Excessive force, excessive lawsuits | SteamboatToday.com

Excessive force, excessive lawsuits







— The recorded Steamboat Springs Police Department staff meeting on Oct. 21, 2014, offers a candid look inside the department, along with the stress and tempers that have resulted from three federal lawsuits alleging excessive use of force filed against the city in the past two years.

"We're here today because of John Ferrugia," Rae said, referring to one of the men who is suing. "We're here today because of Chelsea Blanchette. We're here today because of David Weaver, and we're here today because of Ben Holdridge, and we're here today because of 34 obstruction of a police officer charges that were brought against the citizens of Steamboat Springs."

The Steamboat Pilot & Today obtained an audio recording of the meeting from former Steamboat police detective Dave Kleiber. The department routinely records such staff meetings.

Kleiber last month began circulating a letter with scathing allegations against Rae and Deputy Chief Bob DelValle. The city has begun an investigation into the allegations, and Rae and DelValle have been placed on paid administrative leave.

DelValle said he could not comment, and Rae could not be reached for comment. Rae has said before that he could not comment on Kleiber's allegations.

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In his letter, Kleiber is critical of the police department's leadership and claims the atmosphere at the police department is responsible for heavy-handed policing and the accompanying lawsuits that accuse officers of excessive use of force.

"Unfortunately, Joel Rae has proved he is incapable of treating his own officers with dignity and respect, and this attitude has trickled down into how the Steamboat Springs Police officers treat the citizens of this community," Kleiber wrote.

In his letter, Kleiber wrote that he was struck by a recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri, where racial tensions gave way to protests and riots in the streets.

Kleiber thinks there are similarities between the "embattled" Ferguson department and the Steamboat department.

"An objective examination of the Steamboat Springs Police Department will show that under the leadership of Joel Rae, SSPD is comprised almost exclusively of white males, has routinely discriminated against women, has been sued four (sic) times for excessive use of force, and has come to rely on 'for-profit policing' to fund the Police Department."

Lawsuit No. 1: Ferrugia

Last April, the Steamboat Pilot & Today reported on the Ferrugia lawsuit related to a Sept. 17, 2012, incident late at night at the Peak Fitness Center downtown.

John Ferrugia's injuries were documented by police at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

A controversial charge

One of the lawsuits has been settled. Two are still being litigated, and a fourth is imminent.

After each of the officers shared their reasons for becoming a cop during the staff meeting, Chief Joel Rae sternly states on the audio recording the purpose of the meeting.

One of Steamboat Springs Police Chief Joel Rae's concerns that he brings up during an October staff meeting is officers arresting people 34 times for obstruction of a police officer in the past 2 1/2 years.

Rae refers to the charge as a "contempt of cop" charge.

The charge has been controversial in other cities and had been the subject of lawsuits. It is perceived as a charge that someone is given for being uncooperative with police.

Steamboat attorney Kris Hammond has represented several people who faced the charge.

"I think it's overused," Hammond said. "Anytime someone does something that makes a cop angry, that charge is trotted out just to turn up the flame on the defendant."

Rae himself expressed frustrations about the charge.

"I'm not saying that we have 34 (expletive, expletive) contempt of cop charges… but I've looked at most of them, and I guarantee you, most of them are (expletive)," Rae told his officers during the meeting.

Rae said the charge is a "big red flag" for attorneys like Grant Bursek to take a closer look at the arrest. Bursek in the past two years has filed three excessive force lawsuits on behalf of clients related to incidents with the Steamboat police department. Two of his clients were arrested on suspicion of obstruction of a peace officer.

The District Attorney's Office ultimately files the charges. Hammond said the District Attorney's Office lately has not been filing the charge.

"They can't get convictions," Hammond said. "It makes the jurors mad. I think they feel like its a big waste of time."

According to the lawsuit, an officer initially thought Ferrugia was burglarizing the gym. When officers talked to Ferrugia, he was upset and said he had a right to be at the 24-hour gym. Officers were suspicious, and the situation escalated when officers decided to go hands on with Ferrugia and forced him to the pavement.

In an attempt to disable Ferrugia, officer Ross Blank delivered several knee strikes aimed at a nerve running up Ferrugia's leg.

After finding Ferrugia's membership card inside, officers stood Ferrugia up, and his handcuffs were removed. Ferrugia was hurt in the altercation, and in the lawsuit, he accuses police of excessive use of force that resulted in "severe injuries requiring surgery."

