News » Cover Story

Full force

Reports and videos show Colorado Springs police have brutalized some citizens.



It was a mild spring evening in 2012 when the artillery moved in on Rusty Nail Point in southeast Colorado Springs.

Around 6 p.m. that May 29, the Colorado Springs Police Department took up positions on a condominium-lined street outside Ronald Brown's unit. Brown was wanted for felony menacing after allegedly firing a gun into the ground during a confrontation two days before.

Now, two dozen officers, two armored vehicles and the police mobile command center descended upon the neighborhood to "contain and call out" Brown, according to police reports.

The retired Army sergeant refused to budge. Or even come to the door.

Seven hours, 28 tear-gas canisters and many flash-bangs later, police set off an explosion inside Brown's front door, shattering every window in his home and leaving a hole in the floor.

Brown suffered a broken leg and other injuries in the blast, and was charged with five felonies and a misdemeanor.

The police department was slapped with a lawsuit.

The case, which is pending, is among several filed against the city in recent years alleging "excessive force," four of which have cost the city more than $400,000 in settlements. The cases raise questions about the methods CSPD uses to subdue citizens, as well as the consequences police face for actions that might seem extreme.

An investigation of police documents and court records by theIndependenthas found that citizens have reported an average of one use-of-excessive-force episode per week over the last four years, that officers are rarely accountable to anyone outside the department, and that information about discipline resulting from an internal investigation isn't released to the public. Additionally, CSPD's use-of-force policies largely make officers the arbiters of how much force to use and when, depending on the circumstances.

In the case of Ronald Brown, the Fourth Judicial District Attorney's Office argues that police officers used an appropriate amount of force.

But Brown disagrees, claiming he was a victim of the department's "military strike force," or SWAT, which is also known as the Tactical Enforcement Unit.

"Those bastards blew up my house," Brown told a nurse at Memorial Hospital, where he was treated for his injuries.

Now 57, Brown spent more than 23 years in the Army and Army Reserve, with combat deployments in Somalia, Bosnia and several other countries. He retired from the military several years ago and has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to his lawsuit and friends.

Through an attorney, Brown declined to be interviewed, but his story unfolds in a series of police reports, affidavits, and a District Attorney's Office investigation.

The episode that led to Brown's hospitalization began on Sunday, May 27, 2012 — 48 hours before the SWAT team rolled in.

Shortly after 6:30 that evening, Kyre Davis, a teenager from the neighborhood, broke a tree branch in Brown's yard. Davis then ran to his father's condo unit, claiming Brown was chasing him with a baseball bat. His father, Lawson Garrison, grabbed his own baseball bat and, along with girlfriend Jocqueline Bennett, went into the street to confront Brown, whose bat was later found inside his house by police.

The conversation became heated and Bennett told Davis to fetch her purse, which contained a stun gun.

Garrison held his bat near Brown's head, "letting the suspect know that he meant business," according to a police report. He also told police he asked Brown why they couldn't resolve the issue civilly, to which Brown responded, "You've got a baseball bat."

Garrison tossed the bat aside, "thrust[ing] his chest forward," explains a report filed by an officer who describes how Garrison replicated the move "while standing less than a foot" away from him.

Brown pulled a handgun from his pocket, according to a police affadavit. He fired a shot into the ground and said, "I'll kill all you motherfuckers. This ain't your hood."

Brown then went into his condo, and police arrived less than 30 minutes later. At least 10 officers surrounded Brown's condo building and asked him to come out and tell "his side of the story," Sgt. Roger Vargason's report says. Vargason contacted SWAT Sgt. Ron Sheppard, who told him there was no guarantee Brown was home, given the lapse in time between the incident and officers' arrival. "If we moved forward with deploying TEU [SWAT] to take over the incident, we would cause undo [sic] damage to Mr. Brown's apartment without ever being able to verify that he was inside the unit," Vargason noted.

Davis, Garrison and Bennett have since moved away from the complex and couldn't be reached for comment.

Police waited 21/2 hours before they "collapsed the containment" and moved on to the Sand Creek substation to write an arrest-warrant affidavit. That's where Officer Sean Collins was when he sent Brown a text message that night, saying, "We need to talk/we need to get your side of the story ... call me so we can work this out."

Brown replied the next morning around 9:20 a.m. His text verbatim: "My side of the story? They let their destructive brats run unsupervised. When you call them on it, you're a racist, white devil etc. .... I want my attorney. Lawyer up . or balls to the, drop the hammer."

