A Black man sued the city of Denver on Thursday alleging three police officers racially profiled him, illegally searched his car and violated his constitutional rights when they arrested him while responding to a minor traffic crash in 2020.
Keilon Hill, a 25-year-old graduate student at the time, called 911 after a crash on Interstate 25 and was arrested by Denver police before he was able to tell them his account of what happened. One of the officers was recorded on a body camera referring to Hill as a “turd” before interacting with the driver.
“It was a really weird experience because usually when you call the police you think that you’d have the chance to talk to them before you’re whisked away, grabbed up and put in the back of their vehicle,” Hill said in an interview. “The incident makes me uncomfortable living in Denver as a whole.”
The crash investigation should’ve been a mundane interaction, said Hill’s attorney, Benjamin DeGolia of the Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm.
“The unmistakable subtext throughout this encounter is that Mr. Hill would not have been subjected to this treatment but for the color of his skin,” Hill’s lawsuit states. “Mr. Hill files this complaint not only to vindicate his own rights, but also to show the world that racial bias continues to pervade even relatively mundane police encounters, and to demand that DPD do better.”
Denver Police Department representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit’s allegations.
Hill called 911 on April 27, 2020, after getting into a minor crash with a truck on I-25.
Paramedics were speaking with Hill when the first police officer, Thomas Ludwig, arrived on scene, his body camera footage shows. Ludwig spoke with the two white men who had been in the truck and heard their account of what happened: that Hill had tried to thread his car between lanes and hit them. The men also said Hill had acted aggressively toward them once they stopped.
That’s not what Hill says happened. Hill said in an interview that the truck hit him as it merged into his lane. But Hill never got a chance to give his account to police before he was arrested.
After speaking with the two men, Ludwig spoke to another Denver police officer, Gary Yampolsky, and told him that the truck driver said Hill was “being a (expletive),” though he hadn’t interacted with Hill yet.
“I haven’t talked to him yet … I haven’t got his ID yet,” Ludwig said, the body camera video shows. “He looks like a turd.”
Ludwig then walked to Hill’s car, opened the door and looked inside. Hill walked over to Ludwig and told the officer he didn’t have the legal right to search the car without a warrant. Ludwig responded that he was searching because he smelled marijuana. Police never found marijuana in the car, according to the lawsuit.
As Hill told the officers again that they had no right to search, both Ludwig and Yampolsky grabbed his arms, forced him to lie on the hood of his car and handcuffed him, body camera footage shows.
“What is happening to me?” Hill said.
“What are you doing steppin’ to me, huh? You get in my face? I don’t think so, dude,” Ludwig said, according to the video.
After the officers walked Hill to the police car, Hill asked what he was being arrested for.
“We’ll let you know here in a few,” Yampolsky said, before putting Hill in the back of a patrol car.
Denver police Cpl. Bart Stark then arrived and took Hill out of the car and asked if Hill had any injuries. Hill said he didn’t know and needed to go to a doctor.
“Here’s the thing. If you say that you have injuries, I’m going to do something different,” Stark said, the video shows. “If you say that you don’t have any injuries, that means that nothing has happened and I can let you drive away.”
Hill told Stark he didn’t know if he was injured, or whether the injury was from the officers or the crash. The officers then put him back in the patrol car.
Hill spent 24 hours in jail, according to his lawsuit. He later paid to get his car out of impound and missed a final exam for his master’s in business administration degree while he was in jail.
Hill was charged with interference with police activity, a municipal violation, though the Denver City Attorney’s Office later dropped the charge and the case was dismissed, according to the lawsuit.
Hill said he wasn’t afraid until his conversation with Stark. He said he thought that a supervisor would calm down the situation and put the other officers in line. But that’s not what Stark did.
“That’s when I thought this could go wrong really quickly,” Hill said. “There are people that crazy things happen to in police custody.”
Stark’s comments to Hill were a blatant quid pro quo, DeGolia said.
This isn’t the first time Hill has been racially profiled by police, Hill said.
An Iowa police officer arrested Hill in 2018 while Hill was canvassing a neighborhood for a congressional campaign. Someone in the neighborhood called police because they thought Hill was suspicious and an officer arrested him after Hill tried to walk away from him. A jury acquitted Hill of a charge of harrassing the officer after less than 15 minutes of deliberation, according to the Des Moines Register.
“(The Iowa police officer) went and found the only African American person in the neighborhood and arrested him,” Hill said. “What happened with Denver was like part two.”
Denver police too often use force against people who are using their First Amendment right to speak against them, DeGolia said.
“Every time that Denver officers are criticized for unlawful activity, they respond with force, they respond with unlawful arrests and they make trumped-up charges,” DeGolia said.
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