrible, but what is even more horrible is Denver police’s insistence that they did nothing wrong,” Newman said.
The Denver police department told the media that Chafin did not violate any department policy.
“We respect the court and we respect the jury’s decision,” said Sonny Jackson, a police spokesman. “We reviewed the case. We didn’t find any violations of policy. We are always looking for ways to improve.”
In 2008, Chafin was commended by the police department for his role in preventing an armed man from committing suicide.
Denver’s defense was a combination of trying to insist they did not cause White’s injuries, and that he is not blind, Newman said.
“They continued to insist that Mr. White isn’t blind which shows they were willing to say anything to avoid accountability,” Newman said. “It was a remarkable exercise in denying responsibility.”
Blinded as a child
White was rendered blind at 11 years old, when he was hit in the eye with an ice ball during a snowball fight with other kids.
Throughout the years, his other eye completely lost its function due to sympathetic response. Medical treatments to restore sight in his damaged eye all failed.
White earned his master’s degree in education from Michigan State University by using study materials in Braille.
White spent 33 years in education in Michigan and Oregon before he retired to Colorado.
He has hiked and climbed Colorado 14ers and he used to cross-country ski, among his many other activities, Newman said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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