As police prepared affadavits that Monday morning to arrest Brown for felony menacing, a low-level felony, three people close to Brown told the officers he suffers from PTSD and painted a picture of a possibly violent, unpredictable man.

Lucy Boyer, who rented the ground level of Brown's condo, warned that, at times, Brown "goes into his war mode."

Police asked her to explain. "Have you seen the movie Black Hawk Down?" she asked. "He lived that." (The 2001 film recounts a 1993 raid in Somalia by Delta Force and Army Rangers in which 19 American soldiers were killed.)

Brown's friend, Mary Hankins, also told officers about his diagnosis, noting that he owned "lots of guns." She tried to reach him by phone but was not successful.

Brown's mother, Pauline Brown, also spoke to police and mentioned her son's disorder, saying he "was not himself" due to heavy drinking. However, she and Lucy Boyer "were adamant," according to Officer Geraldine Pring's report, that Brown "wouldn't kill himself but that Lucy had said if officers tried to make an arrest it would be a 'blood bath.'" The women also claimed Brown was on medication, which a blood test later proved was false.

A conflicting report by Detective Derek Graham quotes an officer as saying Pauline, who lives in Illinois, told police her son was suicidal "and believed he would force officers to kill him."

The best strategy, Brown's friends advised, was to back off.

Boyer told Officer Pring Tuesday afternoon, "If you go in there with force, you will be met with force," suggesting to "just let him chill."

"He should just be left alone for a period of time," Brown's attorney, Shimon Kohn, told police after he, too, failed to reach Brown by phone.

Another friend, Brian Sheridan, said, "He's a recluse staying in the basement and very spun-up about the neighbors. ... To be honest, I think in a short period of time he'll turn himself in. ... Right now, he just doesn't trust anybody."

Brown's mother told police her son was seeing a therapist, and neighbors who witnessed the SWAT operation unfold that Tuesday night say offers of assistance from people familiar with PTSD were turned away.

Hankins and her son, James Holt, tell the Independent that a woman who lived nearby and claimed to be a Fort Carson PTSD therapist came to the scene and offered to help. But police told her, "We know what we're doing," say Hankins and Holt.

"Fort Carson was here," Steve Klausch, another neighbor, tells the Indy. "PTSD docs were here. They knew Ron. They showed up and said, 'We'll take care of him. He's one of ours.' They [police] sent them away."

In a statement responding to an inquiry from the Independent about available counseling services, Fort Carson officials point out that a behavioral health provider is on call round-the-clock at Evans Army Community Hospital emergency room and that the Veterans Administration medical centers also offer emergency mental health care day and night.

There is no evidence in official reports or information from the DA's investigation that police attempted to contact any therapists or consult with a PTSD specialist.

Instead, police staked out Brown's house and sought to increase the bond on his warrant from $10,000 to $100,000.

At 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 29, at least 20 officers, including the SWAT team, held a briefing at the Sand Creek Substation. They were told of Brown's "military background" and that he owned several guns, according to a report by Officer Carlos Sandoval.

They also learned Brown was issued a summons in 2010 for "harassment-telephone-threat," a misdemeanor, stemming from a threat he allegedly made to a former co-worker at the Transportation Safety Administration. Records show Brown pleaded guilty and paid court costs and fees of $500.

Less than two hours later, officers were staging at Brown's condo, and the SWAT team arrived. The city's BearCat armored vehicle parked in front, while a borrowed El Paso County-owned BearCat pulled up in the back, knocking down Brown's privacy fence to give police visual access.

By 6:42 p.m., homes along the street had been evacuated, according to Sandoval's report. SWAT Sgt. Sheppard "began giving bullhorn announcements in the front of the residence" and repeated them from the rear, while other officers called and texted Brown's phone every 10 minutes. They received no responses.

Sandoval's report offers a succinct sequence of events that includes the military-like equipment police used in their effort to roust Ron Brown:

7 p.m.: Officers deployed "launchable chemical munitions" inside the house.

7:19: A "diversionary device" was set off at the window grate.

7:31: A robot was deployed to the front door.

7:38: The robot breached the door, using a water canon.

7:52: Robot entered the condo.

8:17: Another attempt was made to breach the window well cover "to gain access to introduce chemical munitions into the basement."

