Days before Christmas in 2015, OyZhana Williams found herself speeding to an Aurora, Colo., emergency room in pink pajama pants and a borrowed car, frantically seeking help for her boyfriend, who was bleeding from a gunshot wound.
What happened in the interim is the subject of a months-long he-said-she-said between Williams and the Aurora Police Department — and now a lawsuit filed in federal court this week.
The police claimed Williams scratched a police sergeant before he and other officers took her to the ground, then into custody. She spent a week in jail, charged with second-degree assault on a police officer and battled the criminal accusations for months.
Williams said the police sergeant grew agitated that she would not hand over her keys during an unlawful car seizure. If the officer was scratched, her attorney told The Washington Post, it happened as the sergeant choked Williams, then helped tackle her. Then, as Williams lay on the ground, the sergeant stomped on her head.
The officers didn’t write about those actions in police reports, said the attorney, Adam Frank.
Backing up her claim, Williams’s lawsuit says, is “irrefutable” video footage captured by a hospital security camera. The assault charges were ultimately dropped by the district attorney, but Williams wants police to account for their actions that night.
“The way the police reports read is like a cover up,” Frank told The Post. “I think that is an interesting attempt to cover their butts. They prosecuted Ms. Williams for 10-and-a-half months based on their officers’ reports while they had the video in their possession.”
Williams’s lawsuit, filed Monday in federal district court in Colorado, seeks punitive and compensatory damages for the assault and what she claims were lies by the officers afterward.
If not for the video, the lawsuit says, the officers “likely would have succeeded in sending Ms. Williams to prison based on their false accusations and ruining her life.”
Williams was already dealing with a crisis when she arrived at University of Colorado Health emergency room in Aurora around 3 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2015. Her boyfriend, Blake Newton, had just been shot. “Terrified,” the lawsuit says, “Williams drove the injured man straight to the hospital.”
While he was being treated, three officers — Sgt. Michael Hawkins and officers Jordan Odneal and Jose Ortiz — were dispatched to investigate the circumstances of the shooting.
Hawkins told Williams her car needed to be towed so it could be searched and examined.
Frank said his client didn’t want that to happen. The car was borrowed by a friend in an emergency. If officers impounded the vehicle, it would make a complicated situation even more difficult. Still, Frank said, his client cooperated with the officers as much as she could.
But the disagreement with Hawkins intensified even after Newton was wheeled out to a waiting ambulance to be treated at a different hospital. He ultimately survived the gunshot wound.
“Sgt. Hawkins then started demanding that Ms. Williams give him the keys to the car,” the lawsuit says. “Sgt. Hawkins had no legal right to seize the keys from Ms. Williams.”
Hawkins “was aggressive” during the conversation, pointing in Williams’s face.
“Under duress from Sgt. Hawkins’ threats, Ms. Williams held out the keys and dropped them for Sgt. Hawkins to catch,” the lawsuit says. “Sgt. Hawkins made no attempt to catch the keys. He let them hit the ground.”
The lawsuit says Hawkins had no legal basis to arrest Williams, but reached out to grab her anyway: “Sgt. Hawkins put his forearm on Ms. Williams’ throat and forced her to bend backwards over the trunk of the car while he choked her with his forearm.”
The sergeant put his leg behind Williams’s legs and Odneal tackled the woman. Then the three officers handcuffed her.
Afterward, the lawsuit says, Hawkins “walked to where Ms. Williams’ head was pinned to the ground, lifted his left leg, and stomped on Ms. Williams’ head while she was laying on the pavement.”
The Aurora Police Department declined to answer detailed questions from The Post about the incident, instead sending a statement it has posted on its public Facebook page. The statement didn’t give details of the officers’ account of events, or try to dispute Williams’s account, but noted that she had never complained to police.
“The incident took place on December 22nd, 2015,” the statement said. “The plaintiff did not file a complaint with the APD through the Department’s complaint system. The Department learned of the complaint only after a lawsuit was filed today against the officers. The Sergeant named in the lawsuit is in an administrative assignment and the two officers are both currently on patrol.”
The statement did not specify why Hawkins had been placed on desk duty, or if it was connected to Williams’s case. It’s also unclear whether the other officers had faced any disciplinary action.
The incident comes as police departments are under intense scrutiny for their use of force again suspects, particularly minorities. Williams is African American; neither the lawsuit nor the police department described the races of the officers.
In 2015, 995 people were shot dead by police officers. Of those, 259 were black — more than one in four, according to a Washington Post database on police shootings. So far in 2017, 675 people have been shot and killed by police, 140 of whom were black.
The Aurora Police Department’s statement stressed that it had “made significant changes to its Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) to take steps in ensuring that we investigate all allegations of misconduct thoroughly and timely.”
But Frank said his client is troubled that she spent a week in jail — and had been fighting a criminal case that could have landed her in prison for a decade — all while police had video evidence that showed how things really transpired.
She lost her job because of the charges, the lawsuit says, and didn’t get another one because her criminal record showed a pending court case.
“This is a situation that should scare anybody,” Frank said. “All she had done was take a loved one to the hospital … She had done absolutely nothing wrong. That you can be treated like this by the police for simply bringing an injured loved one to the hospital is terrifying.”