Zayd Atkinson & John Smyly: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Zyad Atkinson, John Smyly

Twitter Student Zyad Atkinson and now-former Boulder police John Smyly

Spoiler: A just-released report backed up an internal affairs police investigation that found there was no racial profiling involved in this incident. Black college student Zyad Atkinson, and hundreds of thousands who have seen the video, say otherwise.

Police have released several body camera videos that depict what happened that winter day at the dormitory where Zyad Atkinson lived.

On March 1, 2019, Atkinson, a student at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, was outside his dormitory picking up trash using a bucket and the device most commonly used to pick up trash found outdoors, known as a reacher grabber, a roughly 32-inch-long lightweight handled-pole with a claw at the bottom to retrieve debris. Atkinson was maintaining the property outside the dorm as part of his work-study job. He lived in the dorm and was directly outside the building picking up the litter when he was approached by then-Boulder Police officer John Smyly.

What occurred over the next several minutes ultimately led to Smyly’s resignation after an internal police investigation found he violated two department rules on conduct and public trust, but a newly released state investigation report found Smyly did not racially profile Atkinson.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Smyly Demanded Atkinson Provide an ID With His Address on it Outside the Student’s Dorm Because He Thought Atkinson Was a Trespasser & Demanded Atkinson, Who Showed ID, Put Down the Litter Grabber Because the Cop Felt ‘Threatened’


Subject Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019 from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

The video begins with Smyly approaching Atkinson during the daytime outside student housing.

Smyly tells Atkinson, who is black, that he “couldn’t help but notice you just sitting on the patio behind this building there are signs for no trespassing.” Atkinson says, “I live here.” Smyly says, “Yeah I wasn’t sure what you were doing if you live here or you work here it looks like you’re working.”

Atkinson says, “Yes, I live here. I work here.” Smyly says, “OK, gotcha,” but begins to interrogate Atkinson asking what the dorm address is. Atkinson points to it and reads it to the officer.

“I’m just checking to make sure that you have a right to be here,” Smyly says. Atkinson repeats her lives in the dorm and is working, but Smyly persists.

“I’ve got to verify it so that I know you do in fact live.” Atkinson becomes incredulous. “Are you kidding me?”

Smyly presses on. He claims “we’ve had some stuff going on in the area. I’m just doing my job just making sure you belong here. If you do great and I’ll be on my way. Do you have anything with your address on it?”

Atkinson has shown his Narapo University identification card. Smyly wants to see something like a driver license with the address of the student housing on it.

Atkinson continues to pick up trash as Smyly appears to be escalating the interaction by following him around the dorm building demanding an ID with the address printed on it. Atkinson is becoming upset by the officer’s relentlessness interrogation. Smyly then begins to demand Atkinson drop the grabber, even as he’s picking up the trash.

“This is ridiculous, bro,” Atkinson says.

Then, Smyly demands to know what Atkinson’s date of birth is. Atkinson repeats he’s provided his identification but Smyly wants more proof. “I need to verify who you are,” Smyly says. He then begins commands for the student to sit down on the pavement as he calls for backup.

“You’re obstructing a police officer which is a jail-able offense,” Smyly says.

2. Smyly Threatens to Tase Atkinson as the Student Asks if he’s Going to be Tased or Shot

Radio Traffic from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

“I’m not doing anything wrong. You’re not gonna arrest me. You can’t do anything. I live here. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m outside picking up garbage.”

Smyly tells Atkinson this is “your last chance …I’m detaining you on investigation for trespassing.”

“I live here! I live here! You’re going to tase me outside of my residence?”

Smyly tells Atknson to “drop it! Put it down! Put it down!”

Atkinson is calm but insistent that he has done nothing wrong. Is on the property where he lives as a student and is working to clean up the garbage around the building.

“I’m not doing anything illegal. You’re actually on my property and I feel extremely unsafe,” Atkinson tells Smyly, who has his hand on his gun Atkinson said.

Smyly says, into a police radio presumably, that Atkinson has a “blunt object in his hand:” “he’s failing to comply with some kind of a blunt object in his hands. I’m going to follow him until my cover gets here,” the police officer says.

Responding Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019 from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

Smyly tells him, “Sit down or you’re going to get tased in a second because you have a weapon. Put it down and comply with my orders.”

Atkinson continues to say he’s astonished by the officer’s actions.

“What are you doing, officer? You’d better think about it. I could get lawyers, sir. And you have a camera on you, it’s filming right now. You’re an idiot. Why would you think that you can tase me? I’m picking up trash on my property. I’m not doing anything illegal and you’re not gonna fuc*ing tase me, sir? How do you think about that? How do you feel about that, sir? Get your lieutenant over here.”

Smyly says backup is on the way.

“You have a dangerous object in your hand …” he says. “Put it down.”

“You’re gonna shoot me? Your hand is on your weapon! You’re going to shoot me?”

