Editor’s Note: During the introduction to this podcast, we incorrectly stated the Loveland, Colorado, police department has 19 sworn officers. That was an error: the police department in Loveland, Ohio, has 19 sworn officers; the police department in Loveland, Colorado, has 95 sworn officers. We apologize for the error.
The small town of Loveland, Colorado, has found itself in the national spotlight due to the wanton brutality and corruption of its police department. In June 2020, Loveland police violently arrested Karen Garner, a 73-year-old woman with dementia. Garner suffered a broken arm and dislocated shoulder. Later, footage revealed Loveland officers laughing as they reviewed the video of Garner’s arrest. This spring, another victim of the Loveland Police Department, Harris Elias, filed a lawsuit alleging he had been unlawfully arrested on DUI charges despite being “completely sober.” These and other cases demonstrate a pattern of disturbing practices within the department that incentivize brutality and lawbreaking, including a monthly quota of DUI arrests that officers try to meet by any means necessary.
In this special podcast edition of the Police Accountability Report, civil rights attorney Sarah Schielke joins Taya Graham to explore just how deep the corruption goes in Loveland and to discuss the ongoing fight to hold Loveland police accountable.
Taya Graham: Hello, this is Taya Graham, and I am the host of the Police Accountability Report. And I am so happy to have you join me here today for a special podcast edition of our show. I’m going to start today by talking about a beautiful place called Loveland, Colorado. Loveland, Colorado, is home to roughly 80,000 people, and it is a lovely area with trails, and hiking, and skiing, just about 46 miles north of Denver. But it is also home to the Loveland Colorado Police Department, which became the focus of the national spotlight after the brutal arrest of 73-year-old Karen Garner, a woman with dementia who had her arm broken by Loveland police officers who arrested her for mistakenly walking out of a store without paying for $14 worth of merchandise. But it wasn’t merely the arrest or the broken bones that made these officers stand out.
It was the video of their callous review of their own body camera footage, where they replayed the breaking of her bones and laughed, that highlighted their unique cruelty and their disconnect from the community that they are supposed to serve. But this department with just 19 [sic] full-time police officers has again grabbed our attention. This time, for fabricating DUI arrest. The particular case I want to share with you is of Mr. Harris Elias, whose car was stopped for driving too slow, and he was arrested on the pretext of the smell of alcohol and intoxication.
He was taken to police headquarters, where his breathalyzer analysis showed triple zeros after two tests, and was still taken in cuffs to a phlebotomist for blood analysis. Now, fortunately, once the blood test showed absolutely no impairing substances in his system, the district attorney dropped the charges. But he has to explain to every potential employer why he was charged with a DUI, which, since he is a pilot, carries serious ramifications for his livelihood. Civil rights attorney Sarah Schielke, who also represented the Garner family and others abused by the Loveland Police Department, has taken his case and uncovered a DUI arrest for profit and promotion scheme that has led to the discovery of dozens of allegations of false DUI arrests and a substantial lawsuit.
To learn more about how police departments have found a way to monetize DUI arrests and why an officer might be motivated to manufacture a DUI arrest, I’m joined by Sarah Schielke of Life & Liberty Law, who will elaborate on the problem she’s exposed in the Loveland PD, its impact on people’s lives, and the consequences, if any, for an officer who makes false arrests.
Sarah, thank you so much for joining me. The first question I wanted to ask you was about what seems to be an unusually large number of false arrests for DUIs by Loveland police. Just from what I saw, there seems to be at least a dozen people who were arrested and later shown to have a 0% blood alcohol level. I guess the first question I wanted to ask you was, what kind of impact do these false arrests have on people’s lives? I’m sure there’s stress, but there must also be an economic and social impact as well.
Sarah Schielke: For sure, there is. DUIs really are a horrific affliction on our society when actually DUI is being committed. And for that reason, there’s a lot of stigma associated with DUIs. There’s some very heavy consequences that come from being charged with DUI. And what a lot of people don’t realize is how quickly those consequences come into play after an arrest. It’s not like anybody waits for the case to be adjudicated. Nobody waits until there’s a conviction. The consequences are quick and severe. The DMV starts actions to take your license away. Most employers have reporting requirements if you get charged with a DUI. People lose their jobs. There’s all kinds of fines and associated requirements that just go with being on pretrial. Monitoring, prior to anybody even deciding whether it was rightfully charged. And then there’s just also just the humiliation and the embarrassment that goes with it.
