Juries can be unforgiving when presented with cases involving police use of excessive force.
In October 2014, for example, a federal jury in Denver awarded $4.6 million to the family of a street preacher who died in the city jail booking room. Denver sheriff’s deputies restrained and subdued him, then failed to help him before he passed away.
While Colorado Springs has paid much less — $412,500 — to settle excessive force lawsuits since 2010, other cases are pending that could be costly to local taxpayers.
One of them is a 2013 incident involving Officer Tyler Walker, who slammed then-18-year-old Alexis Acker onto a hospital floor while she was handcuffed.
Conflicting police reports say Walker either “escorted her to the floor,” or that he “rolled her … to the floor.”
But Acker was more than “escorted” or “rolled” — as her two broken teeth and lingering health problems attest. The episode was captured on video:
Walker, on the other hand, was advised of his rights as a victim by CSPD, which won’t say if Walker has been disciplined. He remains on the force.
Walker and Acker crossed paths when officers were dispatched to a disturbance involving a gun at Acker’s apartment on 4173 Charleston Drive the night of Nov. 21, 2013. They found no probable cause, but they encountered an inebriated Acker and her boyfriend, 19-year-old Tyrin Tanks. Tanks was wanted on an outstanding warrant, according to Walker’s report. Acker was “intoxicated and verbally uncooperative with police,” and became “physically combative” when officers arrested Tanks. Acker kicked at officers, who pinned her down on a sofa and then arrested her on multiple charges, including resisting arrest and assault on a police officer. And she continued to resist while being walked to a police cruiser.
Walker, 29 at that time, says in his report he “easily” got physical control of Acker, noting her 5-foot-4 height and weight of about 110 pounds. (He was 6-foot-3 and about 210 pounds.)
Walker drove Acker to Memorial Hospital for a “medical clearance” before taking her to jail “due to her intoxication level and combative nature,” he says in his report. As he drove, Acker “remained verbally aggressive, continually yelling obscenities towards police and my personal life. … She yelled statements such as, ‘I hope you and your wife can never have any children … because you’re a stupid fucking cop.'”
After arriving at Memorial, Walker told Acker to sit down. When she refused, he “pushed her down into the chair.” Walker’s report claims Acker immediately kicked him “in the groin area.”
What happened next depends on which police report you read.
Walker’s supervisor, Sgt. Mary Walsh, who also was kicked by Acker at the apartment but didn’t witness the hospital take-down, says in her report that Walker “rolled her out of the chair to the floor” — his “only means to control her.” She also says a hospital employee and security guard who witnessed the incident said that “the force was necessary and justified to control Alexis.”
Officer Anthony Carey, called to the hospital later, wrote in his report that Walker “escorted Ms. Acker to the floor.”
Of all of the accounts, Walker’s is the most forthcoming. He states he felt “immediate pain” and “forcefully threw Ms. Acker … face down on the ground,” holding her in a pinned position.
“It was then evident that I had caused her injury and knocked out her front tooth while throwing her on to the hard linoleum hospital floor, while her hands [were] still handcuffed behind her back,” Walker writes. “After my adrenalin wore off,” he began to feel pain in his left knee, an injury he suffered by throwing Acker down, so he filed a Preliminary Accident Form and a Response to Aggression Form.
Four days later, Detective Christine Somersalmi contacted Walker “to notify him of his victim’s rights.”
Acker was charged with five offenses, including two felony assaults on a police officer. In a plea bargain, she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of a police officer and felony menacing, receiving a deferred sentence on the felony, says Cindy Hyatt, her criminal attorney.
Hyatt says she’s skeptical Acker kicked Walker in the groin. “There’s no way she kicked him that hard in the balls,” she says. “He wouldn’t be standing. He’d be hunched over.
“This is a very violent attack on someone who is in handcuffs, who is partially restrained and tiny, and there’s just no need for it,” Hyatt continues. “You can’t have something like this, whether it happens 100 times, 10 times or one time. It’s unacceptable. It cannot be tolerated. As a patrol officer in particular, that’s part of the job, dealing with that without planting someone’s face in the floor.”
Through her civil attorney, Shimon Kohn, Acker declined to be interviewed. Kohn filed a “notice of claim” letter — a precursor to a lawsuit— with the city in May.
The letter cites a damage figure of $500,000 and calls Acker’s injuries significant, including trauma to the face, head, teeth and jaw; migraine headaches, concussion, closed head injuries, memory and cognitive function problems, as well as post traumatic stress disorder.
John Sturgis was 39 when he was falsely arrested and handcuffed the night of Jan. 26, 2012, after officers received a report of a “suspicious person” who might fit the description of a homicide suspect. Sturgis was filling his gas tank at the 7-Eleven store at 1801 E. Platte Ave.
“The entire time Mr. Sturgis was complaining that he had just had surgery on his left shoulder and that Sgt. [Brian] Cummings was hurting him,” Officer Richard Hallman wrote in his police report. Police found Sturgis had no active warrants and let him go.
In his lawsuit, Sturgis says a television report described the homicide suspect as a man in his early 20s with short black hair. Sturgis was bald and nearly twice that age.
The lawsuit also states Sturgis was deemed “guilty only of driving while black” and points to “excessive force” as the reason for Sturgis’ surgeries — on both shoulders — after the incident.
