Officer quits after confronting black man picking up trash

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In this undated photo provided by lawyer Siddhartha Rathod, Zayd Atkinson poses for a photo. Atkinson was picking up trash outside his dormitory when a white police officer in Boulder, Colo., detained him in March, 2019. The officer, John Smyly, resigned this week under an agreement with city officials who found he had violated department policies. (Siddhartha Rathod via AP)

DENVER — A white Colorado police officer who confronted a black man picking up trash around his dormitory resigned this week under an agreement that lets him collect $69,000 in salary despite violating department policies.

Body camera footage released Thursday provided a full video account of the tense encounter, which gained national attention based on video shot by someone inside the building. That footage only showed Zayd Atkinson holding a bucket and a tool for picking up trash as police officers surrounded him outside the dormitory for students at Naropa University, a liberal arts school associated with Buddhism.

An attorney for Atkinson called the agreement with the city of Boulder “ridiculous.”

“Boulder is essentially saying we’re going to pay this officer and let him resign for threatening Zayd’s life, for racially profiling Zayd,” attorney Siddhartha Rathod said. “If you or I were to do this, we would be criminally charged. We would immediately lose our jobs.”

In a statement, City Attorney Tom Carr said firing the officer, John Smyly, would have led to a drawn-out appeal and potentially allowed him to keep his job.

Under the agreement, Smyly resigned his police role on May 9 but will remain an employee through February without performing any work. He will receive “commensurate pay and benefits” during that period and “a single, lump sum” payment for any accrued and unused vacation time when his employment officially ends Feb. 9.

A phone number for Smyly could not be located Thursday. He did not mention the incident in his resignation letter.

According to the new video footage, Smyly approached Atkinson on March 1 in front of the condo-style building, where he was using a metal tool with a claw at its base to put trash into a bucket. Smyly said he noticed Atkinson on the building’s rear patio and wanted to see if he lived or worked there.

After Atkinson said he did, Smyly asked for identification with the address on it. Atkinson provided his school ID, which did not have an address and then offered to let himself into the building as proof.

Smyly next asked for Atkinson’s date of birth. Atkinson refused then picked up the bucket and tool and walked away.

“Put that down,” Smyly said on the tape. “Stop!”

He then told Atkinson that he was obstructing a police officer, “a jailable offense.” Smyly later told Atkinson that he was being detained for trespassing.

Smyly drew his Taser and followed Atkinson to the back of the building, repeatedly telling him to sit down on the ground and put the “weapon” down, referring to the trash tool. Atkinson repeatedly said he had not done anything wrong.

“Your hand is on your weapon and you’re gonna shoot me,” Atkinson shouted. “That’s what you’re gonna do officer? You’re gonna shoot a resident on his property for picking up trash?”

An investigative summary said Smyly drew his gun when the two men reached the back of the building. On the video, Atkinson responds by shouting: “That’s a gun! I’m picking up trash! I’m picking up trash and you’re holding a gun!”

After about eight minutes, more Boulder police officers arrive and form a loose half circle around Atkinson.

One officer can be seen holding a rifle; the investigative summary says the weapon fires bean bags. According to the summary, one officer drew his handgun when he arrived but re-holstered it in less than a minute while Smyly had his gun out until Atkinson put the trash-grabbing tool down.

The report released with the video footage said Smyly had no authority to detain Atkinson or probable cause to charge him with any crime and should have left once Atkinson provided his name, address and his reason for being there.

Atkinson, 26, said he believes Smyly should have been fired immediately. He said he has had trouble sleeping since and spends time outdoors or with friends to calm him.

“My life right now is kind of restless, unsettled,” he said.

Carr, the city attorney, said the resignation agreement “allowed the city to provide the community information more quickly, and it transitioned Officer Smyly out of a law enforcement career.” The city’s bargaining agreement with police officers requires an appeal for any disciplinary action and could have allowed Smyly to return to duty, he added.

City officials said the investigation could not prove that Smyly acted because of Atkinson’s race. Carr said investigators found Smyly violated two department policies: police authority and public trust and conduct.



  1. sawbuck says

    not bad. a 9 month paid vacation for acting like a complete moron.

  2. Rawlston Pompey says


    Call it what you will, but certainly an obvious ‘…Overzealous officer with actions that speak to gross Recklessness.’

    Such conduct was sufficient reason to have forced his resignation.

    1. Tena m holbrooks says

      I agree, one way or another, he needs to go. The city should come together on this issue and ask for his resignation. This is racial profiling, no doubt. The victim should be given the pay he is to receive. But I also question the conduct of the other officers with guns in hand and surrounded this poor guy as if he had just committed a horrible crime. Denver you don’t need an officer like this on your force. He is a threat to others and a huge liability to your city.

  3. Mark H says

    Control freaks need to be removed from policing

  4. Michael Bean says

    The USA is becoming a police state…one crooked cop at a time.

  5. Jerry Cranford says

    Fire the officer immediately and never allow him to hold any armed position. Other officers at the scene reprimanded for not telling him to back off and holster his weapon. Student gets any money the officer has coming to him. And then some. City officials that approved this agreement voted out. For me, this solution is ordinary common sense.

  6. Donna P Vaughn says

    yep the cop was over zealous, but guess what, this keeps happening, listen up, the young guy had he been smart, although super irritated as I would be, needs to respect our law, and do what that stupid cop told him to do, that how we have to handle things, just do what he says, and it would have been over so fast, had he just said, follow me into my place, my instead, holding his ground and doing everything to irritate the cop more, and then what, we are losing respect for cops and guess what people, we’re end up getting cops that are not the greatest people, because the good cops get tired of this stuff. This didn’t have 30 years ago, people stopped and complied, no matter how irritating it was. It so stupid, I promise we’ll lose more of the decent people who would be cops, it not for this type of situation, where john doe won’t comply and makes it harder for the cop to do his job, even if he’s over zealous. That young guy should have been glad that they patrol that area, but he doesn’t care about that, he’s too young to understand.

    1. Jerry says

      Hmmm, maybe you don’t understand that people are sick and tired of being wrong for being black. You’re putting this all on him, not the cops. Why is it that a man whom is clearly picking up trash needs to even be questioned or provide proof of ID? That doesn’t even register as a concern Why didn’t the officer say, “Hey pall, good on your for picking up trash, we need more people like you!”? Do you know how many times he’s probably been pulled over for being black? Didn’t have it 30 years ago? Easy for you to say … that’s why the term “white privilege” was created by the way.

    2. Texas Aggie says

      Bull! Just BULL!

      The reason it “didn’t happen thirty years ago” is because no one had recording equipment. And even if he had complied, the cop would have kept going after him until he found some reason to nail him. You aren’t claiming that the cop is so stupid that he’s afraid of a thing for picking up trash, are you?

      And trying to blame the people who are getting abused by the cops for their own abuse is just pathetic and servile. Just stop it.

    3. James Seeley says

      So, in your opinion, what exactly was the cop looking for in the first place?

      Who in hell could he possibly think would be picking up trash there and why stop to check?

      1. Tena m holbrooks says

        Sadly, all because of the color of his skin.

  7. ttyler5 says

    Atkinson should have been arrested for obstructing a police officer. The Boulder city government is a gang of Social Justice Nazis that obviously won’t back its cops on the streets.

  8. Earl says

    Bottom line is no matter how much you pay him for sitting at home best to get this pos out of uniform.

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