Beaten but not defeated – the fascinating story of Alex Landau
He won one of the largest police brutality settlements in Denver history; now he’s snagged an Emmy
It’s hard to pinpoint the most fascinating detail of Alex Landau’s story. It could be that he grew up in a multigenerational Denver Police Department (DPD) family and by his 21st birthday he won one of the largest police brutality settlements in Mile High City history involving the same department.
On the other hand, it’s fascinating that he was mostly raised in rural Colorado and suburban Denver – a black child raised by white adoptive parents who tried ardently to teach him and his sister, Maya, that skin color is irrelevant and race incidental. But, it could also be that he managed to turn the worst thing that has ever happened to him into an innovative project that recently clinched one of the most coveted media industry awards.
Whichever detail that stands out most is debatable. But what’s certain is that the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the nation – particularly the fight against violence and excessive force at the hands of law enforcement – is personal for Landau, 27, now a well-known Denver-based social justice activist and human rights advocate.
He was a 19-year-old Community College of Denver business student in 2009 when he was brutally beaten by DPD officers during what began as a routine traffic stop. He later shared on NPR the graphic details of the attack that left him with 45 stitches in his face, a broken nose, a concussion, a traumatic brain injury and the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
His radio account was later used as narration for a short animated video produced by StoryCorps, a nonprofit agency that invites people of diverse backgrounds to record themselves sharing personal experiences for preservation. The Traffic Stop video, which has been widely shared online and has had more than 350,000 views on YouTube, snagged a trophy at the 37th annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards ceremony in New York City.
“For me it was a different level of success and outreach – recognition for an injustice that occurs in black communities across the country,” Landau said.
At the time of his win, riots were erupting in South Carolina over a deadly police shooting there and similar reports surfaced of a black man and boy being shot by law enforcement officers in Alabama and Georgia, respectively.
“For me, it was really about my desire to bring acclaim to the movement.”
StoryCorps producer Rachel Hartman said her team was elated when Landau’s video earned StoryCorps its first Emmy win.
“This felt like a story that we needed to get behind; it’s unfortunately a timely and important one,” said Hartman of the video, which was broadcast during a POV documentary on PBS. “Alex’s story continues to be one of the most important strands of discussion in America today – how to deal with issues of policing and race. His story couldn’t be any stronger or more relevant.”
Winning the award is the sweet part of a bittersweet journey that Landau said catapulted him into the social justice world.
His attorney John Holland said Landau is most deserving. “They beat the s— out of him over nothing. Alex is an example of someone who needed to right a wrong – he’s ‘a m—–f—— lion,’ ” said Holland with a chuckle, the quote referencing a line from a rap song that Landau wrote about himself. “What’s fascinating is that [those officers] released in him a life purpose as they were beating him and he was able to turn his experience into an Emmy win,” he added.
Landau’s reality came to an abrupt and dramatic end on Jan. 15, 2009, when while in pursuit of a late-night snack of burgers and fries with a friend he was pulled over for allegedly making an illegal left turn. He’d overshot the entrance to a Wendy’s and within seconds, with blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror, he pulled his ’84 Lincoln Town Car over, making it a point to park under a streetlight.
When DPD officer Ricky Nixon approached, requesting Landau’s driver’s license and vehicle registration, he soon realized that he’d mistakenly left his wallet containing his license at home. Landau offered up his Social Security number as an alternative. Nixon then asked him to step out of the car and patted him down without incident. After his passenger, Addison Hunold, a white classmate, turned over some marijuana he’d had on him, Landau said Nixon, now joined by fellow officers Randy Murr and Tiffany Middleton, asked to search his trunk.
The situation escalated dramatically, Landau said, when he took a few steps forward with his hand raised and asked them to produce a search warrant to do so. Instead of an answer, Landau said, he was grabbed, punched repeatedly knocked to the ground and hit in the face by all three with a police radio and a flashlight. He said his life was threatened as one officer pressed a service revolver to his temple.
He blacked out for a time and when he came to, he said a now larger group of officers were standing over him laughing. Landau said he was pulled from a gutter, dragged across some grass and then left to bleed on the ground atop a police officer’s jacket. Landau said that officer Nixon punctuated the assault by yelling out a racial slur: “I was asked, ‘Where’s that warrant now, you f—— n—–?’”
He initially refused treatment from paramedics, insisting that photos be taken of his injuries first – a decision that is widely believed to have helped bolster his civil case. He slipped into shock while en route to the hospital. By the time the ambulance reached the emergency room, it was packed with DPD officers who’d heard Nixon and Murr’s claims that Landau had attacked female officer Middleton and attempted to grab her gun.