The cop says to Atkinson, referring to the litter tool, “…your hand is on your weapon are you going to shoot me a push gonna do if you use that weapon against me then yes that is a consideration.” He says he wants to “figure this out” with Atkinson. “You have a dangerous object in your hand”

Stunned Atkinson says, “I don’t have a weapon! This is a bucket!”

Smyly says, “That is a weapon. I’m telling you I’m threatened by it.”

Atkinson says, “You have a gun that kills people!”

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Read the full incident report.

3. Several Police Officers Arrive & Atkinson is Surrounded: ‘You Guys Don’t Have a Goddamn Right to be Doing This to me. I’m a Citizen of This Country’

Responding Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019 from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

Smyly says he’s investigating a trespass. Atkinson says he lives in room 304. And Smyly says that’s the first time he gave him his unit (room) number.

Smyly had pulled both his taser and his service weapon on Atkinson, reports confirm.

Atkinson is by now very upset. The interaction has lasted nearly eight minutes. And he is now surrounded by police.

“I go to school here. I go to school here. I’m picking up garage on my fuc*ing property. You guys don’t have a goddamn right to be doing this to me. I’m a citizen of this country!”

Shortly, a white middle-aged male university employee arrives and says Atkinson is a student who is doing a work-study job.

Responding Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019 from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

Later in the video, that employee can be heard telling Atkinson that he had indeed been racially profiled but suggests they deal with that later and for the time being, de-escalate the situation themselves.

Responding Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019 from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

3. A Report Found Two Mistakes Made by Smyly, But Racial Profiling Was Not One of Them

According to the Boulder Police Departments’ investigation and executive summary, Smyly violated “Police Authority and Public Trust,” meaning he was the antithesis of effective, helpful and non-abusive and he also violated a department conduct rule by not using “reasonable judgment” and did not “refrain from conduct which reflects unfavorably on the department…”

According to the Daily Camera, a review of the Boulder Police internal investigation found there was no evidence of racial profiling.

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Conducted by a former U.S. Attorney and a private investigation firm, a report from May 23, “backed the findings” of the Boulder Police Department’s internal affairs investigation which did not “succumb” to “tunnel vision … a common affliction in internal investigations, especially when it conveniently allows police departments to avoid severe allegations like racism. Here, the PSU sergeant and command staff did not succumb to it.”

The Daily Camera reported:

“During the 16-minute standoff, multiple officers politely and calmly asked Mr. Atkinson to drop the trash grabber and sit down so they could talk,” the report read. “However, none of the officers explained why they wanted him to sit down. That lack of explanation solidified Mr. Atkinson’s perception that he was not being treated honestly and fairly, which increased his agitation and heightened his berating of the officers.”

The police internal investigation concluded Smyly violated department policy during the encounter with Atkinson, and the independent report backed those conclusions, saying Smyly made some “pivotal mistakes” including asking for Atkinson’s date of birth when he was not entitled to that information and mistakenly believing he had reasonable suspicion that a crime was occurring.

“Had Officer Smyly understood the law, the contact would have ended without trauma,” the report read.

Subject Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019 from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

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Read the full investigation report here.

4. Despite His Resignation of Mid-May, Smyly Gets Paid Through 2020 Totaling Nearly $70,000

Smyly, a 14-year veteran of the department, resigned from active duty on May 16. Under a settlement with the city, Smyly will remain on Boulder’s payroll until February 2020.

Smyly, a 14-year veteran of the Boulder Police Department had no prior disciplinary action, it was reported.

The incident occurred on March 1, 2019. Smyly was on paid administrative leave since then and then just before the “conclusion of the disciplinary process,” the Denver Post reported. Police told the paper the “process would have likely resulted in suspension or termination.” The deal being he’d “remain under city employment until February 2020 as he exhausts accrued holiday, sick and administrative leave.” That has been reported to be in the neighborhood of $70,000.

5. Police Say Smyly Did Not Racially Profile Atkinson Because Racist Language Was Not Used. That’s Not How Institutional Racism & Racial Profiling Works, Experts Say

The Boulder City Attorney was quoted as saying there was “no proof that racial bias was a motivating factor” in the incident.

The investigation and subsequent report found that, “At no point in the entire incident did anyone use racial language, slurs or innuendo.”

As was pointed out by Boulder Daily Camera opinion page editor Quentin Young on Twitter, “This completely misses the point about how institutional bias operates. That Atkinson was targeted for questioning at all is the innuendo the review ignores.”

“Apparently it is NOT police policy to harass people picking up trash in their apt. complexes…BUT what if had killed that young man? Is that an “Oops?” John Smyly lost his police job. Zayd Atkinson could have lost his life. We need MORE CONSEQUENCES!!!”

Responding Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019 from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

Atkinson’s lawyer told Time that the city is “going to pay this officer and let him resign for threatening Zayd’s life, for racially profiling Zayd …If you or I were to do this, we would be criminally charged. We would immediately lose our jobs.”