The Ferrugia lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial starting Aug. 3.

While still working at the police department, Kleiber investigated the incident after Ferrugia filed his complaint. As part of the lawsuit, Kleiber gave a sworn deposition that was highly critical of the way officers handled the incident.

"I found it very troubling that anybody was forced from a place where they lawfully could be, were injured in the process of that, and then the officers determined that they had erred in their judgment, brushed him off and walked away from it," Kleiber said in the deposition.

Rae said last April that the city believed there was no misconduct on behalf of the officers involved, and they would continue to defend the lawsuit.

The city has already paid out its $50,000 out-of-pocket maximum to the city's insurance company for the Ferrugia case and is not obligated for any other legal costs or expenses related to the Ferrugia lawsuit, including any damages that might be awarded.

Rae referenced the Ferrugia incident when he met with his staff in October.

"I screwed up," Rae said to his staff in the October audio recording. "I screwed up by not bringing everything to the forefront when Ferrugia happened two years ago. Well, we're going to talk about it. We're going to talk about it in this room, and we're going to talk about how we can get better because I care. I care about every single person in this room here, and I care about this community."

Rae challenged his officers to "use your words" to diffuse situations.

"Most importantly, pick your battles," Rae said.

Lawsuit No. 2: Blanchette

A second lawsuit involved an incident that occurred almost exactly a year later from the Ferrugia incident and was also at the Peak Fitness Center. Again, it was late at night and Chelsea Blanchette was working out. Officer Jon Laundy investigated who was inside the gym.

According to the lawsuit, Blanchette told Laundy she was a member at the gym, and she asked Laundy why he was harassing her.

"… Laundy told Blanchette that he was going to handcuff her if she did not stop yelling at him," the lawsuit states.

At one point, Laundy grabbed Blanchette's wrist and put her into handcuffs, according to the lawsuit, and Blanchette yelled for help.

A Routt County Sheriff's Office deputy was there to help Laundy, and together, they threw Blanchette face first onto the ground, the lawsuit states.

After a Steamboat police sergeant arrived to help, Laundy told the sergeant that he was considering taking Blanchette to jail for obstruction of justice. The sergeant removed Blanchette's handcuffs.

On April 18, 2014, Blanchette filed a lawsuit.

She was represented by Steamboat Springs attorney Grant Bursek, who is representing the defendants in the two other active lawsuits. Bursek has also been retained by Benjamin Holdridge, who has not yet filed a lawsuit.

Blanchette was seeking $500,000 in her lawsuit. She settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. Laundy is still working at the police department.

Blanchette could not be reached for comment.

Bursek would not allow his current clients to comment because of pending litigation and because of the possibility of litigation.

The city paid out its $50,000 out-of-pocket maximum to the city's insurance company for the Blanchette case.

Lawsuit No. 3: Weaver

During the October staff meeting, Joel Rae said he did not want to go through any more lawsuits, and the associated dispositions.

"If you want to say a couple people ruined it for all of us, we can say that; that's why we're here," Rae said. "I'll be the first to say it. That's why we are here today talking about this in this meeting because I don't want it to happen to anyone else. I don't want it to happen to me. I don't want to go through any more depositions."

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 31, 2014, David Weaver is seeking $500,000 in damages.

The city has not yet paid out its $50,000 out-of-pocket maximum to the city's insurance company for the Weaver case, which is ongoing.

According to the lawsuit, the Weaver incident took place shortly after midnight on Dec. 4, 2013, when Steamboat police were called to a downtown bar where a disturbance was taking place. Officers detained a man, whom Weaver knew, and Weaver asked one of the officers if the detained man was all right.

Weaver then walked away but was commanded to come back and talk to police.

Police believed Weaver had been drinking and that there was a court order that prohibited Weaver from drinking. Weaver was arrested and taken to Routt County Jail on suspicion of violation of a protection order, obstructing a peace officer and felony attempting to influence a public servant.

Weaver did not want to get out of the police car, and officers "forcibly dragged him to a holding cell," the lawsuit states. While being dragged to the cell, Weaver tripped, causing the two jailers to fall down. The jailers regained control, and officer Ross Blank approached Weaver and delivered multiple knee strikes to Weaver, including a strike to the kidney, the lawsuit states.

After being put in a holding cell, Weaver began smoking a cigarette. He put it out when jailers came in.