“I was angry and confused; I had a high level of emotions [flooding through me at the time] and I wanted people to know,” recalled Landau. “I just remember yelling, ‘this is what can happen to black youth after dark in Denver!’ ”
Landau’s face was stitched up and he was immediately transported to a nearby Denver jail and charged with felony criminal intent to disarm a police officer. Landau’s mother remembers screaming uncontrollably when she first caught sight of her son battered and behind bars.
Patsy Hathaway said had her own son not fallen victim to such a horrific attack, she, like many others, especially other white people, would have remained “naïve” and “ignorant” to the problem of police brutality. Minus a few speeding tickets, she said, all of her previous interactions with police officers had been positive. “I didn’t even know that this [problem] existed,” said Hathaway of Denver, adding that Landau’s adoptive grandfather and great-grandfather were career members of the DPD force.
She said the attack that for a time left her son unable to see out of one eye has forced her to see law enforcement in a different light.
“When I hear people say that [police brutality] isn’t a problem [in this country], I have to get past my anger,” she said. “My son was 150 pounds and 19 years old when he was assaulted by three trained adult police officers. I know he would not have done something stupid like trying to fight back or resist. He’s a really bright kid.”
Attorney Holland said the officers on the scene coerced passenger Hunold into writing a false statement about what he had witnessed in the wee hours of the morning on a quiet central Denver street. They falsified testimony, evidence and documents, he said, in an attempt to cover up their actions.
Landau and his father went straight to DPD’s Internal Affairs department after he was released from jail, but they left abruptly when the intake officer interviewing Landau suggested he “own up to your actions as a man,” adding that playing “the race card” was not necessarily a good idea.
Landau later declined a plea deal that prosecutors offered related to the criminal charges filed against him. Holland said conflicting reports from the officers on the scene – including a statement from Middleton that Landau had never attacked her or tried to take her gun – ultimately led a judge to throw out the case.
Landau followed up by filing a civil lawsuit against the city and county of Denver. Two years later – on his 21st birthday – the Denver City Council awarded him a $795,000 settlement.
Denver Department of Public Safety representative Mary Dulacki confirmed that none of the officers involved were ever formally disciplined in relation to the incident with Landau, but Nixon and Murr were later fired from DPD for “commission of a deceptive act” in other unrelated incidents, including one involving “excessive use of force.”
Dulacki said Nixon successfully appealed his firing and briefly returned to the force on “desk duty” before the decision to terminate him was upheld by the city. Nixon and Murr are no longer employed by the DPD. “Both have filed appeals of the disciplinary actions that are currently pending in Denver District Court,” she said. Middleton is still employed by DPD.
Landau said his experience has only inspired him to fight harder for more accountability and systematic reform among law enforcement agencies and district attorneys offices (the latter of which he refers to as “the gateway to mass incarceration”) in Colorado and nationwide. To that end, in June 2015 Landau spearheaded a 60-day campaign – albeit an unsuccessful one – to have Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey recalled for failing to charge any cops accused of excessive force – and even homicide – during his 11 years in office.
“By neglecting to indict police officers who engage in misconduct, DAs perpetuate the culture of violence among law enforcement,” he said. “Most people don’t know that much about DAs; it’s the most powerful and influential position in the criminal justice system. DAs run the show.”
Landau has worked with a mix of social justice organizations, including the Colorado Progressive Coalition. In January, he co-founded the Denver Justice Project, an umbrella organization that focuses on “law enforcement transformation, ending mass incarceration and seeking racial justice.”
When he’s not traveling the world telling his story and collaborating with Black Lives Matter 5280, the Denver branch of the burgeoning racial justice movement, he helps facilitate “Know Your DA” forums aimed at educating Coloradans about the role, responsibilities and power wielded by district attorneys. In advance of the upcoming Nov. 8 election, he’s also helped create candidate forums and voter guides for Colorado’s contested district attorney races, including one in Denver.
“He’s an excellent example of how one person can make a difference; they didn’t expect him to fight back [against excessive force and brutality in law enforcement] but he did and won,” said Juston Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit for which Landau serves as a consultant. “Many people would have collected their [settlement] money, walked away and never looked back, but he has used his experience to help make a difference for others. His commitment to reform and social justice is unyielding.”
The Emmy trophy that Landau had so gleefully posed with at the awards ceremony is displayed at the StoryCorps offices in New York City. He is expecting a plaque of his own to arrive in the mail any day. He’s not yet sure where he will showcase it, but he hopes it serves as a visual reminder of how far he has come since his hellish ordeal and the plethora of work there is left to do.
His ultimate goal, he said, is to help make the world a better, more just place for all, especially his beloved 2-year-old daughter, Maya – named after his sister and the poet Maya Angelou. “I’d like for us to get to a point where the criminal justice system is scaled back dramatically and there is more community policing,” he said. “It’s time for other alternatives.”