The city settled the case for $300,000 in March 2014.
Douglas Sellier, 51, was sitting on his front porch on June 2, 2009, when officers arrived to take his grandson. The child would be returned to his father, who Sellier told them was a registered sex offender, according to his lawsuit and the police report.
Officers told Sellier to stand aside — they had a court order. When he refused, Officers Alan Van’t Land and J. Flores grabbed his arms and tried to escort him from the yard. Sellier stiffened. “I then pulled out my Taser,” Officer Flores wrote in his report, noting he tased Sellier twice — for 3 seconds and 10 seconds on his lower back and thigh, respectively.
Sellier’s lawsuit says four officers piled onto him, and that the Taser made him urinate and defecate, and caused respiratory trouble. At the hospital, officers laughed at him when he asked to clean up, the lawsuit says, and Sellier was “so humiliated that after receiving a ticket … he left the hospital without being treated.” Sellier couldn’t sleep for three days and suffered severe pain and headaches and a knee injury.
His charge was later dismissed, and the city paid $50,000 to settle the case in December 2011.
John Winkler, 20, was arrested by SWAT, the Tactical Enforcement Unit, on Oct. 12, 2010, on suspicion of theft and drug charges. A lawsuit says officers used excessive force, “slamming Mr. Winkler into a parked car, and kicking him on the side and back before holding and handcuffing him.”
Before Winkler was arrested, his mother, Sherry Deray, warned officers that her son was “emotionally disturbed, depressed and suicidal,” the lawsuit says, noting that after he was arrested, Winkler cried hysterically and told officers he was suicidal.
The police report states Winkler was “very upset” and that he told officers “that he just wanted to die.”
Officers placed him in the front passenger seat of a cruiser, which police say didn’t violate policies for prisoner transport. In transit, at 65 miles per hour on Interstate 25, Winkler unbuckled his seatbelt, opened the door and lept from the cruiser. He was hit by a passing vehicle and died the next day.
The city settled the case for $35,000 in July 2013.
Police lacked probable cause to arrest Shawn Hudson, 39, on Dec. 30, 2010, during a domestic disturbance call. Nevertheless, they placed him on a hold for parole revocation, according to a police report. Officer Alan Marks described Hudson as “very angry and aggressive” and quoted him as saying, “I’m an angry violent felon and your [sic] gonna have to kill me.”
Officer Brian Harrell put Hudson into a holding cell at the Stetson Hills Substation and removed his handcuffs. Some time later, Marks, Harrell and Sgt. Steve Biscaro told Hudson to stand so he could be handcuffed.
Marks’ report says Hudson “glared at me” and “rushed toward me [in an] aggressive manner.” Officer M. Daly’s report says he was told by other officers that “Hudson had to [be] tased” because he was hostile and aggressive.
Hudson’s lawsuit alleges he took no aggressive action but was tased repeatedly, “fell to the ground, and convulsed in agony.”
The city paid $27,500 in May 2012 to settle the case.
Frank Lord was driving north on 19th Street at about 10 p.m. on June 26, 2010, when he saw emergency vehicle lights. He stopped to see what was happening.
Lord’s lawsuit alleges that someone grabbed his arms and threw him to the ground face-first, knocking him out. When he came to, officers were on top of him yelling, “Where is the gun?” He was arrested and accused of driving under the influence, but tests proved he had not been drinking. A charge of obstruction of a police officer was dismissed, but Lord suffered injuries to his ribs, an abrasion above his right eye and a permanent brain injury, according to the lawsuit.
In its answer to the suit, the city claimed officers “were acting in self-defense and were therefore justified in using a reasonable and appropriate amount of force.”
U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer noted that Lord’s truck was similar to that of an armed robber police were pursuing that night. But the suspect’s physical description was quite different: Lord was 6-feet-4-inches with gray hair and 64 years old; the suspect was reportedly a thin 22-year-old who stood at 5-foot-6. Still, Brimmer ruled that police acted reasonably and dismissed the case on July 31, 2012.
In a lethal use of force, police killed James Guy Jr., 22, on April 22, 2011, after Guy fired shots in his backyard. Guy was drunk and staggering, according to a lawsuit filed by his mother, Kathryn Guy. Police say in their reports he was weaving when he raised a gun and pointed it toward his house. Officer Nathan Jorstad fired one shot at Guy from behind a privacy fence, killing him.
The DA’s office submitted the case to a grand jury, which returned a “no true bill” in July 2011, meaning no charges were warranted against Jorstad, a prior Medal of Valor recipient.
Kathryn Guy’s lawsuit seeks in excess of $100,000.
Not yet filed
Jeffrey Aschenbrenner, 26, was detained on Sept. 14, 2014, by Officers Herbert Tomitsch and Brandon Castro “without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion,” according to a letter sent to the city by Aschenbrenner’s attorney, Shimon Kohn.
The officers “humiliated” him “by pulling his shorts down” and handcuffed him with his shorts around his ankles, according to Kohn’s letter, after which they assaulted him, punched him in the stomach and “fabricated facts” to support charges of obstruction of justice.
A single-page police report of the incident states that Aschenbrenner “refused to follow officers [sic] instructions and tried to pull away.”
Aschenbrenner seeks $200,000.