The lawsuit I’m doing on behalf of Harris Elias here in this case really illustrates that to a large degree, because he has three teenage kids and a zero tolerance drinking and driving policy. And his night here ended with him having to call them from the police station to pick him up and get him for having been arrested for DUI. So as a law abiding citizen, it’s hard to think of worse or more harsh consequences that could come so quickly just from being charged as that are associated with DUI. And that’s why this is just when it’s becoming such a big practice, and it being this incentivized cash cow for police departments to charge people, that it’s so devastating and damaging for, not just the individuals, but for society as a whole.
Taya Graham: Wow. I’m so glad you outlined how there are consequences just for being charged, not only for being convicted. And you brought up something I’d like you to talk a little bit more about, which is what the motive is for police to make these unlawful arrests.
Sarah Schielke: So, it’s crazy. If I have one tagline to say about this lawsuit and so much else of what I do with anything involving the police, it’s that there should never be incentives to arrest people for specific crimes. That the whole idea of it is completely perverse. Because it’s not like a police agency can say, you know what we need? You know what would be great? Is if you guys could get a whole bunch of robberies tonight. That doesn’t work. But it’s the nature of a DUI offense that makes it possible to do these incentive structures because it becomes so subjective, and it becomes so much the officer’s own discretion and the officer’s own account of what they’re saying they smelled, which we can’t ever disprove later. Or these little micro things that they’re going to tell us we can’t see on video.
And when it’s really the unique nature of a DUI offense, and then combined with the fact that there’s funding available, it’s almost like as a result of all the stigma we have as a society for DUI crimes and how much we’d really like this offense to stop occurring, which is a totally appropriate and admirable purpose for any civilized society to have. The issue is how we’ve gone about it. Because now there’s all these grant programs that are set up that are basically saying, the more DUI arrests you have going on, or the more you can show us that you have a DUI problem in your local area, the more money we’ll give you.
And as you can imagine, the cycle that starts to perpetuate is that police chiefs and people in charge at various departments go, well, what I would like is more funding so that I can get more officers and more equipment. Here’s a way to get more funding. And all we need to do to get that funding is convince them that we have a DUI arrest problem. So go make more DUI arrests, and we’ll get the funding. They do that. And then at the end it’s like, how’s it going? Not very well. Look how many DUI arrests we have. And they’re going to buy more officers, they’re going to buy more equipment, they’re going to set up competitions.
I mean, there’s timed competitions going on to get the most DUI arrests. And it’s grotesque once you stand back and look at the whole interconnected web of what we’ve woven here and what police are doing. But it’s also very foreseeable as a result of making those kinds of incentives. Because ultimately, a police chief’s job is to ensure that the department has more funding and that all the officers have a sense of purpose. And when you get to basically manufacture the crime, that gives you continued justification for funding and feeling self important. Things get very messy. And Loveland’s case, I think, is just a very obvious example of how bad that can go.
Taya Graham: Again, I am just really blown away by this. It’s really interesting to find out about the money that’s available. If you can show that you’re making more DUI arrests, you get more money to make more DUI arrests. And then that money can be used to buy equipment for the department, upgrade headquarters, perhaps go to the budget and promotions, et cetera, et cetera. So I guess I have to ask, are there any real or meaningful consequences for police officers who have a pattern of making unlawful arrests?
Sarah Schielke: Not in this case. And that is a big underlying driving factor, just for me as a civil rights attorney in this case, is that in the thousands and thousands of dollars and many, many, many hours of work in terms of open records requests that I’ve done trying to uncover the problem, trying to locate where the funding is coming from, trying to find how it’s meted out, trying to get numbers on who is the most arrests, comparing those to other officers who maybe aren’t as competitive, basically. In doing all that, what I’m seeing is just that not once has there been a consequence for a bad arrest, and that is wrong. I mean, to put it bluntly, when you have somebody with their numbers, their DUI arrest numbers are so much higher than everybody else, that it should be a red flag.