Blank then entered Weaver's cell, and while jailers were trying to remove Weaver's belt, Blank delivered multiple elbow strikes to Weaver's kidney area, the lawsuit states.

Later, Weaver began urinating blood and was taken to Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Rae also brought up the Weaver incident during the October staff meeting.

"Who in their right minds thinks that it is OK if you have a guy on each arm of a 150-pound man on the ground in handcuffs, that it would be OK to apply multiple knee strikes?" Rae asked in the audio recording. "It doesn't stop there. Where it stops is the guy has to go to the hospital because he's pissing blood because maybe one of those knee strikes got him in the kidney."

Rae later made a reference to the recent incidents in Ferguson.

"This is just the icing on the cake," Rae said. "It just so happens that our next lawsuit from Mr. David Weaver is at home snuggled up in his little house in Missouri 11 miles from Ferguson. What are the odds?"

DelValle also referenced Ferguson in the audio recording.

"We're not infallible, but we have to be alert that things are different today, and we have to be the ultimate professional," DelValle said.

Weaver was ultimately charged by the District Attorney's Office with violating a protection order and resisting arrest. As part of a plea deal with the District Attorney's Office, Weaver pleaded guilty to resisting arrest. He was required to be on supervised probation for two years, and he had to write a letter of apology to Blank.

Potential lawsuit No. 4: Holdridge

Joel Rae told his staff that he learned about the David Weaver incident two days before receiving an email from Ben Holdridge, the man who has retained Grant Bursek to pursue any possible civil claims he may have against the police department.

"And I didn't learn about (the Weaver incident) and really realize it was an issue until it was brought to my attention by the alertness of the Routt County Sheriff's Office because Grant Bursek was there getting copies of videos," Rae said in the audio recording.

For the third time, the incident with Holdridge on Sept. 9, 2014, involved officer Ross Blank.

According to Rae, the email from Holdridge included an accusation that while in handcuffs in the back of a Steamboat police car he was hit in the head with a flashlight while being arrested by Blank and a Colorado State Patrol trooper for obstructing a police officer and resisting arrest. The District Attorney's Office ultimately dismissed the charges against Holdridge.

Rae said in the audio recording that Blank was put on administrative leave while the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office pursued an investigation into possible criminal charges against Blank related to the Holdridge and Weaver incidents.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today filed a records request with the District Attorney's Office related to the investigations into the incidents involving Blank. The District Attorney's Office refused to release the information because the cases were still under investigations.

"The matter involving Ross Blank is pending investigation and review in my office," District Attorney Brett Barkey wrote in an email.

The Craig Police Department also did a review of the two incidents.

"While one of our command officers completed an investigation at their request, the reports were transmitted to the Steamboat Springs Police Department and are a part of their internal records, not ours," Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta wrote in response to the records request. "We have no authority to release them. Any request for those documents must be made to the Steamboat Springs Police Department."

The police department Friday denied a records request for files related to the internal investigations related to the conduct by officers for the Weaver, Blanchette and Holdridge incidents. In March 2014, the police department did release files related to the internal affairs investigation into the Ferrugia incident.

Blank no longer works at the Steamboat Police Department. When contacted Thursday, Blank referred questions to his attorney, who did not respond to a request for comment.

In his letter, Dave Kleiber wrote that the lawsuits are a clear message that people's constitutional rights are being violated by the police department under Rae's leadership.

"But most importantly it is a clear message that there is something very, very wrong at the police department," Kleiber wrote. "Either Joel Rae and Bob Delvalle are so detached from the daily actions of their officers that they are unaware of what they are doing. Or, they have created this environment and their 'leadership' is the source of the problem."

When to use force

During the second half of the police department staff meeting, officer Nick Bosick, who serves as the department's defensive tactics instructor, delivered training to the officers that detailed when and how police officers were allowed to use force against someone.

"If someone is handcuffed and on their belly, there is absolutely no reason for us to be knee striking them," Bosick said. "They don't have the ability at that point to really do anything."

Bosick said it is always better for police to talk to someone than to put their hands on them.

"We have a hard job, and there will be a time when you have to make that force decision," Bosick said.

DelValle told the staff that as police officers, they can "pull the trigger on people's attitudes in a hurry."

"We have full control over their lives and what we do can totally change a person's life," DelValle said. "Just think about that. The amount of authority we have."

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