Police nearly severed Denver photographer’s finger with less-lethal projectile during protests, lawsuit says

A professional photographer nearly lost his finger when police officers shot him with a less-lethal projectile while he documented 2020 racial justice protests in downtown Denver, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Trevor Hughes sued Denver police Chief Paul Pazen and the cities of Denver and Aurora alleging a police officer working for one of the two cities used excessive force against him even though he was acting peacefully.

“It’s time and time again with the Denver police department and these protests and people being shot while they’re holding their hands up,” Hughes’ attorney, Andy McNulty, said. “There has to be some accountability at some point.”

The lawsuit is the latest filed against Denver and Aurora alleging the cities’ officers injured peaceful protesters and violated demonstrators’ civil rights. Pazen promised reform after the city’s police watchdog found officers used inappropriate force against protesters, though only two of the hundreds of Denver police officers who responded to the protests have been disciplined for using excessive force on protesters.

Hughes on May 31, 2020, joined protests of George Floyd‘s murder and planned to photograph the demonstrations and police response, the lawsuit states. It was the fourth consecutive day of racial justice protests in downtown Denver and the second day of a citywide 8 p.m. curfew.

About 8:30 p.m., Hughes was photographing a group of protesters as they marched down Colfax Avenue near Washington Street when someone threw an incendiary device, according to the lawsuit. The police threw flashbangs, deployed tear gas and fired less-lethal projectiles at the crowd.

Hughes moved to a sidewalk away from the main group of protesters and took pictures, including one of a protester who had been injured.

While Hughes had his camera to his face to photograph, an unidentified police officer shot at his face with a projectile, according to the lawsuit. The projectile shattered the camera Hughes was holding to his eye and ripped through his right ring finger, snapping the bone and nearly severing it from his hand.

Doctors at a local hospital reattached Hughes’ finger but he never recovered full use of it. He’s since had to learn to use his cameras with his left hand.

McNulty said it’s unclear which officer shot Hughes and whether that officer worked for Aurora or Denver. Officers from both departments were at the location, he said. It’s also unclear what kind of projectile struck Hughes, but police at the protests used foam bullets, bean bag guns and pepper balls.

McNulty and Hughes filed a complaint to the City of Denver in the summer of 2020 but never received a response, McNulty said.

The lawsuit states the officer who shot Hughes with the projectile violated the Denver Police Department’s rules on how less-lethal projectiles can be used. Shooting a less-lethal projectile at someone’s head is an act of deadly force, like shooting someone with a gun, the policy states. The rules also say officers should only shoot less-lethal projectiles at people who are threatening to injure someone and have the capability to do so in the immediate future.

A spokeswoman for the Denver City Attorney’s Office said the office declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman for Aurora said the city had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and that it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.

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