Willis Small IV is a self-proclaimed “introvert,” but on one hot night in Denver last month, he set out to change that.
“I’m only getting older. So I figured, I had to step out at some point and enjoy it,” the 24-year-old student told The Daily Beast.
After a few hours of socializing in the wee hours of July 17, Small said, he was ready to go home around 1:30 a.m., primarily because he had previously heard that “you shouldn’t hang out downtown around that time.”
As he began to make a multi-block trek to his car, Small said, he noticed a massive crowd of people and a few police officers approaching the middle of the street next to Larimer Beer Hall.
Then he heard a gunshot, followed by a burning sensation in his foot.
“I immediately went into fight or flight mode and crossed the street limping, like in a limping, running fashion,” he said. “And as I was running, I actually passed two different police officers and I told them I was shot. And rather than any type of response, they kind of just glanced at me and kept walking.”
Smalls said it took driving himself to this hospital, an interrogation by police, and several media reports before he learned that the individual who shot him was no hardened criminal, but a cop. And he wasn’t the only one—five other random civilians were shot that night, too.
The harrowing incident, in which officers are accused of firing several times in the vicinity of dozens of people while trying to arrest a suspect, has sparked a scandal in a city with plenty of history of police misconduct. It has also prompted District Attorney Beth McCann to announce that her office will ask a grand jury to investigate the shooting.
“For the community to trust in the outcome from this incident, it is important that independent members of the community review the facts, evidence, and law regarding whether these officers should be criminally charged,” McCann in a Tuesday statement.
Police first claimed that bystanders may have been harmed by shrapnel before eventually conceding their own bullets had done civilians harm. They have maintained that the arrest of Jordan Waddy, an armed 21-year-old who had been involved in a fight earlier that evening in front of the beer hall, warranted the use of force that night. But body-cam footage released this past week calls into question why the officers shot their weapons in the first place, since Waddy appeared to be putting down his gun and raising his hands in the air even before the first bullet was fired.
Still, experts canvassed by The Daily Beat say it’s unlikely a grand jury will indict the three officers given they were in pursuit of an armed suspect—leaving the survivors grasping for some semblance of accountability.
“If we didn’t see the body-camera footage, we might not have any idea who shot us to this day,” Small said.
The three Denver Police Department officers present for the shooting—Meagan Lieberson, Brandon Ramos, and Kenneth Rowland—all joined the force in 2019 and are working non-patrol assignments pending an internal investigation. None of the officers have taken part in prior shooting incidents, police said.
Prior to the shooting, however, Ramos received an oral reprimand for a “preventable accident” during a January 2022 incident that was described as “rough or careless handling of city and department property,” according to his internal-affairs record obtained by The Daily Beast. In December 2021, he also received an oral reprimand for violating his “duty to obey departmental rules and mayoral executive orders,” the document added.
Lieberson received an oral reprimand in the same December 2021 incident as Ramos, according to her own file. Rowland did not have anything on his report. Further details on the incidents involving Ramos and Lieberson were not provided by the official documents.
It is not shocking that Siddhartha Rathod, a lawyer representing three of the injured, is deeply critical of the district attorney deferring to a grand jury on the fate of the cops who fired that night.
“Where does it say in the statutes or the constitution that police officers get the right to a grand jury?” Rathod asked in an interview, adding that in general, “the grand jury process is just a way for district attorneys to provide cover for [their] office in these situations, so we hope the outcome will be what our clients deserve.”
But he’s not alone. Stacey Hervey, an associate professor in the criminal justice and criminology department at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, stressed to The Daily Beast that grand juries are “really the luck of the draw.” That left her extremely surprised McCann would go the grand jury route.
“It’s kind of a cop-out. It’s definitely shifting the decision onto the grand jury instead of herself,” Hervey said.
The professor added that while the nature of the incident and disturbing body-camera footage made her believe the three officers are at fault, it will be tough for the district attorney to secure criminal charges before a panel of jurors.
A spokesperson for McCann’s office told The Daily Beast that “because this matter is now going to a grand jury, we are not commenting so as to ensure the integrity of the process.”
The Denver Police Department also declined to comment on the grand jury or Waddy’s case, noting it was an ongoing investigation. Neither Lieberson, Ramos, nor Rowland could be independently reached for comment, and it was not clear if they had legal representation.
“The Denver Police Department remains concerned for the injured bystanders and will continue to offer resources and support through the Victim Assistance Unit, and we recognize the need to rebuild trust with the community we serve in order to keep our residents safe,” a police spokesperson said in a general statement. “Chief [Paul] Pazen also personally called each of the victims and spoke with those who answered.”
Police say the incident began in the early hours of July 17, as officers on the 2000 block of Larimer Street tried to apprehend Waddy, who allegedly was seen punching and shoving another person outside the beer hall. Body-camera footage shows officers trying to stop Waddy, following him around a food truck that is surrounded by crowds of people.
Waddy, who is wearing a black hoodie, is then seen gesturing with the gun as he moves around the truck and officers yell at him to “get down.” But just before three officers start opening fire, Waddy tosses his weapon onto the ground and begins to raise his hands in the air.
As gunfire erupts, crowds of people are seen scattering away, falling onto the ground as others duck behind the food truck.