8:30: The robot "breached the interior garage door" and was used to make more announcements for Brown to come out or call police. (One report said police told Brown if he came out, they could guarantee his safety, but if he didn't come out, they could not guarantee his safety.)

8:41: Police again demanded Brown come out.

9:32: Police blew a hole in the garage door to confirm his car was there.

11:55: Police set off an explosion inside the front door, blowing a hole through the floor 2 feet in diameter. A robot camera spotted "movement" under a blanket in the basement where Brown was found wearing a gas mask, helmet and flak vest, and earplugs. He also had on two Catholic medals — St. George and St. Michael — both patron saints of soldiers.

1:42 a.m. on Wednesday: Five SWAT team members made contact with Brown.

1:50: Sheppard called for medical personnel.

According to a detective's report, Brown was arrested at 2 a.m. He was not armed.

After an ambulance took Brown to Memorial Hospital, SWAT team Commander Skip Arms requested four CSPD detectives for an investigation of the scene. Their search yielded three handguns, three long guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition — all in a bedroom and closet located on the opposite end of the basement from Brown's position under the blanket.

During a subsequent search, a simulated grenade was discovered in a closet, leading the District Attorney's Office to charge Brown with possession of an explosive device — a charge that was later dismissed.

Several hours after the incident, tear-gas was so thick that police and others on the scene were still wearing gas masks. A couple who lived above Brown's unit returned to a gas-filled home and a damaged floor that buckled above the site of the explosion. An official from the Regional Building Department who surveyed the scene that morning said damage to floor joists would require a building permit for repairs. The city didn't pay to repair either unit, records show.

Colorado Springs Fire Department boarded up every window in Brown's unit, which had been blown out by the percussion of the explosion.

Around 10 o'clock that morning, Lucy Boyer returned to retrieve some belongings and told police, "All this could have been avoided if Ron would have been able to talk to who he needed to talk to. All the cops that were here last night would not let Ron talk to anybody but the cops.

"You guys really need to get some training on how to deal with these soldiers who are coming back, because a lot of them are going to end up this way."

After the explosion, six District Attorney's Office investigators responded, starting about 1:35 a.m. on Wednesday, May 30, to investigate the "use of deadly force incident," reports show. Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Lindsey also was present.

The investigators interviewed several officers and commanders, including Deputy Chief Vince Niski, who wasn't called to the scene until nearly 10 p.m.

The investigative reports contain no conclusions about whether the force was excessive. But they document the police's fears and, like Officer Sandoval's timeline, reveal the failed attempts to extract Brown before the explosion.

Police told investigators they imagined Brown had "set up a possible bunker in the basement" in a "fortified position" and that he was barricaded with untold amounts of ammo, lying in wait for officers to come down the stairs, where he planned to kill as many of them as possible. They imagined he had stockpiled food, water and survival gear to wait out police. They imagined he'd set trip wires and booby traps for officers.

Various cops told investigators they tried just about everything, with no success. Niski said they tried to remove grates over the basement windows with explosive devices so that tear-gas could be tossed into the lower level. It didn't work. Nor did an effort to use a pole to poke through the window, leading police to believe the windows were barricaded. (They weren't.)

Niski said officers considered "coming in through a wall from an adjacent condominium" but discounted the idea after learning the concrete wall was 6 inches thick.

Another strategy Niski and others considered was flooding the basement by having the Fire Department run a fire hose "through an electrical wall box through a connecting wall from the adjacent condominium," DA investigator David Guest says in his report, "but they were concerned that they would not know what the water level was in the basement as they did it, so it was not a viable option."

Finally, Niski, Lt. Salvatore Fiorillo and Sgt. Chris Arseneau discussed the explosive option, because, as Arseneau told DA Investigator Gene Ferrin, it was "the only way to introduce the camera into the basement area so they could see where the suspect would be located ... without exposing police officers [to] being fired upon through the floor by the suspect."

Arseneau also told Ferrin that "command staff was also briefed that anyone directly under the explosion would most likely be injured."

Bomb technician Rob McPike told DA's investigator Kevin Koback the squad "had never done a breech [sic] of a wood floor either in training or operationally."

Nevertheless, police made plans for the unprecedented attack.

They tried to judge how much explosive was needed to break through the floor and the ceiling beneath it, not to mention the joists, the locations of which they didn't know. They built a charge "to the minimum amount of explosives needed to gain access to the basement" and also "to make the charge safe," Koback reports police as saying.