They’re cutting some kind of corner or they’re maybe arresting some people they shouldn’t. Something where you should inspect. And in this case, Officer Gates who we’ve sued, his numbers are crazy. I mean, they’re shocking to look at. There’s so much I could say about the numbers that we got on this guy. But in any event, they’re so starkly different from other officers working similar shifts that anybody in charge should be looking and going, my God. Are you arresting some innocent people? Let’s at least take a look.
If somebody had done that here, they would’ve seen that, in fact, he was doing a lot of that. And you would think there should be some kind of consequences. That, hey, you’re wrecking people’s lives. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s officers, I think in particular that there is a third option, where if you think maybe this person had a drink, but you’re so preoccupied with not risking anybody being on the road even with one drink in them, you can just say, call someone to pick you up.
And instead, because of the incentive structure and the value and the awards, the reputational currency that you get by getting the DUI arrests, nobody ever considers that. They just swoop everybody up in the net and with really such utter callousness for what it does to their lives and everything. There’s no reason to treat people fairly. The only reasons that they have are to increase their numbers. And in this case, Chief Ticer, who has now resigned and gone to another police department. But while he was here, he was very interconnected with the Mothers Against Drunk Driving, with multiple councils on drunk driving.
And what I thought was very unsurprising but of course still interesting and shocking, was that when the lawsuit came out and everybody was coming to them saying, what is going on here? His main response was to still defend the wrongful arrests. I mean, he’s even made a statement saying that, my client’s arrest, Mr. Elias who blew zeroes at the station and then was forced to do blood, and then his blood came back all zeros and everything and negative for all drugs. The Chief still said, we think this was a solid arrest. I mean, if that’s what your chief is saying, even this far after the fact and you know what it did to devastate his life, that means what’s going on behind closed doors in that police department is exactly the picture that I suspected from the incentive structure that they’ve set up.
Taya Graham: And I think you made a very good point, and that is noble and good to work with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and to make sure people are not driving around inebriated on the streets. Absolutely. That is for everyone’s benefit. But it does not benefit us to wrongfully arrest people. And I think police officers often lose sight of how devastating a tool an arrest actually is, how it really does upend your life. It seemed you had mentioned there was a specific officer in this case, Officer Gates, who’s making these arrests. And let’s say and hope that he is an outlier in making these unlawful DUI arrests. Do you think there is any chance of criminal action against him? Not just disciplinary, but actually criminal action?
Sarah Schielke: No, there’s not a lot to say back on that. So, he’s not an outlier. And what’s going on in Loveland, as I’ve detailed in this lawsuit, is not limited to Loveland. It is anywhere across the country, really. It is a widespread, ongoing issue. As criminal defense attorneys, we all know about it. And here and there we’re able to uncover some of the shrouding that’s around it and get a little peek of like, there’s a timed competition over here. Here’s somebody who’s getting some kind of award, literal trophies for having the most arrests. Rather than it should be, convictions are one thing, maybe. I still don’t think there should be incentives for anything, but it’s just for arrests. It’s not based on the quality of arrests. And it’s a nationwide problem, and it’s really kept out of the public eye.
And there’s no way there’s going to be any kind of criminal enforcement on it because it is so hard. I’m in the middle of it. It is so hard to lay out what’s going on long enough to keep people’s attention, to explain it to them, and to get through the stigma that goes with, drunk driving, drunk driving. But we’re so worried about drunk driving. And what I wish people could understand… And I would say, actually, there was a lot of reaction that I didn’t expect the amount of response to this lawsuit. I thought it might have been just too much, too many things to try and follow. But I think a lot of people can see themselves in my kind of situation, where most people are like, hey, I’m not driving drunk. So this is never going to happen to me.
And it’s like, oh, no. This very well could be you. All you need is it just to be a night when an officer is bored and maybe somebody spilled a beer on you where you were at. And in Colorado, you’re going to get a DUI arrest, especially if you encounter one of these officers. So, I don’t see much changing about it until there’s broader edification of the population about how it’s occurring, and the breadth and how expansive it is as it’s occurring. But, I will say that it should be a bigger and more important issue, because not only could it happen to any one of us, we all use the roads and are just trying to get from point A to point B, and our lives could be destroyed by getting wrongfully charged. But it also really just undermines drunk driving enforcement that needs to be done on people who are actually drunk driving.
