AURORA | The Aurora Police Department officer who shot and killed 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson during a June 1 arrest was a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that he and two other officers racially profiled two Black Aurorans during a 2018 search.
The city settled the lawsuit for $100,000 in February.
The lawsuit was not mentioned at an APD press conference Friday, where Interim Police Chief Art Acevedo said that neither of the officers involved in Richardson’s death had a record of “significant” use-of-force incidents or disciplinary histories.
Officers Roch Gruszeczka and James Snapp took Richardson into custody, with Gruszeczka firing the single shot that killed him. Both officers were hired in 2017 and are currently serving on the department’s gang intervention unit.
In a complaint filed in 2020 in U.S. District Court in Colorado, lawyers for plaintiff Tevon Thomas allege that the City of Aurora and APD officers Cruszecka, Jonathan Fullam and Cassie Longnecker violated Thomas’ Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.
On Nov. 10, 2018 at about 3 a.m., a female friend gave Thomas a ride home to the apartment complex in Aurora where he lived with his mother, according to the complaint. The two, who are both Black, were having a conversation and continued to talk in the friend’s parked car once they arrived.
Around 4 a.m. another resident returning home from work called 911 and asked officers to escort her to the building out of an abundance of caution because there was a parked car running outside. The three officers responded, and after walking her inside, parked their police car behind the vehicle and began questioning the pair about where they lived.
“When Mr. Thomas began to answer, ‘my mother stays—’ he was interrupted by Defendant Gruszeczka, who demanded to know ‘honestly, where do you guys live at?’” the complaint said.
Gruszeczka then asked about the contents of the car and if there was “anything in the car I should know about,” the complaint said. He did not articulate a reason for his suspicion, according to the complaint.
After asking for both their IDs, Gruszeczka ordered the woman out of the car for questioning and placed her in the back of the police vehicle, the complaint said. He and the other officers then ordered Thomas out of the vehicle, and after seeing the handle of a pistol in his pocket, drew their guns and ordered him to lie down on the ground. He complied, and the officers handcuffed, searched and arrested him.
The complaint argued that the officers did not have any justification to search the car because neither Thomas nor his friend had been doing anything illegal at the time, and that the search was another example of Aurora’s “longstanding, persistent and widespread custom of illegally seizing Black people.”
“Rank-and-file members of the APD regularly escalate their interactions with Black people into unreasonable seizures without any basis for suspecting them of criminality or of being a threat to themselves or others,” the complaint said. “In conjunction, APD officers regularly use race and race-based animus as motivating factors in police decisions and actions.”
Thomas was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm as a felon. In 2020 a federal judge ruled that the evidence was inadmissible in court because Thomas had been illegally searched.
A similar situation occurred in 2021 during the traffic stop of Preston Nunn, who APD officers held at gunpoint, tackled to the ground and tased. Nunn, who is Black, was initially arrested on suspicion of obstruction, resisting arrest, failure to obey a lawful order, failure to yield right of way to an emergency vehicle and possession of an open container of alcohol but no charges were ever filed. Nunn recently sued the department for what his lawyer said is another example of APD using excessive force against Black residents.
David Lane, one of the two attorneys who represented Thomas, said Tuesday that the treatment of his client was a clear example of racially biased policing.
“He was basically arrested for being Black while sitting in a parked car, and it cost Aurora $100,000,” Lane said.
Siddhartha Rathod, a lawyer representing Richardson’s family, said he believed it was hypocritical of Acevedo to specifically mention the officer’s lack of disciplinary history without also mentioning that Richardson had no previous criminal history.
“You know if he had a criminal history, they’d be going through it,” he said.
He said that the press conference, which Acevedo described as an exercise in transparency, was another example of APD selectively releasing information.
The department is under a consent decree “because of this exact type of behavior,” Rathod said.
The City of Aurora has been under a consent decree with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office since 2021 which mandates it to implement a litany of reforms intended to break a pattern of excessive force and racial bias. A “patterns and practices” investigation by the AG’s office found that APD had broken state and federal law and violated the civil rights of its residents through its policing of minorities.
The investigation, which began in August 2020 and was published about a year later, claims Aurora police use force against people of color about 2.5 times more than on their white counterparts, and local officers arrest Black residents about twice as much as whites.
Both Gruszeczka and Snapp have active certifications in Colorado’s peace officer database, according to Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards & Training website. Neither have any disciplinary records listed.
A records request from the Sentinel for both officers’ internal affairs files from APD is currently pending.