Death in SWAT Op Wasn’t Excessive Force, Jury Finds

Thornton detective prevails in lawsuit, and James Strong’s family is weighing appeal

A tall building with many windows against a blue sky background
A federal jury delivered a verdict favoring a Thornton police officer who allegedly used excessive force to kill a suspect during a SWAT raid in 2015. / LAW WEEK FILE

On Tuesday, a federal jury decided in favor of a police officer who killed a suspect while carrying out a SWAT raid in Thornton. Ending a seven-day trial in Denver, the jury found the plaintiffs failed to prove James Strong’s death during a gun battle in his home was the result of excessive force.

The case dug into issues of qualified immunity and whether officers acted reasonably in continuing to shoot at a suspect. The attorney representing Strong’s estate said there are issues ripe for appeal regarding the jury instructions on the excessive force claims, though no decision has been made yet to take the case further.

Strong was suspected of dealing cocaine when a SWAT team executed a no-knock search warrant on his home in May 2015. The North Metro Task Force obtained the warrant, and based on information that he was a known member of the Bloods street gang who possessed several firearms and had a violent conviction. 

Strong allegedly didn’t know it was police who were entering his home, and he fired on an officer, wounding him. A gun battle ensued, and Strong was shot more than 20 times and was killed. The plaintiffs claimed police continued shooting Strong after he’d been incapacitated, which they alleged was a constitutional rights violation that led to his death. 

Strong’s estate sued two police officers who participated in the SWAT operation, Jason Schlenker and Nicholas Wilson, as well as North Metro Task Force detective Adam Nielsen and the cities of Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster. Through dismissals, the court whittled down the defendants to just Schlenker, whose case went to trial this month.

The morning of the raid, Strong and his wife, Lanhisha Richmond, were asleep in their upstairs bedroom when the noise of the raid woke them up. The plaintiffs contended Strong and Richmond didn’t know it was police who were in their home, and Strong got a handgun from under the mattress. According to the plaintiff, the officers didn’t announce themselves as they came up the stairs, and the bedroom door was only open by a crack, so when Wilson entered the bedroom, Strong shot at him thinking he was an intruder.

Wilson was wounded and returned fire, and that is where the plaintiff and defense accounts diverged. The plaintiffs said Strong fell after he was hit and was no longer firing back when Wilson continued shooting at him through a wall, and Schlenker approached Strong after a break in the gunfire to shoot him several times at close range, according to the complaint. Schlenker contended that there was no break in the gunfire and that he stopped shooting when he saw Strong go limp.

Strong’s estate filed a lawsuit May 2017 claiming violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. Wilson and Schlenker argued they had qualified immunity against the excessive force claims. Qualified immunity protects state and federal employees from civil damages related to conduct carried out in their official capacity of their job, unless that conduct violated a “clearly established” constitutional right.

On June 5th, Judge William Martinez denied Wilson and Schlenker summary judgment, in part, saying a jury must determine whether the officers continued firing on Strong even after they knew he was incapacitated. Wilson and Schlenker were entitled to qualified immunity for their initial responses after Strong shot at Wilson, according to the order, but a jury could find that the officers unreasonably continued to fire on Strong after seeing him fall to the floor.

The plaintiff withdrew the suit against Wilson later that month, leaving only Schlenker to go to trial. The jury found the plaintiff failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Schlenker violated Strong’s constitutional right through using unreasonable force.

J. Benton Stewart II, a Florida-based attorney who tried the case for the plaintiff, said the facts of the case “came out well” for his side, but it can be confusing for juries to understand the complexities in deciding an excessive force case. The case law regarding qualified immunity, and particularly when a law enforcement officer is supposed to stop applying force, isn’t a clear line, he added.

“I’ve done a bunch of these kinds of cases and none of them of them are simple,” Stewart said.

Eric Ziporin, a partner at Senter Goldfarb & Rice in Denver, represented Schlenker at trial and did not respond to requests for comment.

Stewart said Strong’s family is considering an appeal, but he doesn’t know if a decision has been made yet.

— Doug Chartier

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