It’s going to make it harder for the criminal justice system, for people to feel it’s credible on the topic of DUI arrests if there’s officers out there making DUI arrests for sport. So it’s really a big issue, not just as it affects us as individuals and destroys our lives and those consequences, but there’s broader consequences for us as a society and the ultimate goal that presumably we all agree on, which is to try and reduce drunk driving.
Taya Graham: Wow, there’s a lot to unpack here too. But I just have to ask, it’s stuck in my head. Can you describe a little bit of the details of the competitions for these arrests, how they work, or how you earn a trophy? And also whether or not Officer Gates has actually received one of these trophies or commendations?
Sarah Schielke: Yep. It’s Officer Gates, and he has received a trophy, a literal trophy. I featured the photograph throughout my [inaudible] complaint, because it’s gratuitous. It’s a big old literal, big gold trophy. And what happens is, just one example is that Mothers Against Drunk Driving here at the MADD Colorado, they have this competition they do a few times a year. They call it Tie One On For Safety. And if a department wants to participate, they get 48 hours. And whoever gets the most DUI arrests will receive a trophy and a portable breath test machine, which is expensive. And they get that in a ceremony, they have their pictures taken, and they get all this adulation on their Facebook page. And then the officers who are involved also can get individual awards from MADD for having the most arrests, and then they add that to their CVS. And onward the cycle goes.
Taya Graham: Wow. That is just astonishing. I understand that MADD as an organization is coming from the right place, but this has truly become a perverse incentive. And I can also imagine receiving a trophy like this, both the public adulation, and I would imagine this probably helps when it comes for promotion time as well. I have to ask, how do you think this relates to the broader problems that you have found with the Loveland Police Department? Because this is not the first stone you’ve turned over and found problems in this police department. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that.
Sarah Schielke: Yeah, I mean, I think there have been some serious entrenched systemic leadership issues in Loveland where, however they got there, and I do think it had a good degree to do with former Chief Ticer when he came in 2016, but I’ve also heard enough stuff to know that the seeds at least were there beforehand. But when chief Ticer came in, he came in very much aggressively on the platform of the DUI enforcement. I mean, that’s the first thing he’ll talk about anywhere he goes. But more of a broader theme that came with him and appears to have gone with his immediate subordinates is just this focus on numbers.
Following the lawsuit that I did with Karen Garner, the elderly woman with dementia who Officer Hopp attacked and broke her arm when she forgot to pay for $13 of stuff, there was an outside agency that came in to investigate what was going on at the department. It wasn’t a very hard-hitting investigation. I think that company wants to stay in business and have other police departments hire them. So the findings weren’t exactly cutthroat, they kept it pretty vague and made things just best practice recommendations. But even despite not really hitting them too hard, they still found and mentioned that officers were complaining about how Loveland had not a formal quota for arrests that need to be made per day, but the rest of the sentence was, but there is an expectation that you need to have 10 citations given per day.
And so it’s a non-quota quota. And when you have management telling you that numbers matter, tying promotions and positive reinforcement to numbers, when that’s the way you’re setting up something like a police department, then these types of crazy things are going to happen. I mean, because at the end of the day, what’s happening is that they’re running the police department like it’s a business. And it’s not a business, but it is a job. And say what you will about how poorly these police officers have behaved and how horrible it is what they’ve done to people. At least it can definitely still be said, like most of us, they just want to do good at their job.
And if these are the metrics that a police department is evaluating you at your job on, then people are going to try and do good at their job and really not think much further than that. So I think the issue in terms of just tying it to the broader themes goes to numbers and goes to treating what is being done to human lives, treating the power that we give police over us, the ability to really impact our lives. And all of that three dimensional, four dimensional intensity, to just flatten that down into just a number on a piece of paper and say, go get more of those, then you’re just going to have completely absurd results. Like DUI arrest competitions, multiple repeated, innocent people being charged with DUI, little women with dementia being tackled over something that should have been a warning at most about a failed shoplifting at best.