Three layers of C1 explosive were used, along with two blasting caps; the charge was built to explode downward.

The situation was so dicey that Officer Dan Carter, a SWAT team and bomb squad member, told Ferrin as he set the charge, "This was the most that he has ever feared for his safety as a law enforcement officer."

It worked. But the charge "blew out the back windows of the home," McPike told Koback.

Only after the explosion and the discovery that Brown was downstairs did Niski notify then-acting Police Chief Pete Carey, who never visited the scene.

Niski told Guest he was "the ultimate decision maker" and decided to use an explosive "for fear officers would be shot at as they went down the stairs."

When Guest asked Niski why police couldn't "walk away from the situation," Niski said police "knew that the suspect was a danger to himself and the community around him and he would continue to be a threat until he was taken into custody."

Niski and DA chief investigator Larry Martin agreed that the Police Department's Internal Affairs Department and the DA's Office would investigate the use of deadly force.

CSPD personnel, therefore, attended interviews conducted with police officers and were allowed to interject with their own questions.

For example, police detective Michael Montez attended Guest's interview with Niski. He notes: "I asked Deputy Chief Niski if, in fact, they were aware the suspect had a warrant for his arrest and he stated they were. I asked Deputy Chief Niski if ... there was concerned [sic] for the public and he said yes. ... I asked Deputy Chief Niski if it sounded like they had made several attempts to have the suspect come out by announcing themselves, also there was plenty of thought taken as to how they were going to try to have the suspect come out. Deputy Chief Niski said all options, to include flooding the basement, were thought of."

Those questions sound like Montez was laying the groundwork for a legal defense. Brown's federal lawsuit alleges excessive use of force in violation of his constitutional rights.

"The question is whether the amount of force was objectively reasonable," says Ed Farry, an attorney in Colorado Springs who's litigated more than 50 civil rights cases in federal court. "They're going to say it was the least amount of force they could have used under the circumstances and that they considered all options."

Tom Streed, with Forensic Consultation International, consults on police use-of-force around the world. A former homicide detective and Marine with a doctoral degree in human behavior, Streed says there are guidelines for dealing with "mentally disordered" suspects, including doing nothing, turning off lights and sirens, attempting to establish communications, and using a negotiator with skills in dealing with people who have mental issues.

"I have consulted in a lot of cases where individuals were mentally disordered and had PTSD and those sorts of things," he says. "Generally, you wait them out. Why don't you just station a surveillance officer in the front and back and when the guy decides to make an appearance, then follow him and arrest him? This bullhorn business, you don't do that." He called the use of an explosive "preposterous."

A recent analysis by The Washington Post showed that of the 500 people killed by police nationwide this year, 133 showed signs of mental illness. Of those 133, nearly a dozen were military veterans, many of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from their service.

None of the police reports for the Brown case provided to the Indy mention a negotiator or a crisis team. Police spokeswoman Lt. Catherine Buckley says via email she didn't have the name of a primary negotiator for this case and that "negotiators work as a team."

Farry says whether the city can "wiggle out of a lawsuit" is one question. The other is whether the police should behave the way they did on May 29 and 30, 2012.

"That's a different inquiry — whether we as citizens want our police officers to be using explosives in the middle of Colorado Springs," he says. "It's obvious they were not able to control the explosion, because of an unforeseen result.

"Colorado law considers the use of explosives to be an inherently dangerous activity and requires one to use the highest possible degree of skill, care, caution and foresight," he says. "In most states you are strictly liable for damages for your use of explosives."

Farry isn't convinced using an explosive is ever appropriate, saying, "I don't think our Police Department should use that."

Neither does Hankins, Brown's friend, who says flash-bangs were set off every 12 to 17 minutes, which she believes triggered PTSD flashbacks in Brown. "Ron didn't have a problem with law enforcement," she says, "but he definitely had a problem with bangs. These people are blowing stuff up outside his windows, and they want him to come out? I thought they were acting like they were completely out of control. They broke every single window in the place. They even shot through the garage door, for Christ's sake. I didn't know the police could act like that."

Police refuse to say if anyone on the force was disciplined for the incident, and the department doesn't release disciplinary records in general.

Citing case law that allows the city to balance the privacy interest of officers, the department's interest in assuring frank discussions on internal affairs matters, and employee morale against the public's interest, the department concluded "it is not within the public interest for CSPD to release the requested information."