Waddy’s civil attorney, Tyrone Glover, told The Daily Beast that his client was shot six times during the incident, forcing doctors to “remove his spleen and open up his abdomen.” McCann’s office has since charged Waddy with three counts of possession of a weapon and one count of third-degree assault for his role in the incident.
Glover added that while his client is “very thankful that he wasn’t killed or paralyzed, it doesn’t negate the fact that he was shot multiple times after surrendering.”
Noting that his client did take part in a scuffle outside the bar, the attorney said the incident had ended by the time a group of officers arrived at the scene. The lawyer said that out of fear, Waddy immediately tried to surrender and “make himself as non-threatening as possible.”
“He is in a bit of shock and disbelief about what happened,” Glover said. “He had his hands up and they still shot at him multiple times and ended up shooting a bunch of people around him. He is in disbelief that something like this could happen.”
Bailey Alexander, a 24-year-old surgical assistant who was also shot during the incident, said that realizing the officers responded violently even after Waddy threw down his weapon “was shocking.”
“We were initially directed to believe that the suspect did something to warrant so many shots,” she told The Daily Beast. “But really, it seems like he was confined to what police officers were telling him to do. He put his hands up and then shots were fired. That’s what is so frustrating.”
On the night of the shooting, Alexander was just about to place her order at the food truck near the beer hall, where she had a fun night with her boyfriend and another pal, when they noticed officers coming from around the corner. She said her boyfriend tried to move her out of the way, but as the group was crossing the street, they heard gunshots.
“That’s when I realized that I had been hit, because my arm started burning,” she said, noting that a bullet or bullet fragment went through her upper back and exited her right arm. “There was blood going down my arm and my back. That’s when we really kicked it into high gear and got out of there.”
Alexander said she eventually was eventually transported to the hospital via an ambulance, where she was told she could not call her parents to explain the situation. At the hospital the next day, she said, she learned it was actually the police who caused her injuries—which forced her to spend several nights in the hospital after the wounds in her arm and shoulder became infected.
In her hospital room the night of the shooting, Alexander said, she had a short conversation with police officers—but was not told details about who was responsible for the gunfire.
Small’s experience wasn’t quite the same.
After driving himself to the hospital, where he learned there were multiple injured victims, Small was placed into a room to treat injuries that he said have prompted him to now walk with a limp.
But after he was released from the hospital, Small said, he was called down to the Denver Police Department, where they showed him a still picture from the scene of the shooting.
“It was like a printed picture and they made me circle myself,” Small said. “It almost felt like I was being investigated or something.”
“They definitely didn’t make me feel like I was a victim of random crime. It was as if I did something to end up in this situation, which I definitely did not,” he added. (A police spokesperson told The Daily Beast they were “looking into” Small’s claim.)
Small said that once the body-camera footage was released, he realized just how little information police officers revealed to him during their conversations. He claimed that he specifically asked authorities in his hospital room if he was shot “by police or by a suspect, and they told me they had no idea and needed to do more ballistic research.”
“Now we know that the suspect did not shoot any bullets,” he continued.
Small and Alexander both said they were further disturbed by the body-camera footage because it made it clear how close random bystanders like them were to being fatally shot.
In a press conference after the incident, police said that Waddy had held the gun “in a manner that the muzzle of the gun was pointed in the direction of the officers.” But just moments later, amid questions from reporters, authorities conceded that Waddy was not holding the gun by the grip—but rather by the top —and thus it was not immediately clear whether he could have fired the weapon from the position.
Further, the body-camera footage released to the public shows that Waddy pulled the gun from his clothing and moved it across his chest before throwing it on the ground, and did not appear to directly point the muzzle at the officers at the scene.
“At every step, the Denver Police Department has attempted to obfuscate the truth,” Rathod, who represents Small and Alexander, said.
Yekalo Weldehiwet was another civilian shot that night, but he refuses to watch the video at all.
The 26-year-old said he was walking toward his car after celebrating his fiancée’s brother’s birthday when the group began to hear gunshots and he was struck. Weldehiwet told The Daily Beast he ultimately was forced to undergo surgery to remove a bullet that was lodged in his bicep.
Weldehiwet added that the shooting caused him to experience painful nerve damage in his hand. Like some of his fellow survivors, he said that he has not been able to return to downtown Denver—and now fears crowds or seeing a police officer.
“I haven’t been able to watch the body-camera footage, though,” he said. “It’s too traumatizing and I’m still dealing with what happened that night. I can’t relive it.”
Glover, the attorney for Waddy, piled on, arguing the video shows the “very excessive reaction” police had to the situation that had been diffused by the time officers arrived outside the bar. He claimed that his client’s civil rights were violated during the incident and said that his team plans to file a lawsuit against the Denver Police Department.
According to the department’s use of force policy, officers are allowed to use physical force only if alternatives have been proven ineffective. “When needed, officers must use only the amount of force that is reasonable and necessary under the totality of the circumstances to safely accomplish a lawful purpose,” the policy adds.
“We want to make sure we have all our ducks in a row,” Glover said. “He was surrendering. He was disarmed. He put his hands up. And that’s when they started shooting him.”
But when asked whether he believes that the officers who did the shooting will be indicted by a grand jury, Glover laughed.
“I’m not holding my breath. I’m not optimistic.”