All these events really do, in a way… I mean, certainly there’s some other broader, bigger, issues in policing that play into it as well, of course. But if you want to look at it just through the lens of the wrongful DUI arrests, one in particular, it’s incentivizing a number. It’s tying job performance to numbers. And that’s not what it should be. I mean, what it should be is quality policing. I mean, the incentives should be related to the quality of the interactions you’re having with the public, the value you’re bringing back to people, the degree to which you’re reducing chaos, reducing violence, and reducing arrest numbers. How many incidents can we all think of that never needed someone to be arrested, or for hands to go on with somebody, and where it could have been transformed into a more positive or rehabilitative opportunity? But instead, when the job description is just getting numbers, then this is the type of policing we’re going to get.
Taya Graham: Very, very well said. And for the benefit of the people who watch or may be listening to the show, many of whom I know are very interested in protecting the Constitution and understanding our civil liberties, maybe you could just talk a little bit about which Constitutional Amendments or specific civil liberties the police are violating?
Sarah Schielke: Sure. Typically, when we’re in the context of anything happening outside of jail or prison, the civil rights, and if we’re not talking about freedom of speech either, which obviously implicates the First Amendment, almost all of it falls under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, a wrongful arrest is, by definition, an unreasonable seizure. Excessive force is also a form of unreasonable seizure. The Fourth Amendment basically is the… The touchstone of it is reasonableness. And if you’re touching citizens or going through their stuff, you better do it in a reasonable way, is the basic gist of it. And when we bring the lawsuits, that’s the Amendment that really tends to cover basically everything we’re doing.
Taya Graham: Thank you so much. And I really do appreciate you letting me know what is the linchpin to these lawsuits. Another question I have is, do you think lawsuits like yours will lead to departmental change? And what do you hope the outcome from a lawsuit like yours will be?
Sarah Schielke: Oh man, in Loveland, I’m not holding my breath for much. I mean, certainly I’m getting a lot of people who lose their jobs or have to leave, but it’s always this one at a time piecemeal approach. I haven’t been particularly inspired by any of it in a way that I’m like, oh my gosh, it’s actually going to change, because they keep trying to do the, it was one bad apple, or, it’s just this isolated incident thing. And I’ve lost a lot of faith in the idea of there being any receptiveness, at least in Loveland where I’ve been focusing a lot of my efforts for the past year. I’ve lost most hope for the idea that they’re going to be receptive to broader implementation, or just being open to it.
I mean, just to boil it down to how easy it could be. I mean, I have, I don’t even know, like three or four lawsuits against the city of Loveland all involving pretty salacious videos. I’ve got – Spoiler alert – At least one or two more as soon as I get time to do them. And if I was Loveland, what I would expect or think would just be… It’s not a crazy idea in my mind, is that I would call me up and I would be like, you know what? Will you come on down to City Council and just tell us what the problem is, how to fix it? And I would happily do that. I love money, and I love that they want to pay for my kids’ college, and boats, and God knows what else.
But what’s more important to me for my legacy and for what my kids remember me for is making a difference. And I could tell them many things they could do that would make a big difference. But unfortunately, when police departments and the city leadership that is with them, when they just think it’s an us versus them mentality, and there’s no interest in collaboration or any even admission of wrongdoing, then it’s going to be cyclical, whack-a-mole, banging your head against the wall type of approach. And it’s too bad, but here we are.
Taya Graham: Well, I really, really hope you don’t give up, because I know there are so many citizens who not only need your assistance, but need to know that they can get representation like yours. And I think the more people in the media can actually shine a light that, hey, there is someone out there that’s trying to protect your civil liberties, it will let people know that they have these rights, they deserve to be protected and that they can get help. I have to agree that you may be playing whack-a-mole in Loveland specifically, but if we have one civil rights attorney like you in every city trying to do what they can, it really can make a difference.
And I would just like to say what I saw in our own city with State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in her tenure as our city’s state’s attorney, she indicted more police officers – I think it was about 56, which is more indictments of officers than all the previous city’s state’s attorneys combined. So it wasn’t just because police officers only committed misconduct during that time period. I mean, as you know, we in Baltimore, are under consent decree. We’ve had a Department of Justice investigation. And of course, we have the infamous Gun Trace Task Force, which was a group of nine officers who dealt drugs, robbed residents, and stole overtime.