However, the department did release some data reflecting the number of times citizens have complained about force, as well as how often officers self-report their response to aggression against them.

In response to the Indy's open-records request, the department reports that from 2011 through April 23 of this year, Springs police officers were accused by citizens of using excessive force 209 times, hitting a peak of 63 in 2013 — about one per week, on average. Only three of those 209 complaints were ruled valid through an internal process in which cops evaluate one another.

But records suggest officers find themselves in hundreds of situations per year in which they respond to being on the receiving end of aggression. From 2012 to 2014, officers filed Response to Aggression forms that represented 929 incidents that involved 1,060 officers. In that period, the number of incidents grew by 22.5 percent, and the number of officers involved grew by 54 percent.

It's impossible to explain the increase, says Buckley, "without looking at each one." But the department won't release the forms.

Several policies dictate use of force by a variety of means, ranging from a mere presence to firearms.

General Order 710, for example, allows for use of physical force "only when necessary for legitimate law enforcement purposes and only to the minimal extent necessary to accomplish those purposes."

The same policy says the degree of force used "must be in direct response" to the force being used against them and must de-escalate or end when the offender becomes compliant, no longer resists or no longer poses a threat.

General Order 705 requires force to follow a continuum of graduated force depending on resistance encountered.

But the policies also allow officers to decide how much force to use and what type, given that situations can be dynamic. "The officer relies upon reasoned discretion in terms of the use of force options," states General Order 705. As stated in General Order 720: "When resistance to police action or a threat to life is encountered and reasonable alternatives have been exhausted, or would clearly be ineffective, the force necessary to overcome the resistance or threat to life may be used."

After police found Brown under the blanket, McPike told a DA's investigator, officers waited a half hour to render medical aid, because "concerns that he could still be armed outweighed the suspect injuries." SWAT Sgt. Sheppard "believed the suspect was playing hurt," according to DA investigator Koback's report.

When police told Brown, using a microphone on the robot, to show his hands and remove the Kevlar vest, he did so.

At Memorial Hospital medical personnel told Police Detective John Koch that Brown suffered "significant crush injuries on both of his legs, including a deformity on his lower left leg," a tibia fracture. Injuries also included abrasions and a "significant laceration to his right upper inner thigh."

A nurse told Koch that his operating room treatment involved irrigation of the deep cut, because "they had seen what appeared to be sawdust and possibly some metal pieces in his leg," Koch's report says.

An attending physician signed a form stating Brown suffered "serious bodily injury," meaning injury that "involves a substantial risk of death," or serious permanent disfigurement or loss of a part of the body or broken bones.

Though not life-threatening, the injuries led to surgery and a stay in the Intensive Care Unit. Police maintained a 24/7 guard on Brown until June 13, when he was taken to jail. Although police found several prescription bottles in his home, blood tests for drugs ordered by police at the hospital were negative.

As for his criminal case, Brown pleaded guilty to one count of class 5 felony menacing and one count of refusing to leave property upon request of a peace officer, a misdemeanor. He paid court costs and fees and was placed on three years probation. He now lives in Illinois near his parents, awaiting the outcome of his civil case.

The District Attorney's Office's investigation resulted in no criminal charges, says District Attorney Dan May.

He cited a Colorado law that states that police are justified in using deadly physical force only when they believe it's necessary to defend themselves or a third person from what they believe is the use or imminent use of deadly physical force, or to arrest someone who has committed a felony involving use of or a threat with a deadly weapon.

"We found based on the law they were justified in using the force," he says. "Our role is [deciding] strictly whether an officer should be charged."

It's unclear whether the Police Department conducted a review of the incident. Even if it did, such reviews aren't released to the public because they contain tactical information, Buckley says.

Chief Carey declined an interview, saying in a statement he could not comment on cases and investigations in which the department is a party to litigation, administrative investigations, or criminal proceedings.

How much, if anything, the city will be forced to pay Brown in the civil case is anyone's guess.

But the police might have incurred a different kind of cost that night in 2012.

"I'm convinced after watching that night that those people didn't have any regard for human life whatsoever," says Hankins. "The fact this was a person was completely irrelevant, because they nearly killed him."

Adds Brown's former neighbor Steve Klausch, "The cops overreacted. We lost all respect for the cops that night."

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment

Clicky Quantcast