Sarah Schielke: I’ve seen those videos.
Taya Graham: Right. So you know our police department has been a busy one. So I would just say, yes, one person really can make a difference. So please don’t give up and try to hold onto that. Okay?
Sarah Schielke: I am going to hold on. I just adapt and innovate to figure out how to do it. And at this point if the police department and city leadership aren’t interested in being more proactive, then my plan and what I’ve been doing is exposing them. I post videos on my YouTube channel as frequently as I can, exposing bad police conduct, showing what I’m working on for lawsuits. And I’m not that into social media, but I’m recognizing the power of being able to just have people who I can show them what’s happening very quickly. And educating the public is going to get the same results eventually, too. And so that’s what I’m focusing my efforts on, for sure with Loveland and everywhere I go next, that’s going to be the threat hanging over police departments. If they don’t want to be proactive about it, I’m going to drag them kicking and screaming to the other side. We all got to get better.
Taya Graham: Is there anything that we can do just as an average person to protect ourselves from unlawful arrest?
Sarah Schielke: Are you talking about wrongful DUI?
Taya Graham: Well, a wrongful DUI, or really any form of unlawful arrest that you might have advice for.
Sarah Schielke: Well, do you want me to give you practical but deeply depressing advice, or more ethereal, ineffective advice? Because, there’s always these people who, when we have these insane events with police, who always respond to defend police by going, well, the person should have complied. They just should have answered questions. And so if your listeners want to know how to minimize their chances of having any dust ups with police or any wrongful arrest, they can be a, as it’s colloquially known, a bootlicker. They can sacrifice their right to remain silent. They can be falling and tripping over themselves to thank the officers for their service. And while not answering questions, still kind of answering just the perfect amount of questions and definitely making sure to never do anything that can be possibly perceived by the officer to embarrass them in even the slightest degree.
And also, in the DUI context, yes, most of our laws appear to have enshrined in them that you are allowed to have a drink at dinner and then drive home. It’s only the impaired driving that’s illegal. But that’s a catch. And so you should just give up ever driving again even if you’ve had one drink. Sacrifice everything that you think is your rights and you should be pretty good. So that’s the practical, depressing advice.
From a more ethereal, broader, long term perspective, how to avoid that is we need to be more educated, and we need to invest a lot more time and money into thinking of how we can do policing differently. The existing structures, the existing mentalities, the existing framework, all of it is really broken. It’s so deeply broken that, until we… I think you and I talked about last time a while ago, think about adding a lot more actual serious education, social work type of stuff with police officers. Paying more to attract better people.
So long as it’s still people who got all Cs in high school and now just want some power, so long as we’re making the bar for admission like right there and having most of the non-police citizens not paying very close attention and just wanting to feel safe and hoping that the offshoots of that and side effects of that ambivalence don’t affect them personally, then it’s never going to get better. But if people can educate themselves and demand more and possibly consider a new framework, then maybe things will change. But until then, they’re just going to keep buying me boats.
Taya Graham: Okay. That’s great. I will end on that note. Until then, they’re going to keep buying me boats. I love that. And you said, well, they can. And this here, this stuck with me too. One of the safest things you can do – And the people in my comments and copwatcher community often use this terminology – The safest thing you can do is use the bootlicker approach. Because in all honesty, you may be able to beat the rap, but you will not beat the ride.
Sarah Schielke: You will not. So it’s up to you.
Taya Graham: Sarah Schielke, thank you so much for your time and the work you’re doing to protect people’s civil liberties. Thank you so much. And of course, I want to mention that if anyone wants to keep track of Sarah’s work in Colorado, be sure to check out her YouTube channel Sarah Schielke at Life & Liberty Law, where she posts the body camera footage, police headquarters video footage, as well as the vital and revealing information she has uncovered during her investigations. And I want to thank everyone who took the time to listen and actually made it to the end of the podcast. Thank you. I appreciate you. And I hope that having access to the full version of our PAR interviews was of some interest and hopefully some benefit as well. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.