Days after Mayor Michael Hancock ousted Gary Wilson as Denver’s sheriff, a new video underscores the depth of excessive force problems that led to Wilson’s demotion.
Disturbing footage obtained by The Colorado Independent shows an inmate being placed in solitary confinement in the city jail’s infirmary after exhibiting suicidal behavior. Under observation by sheriff’s officials, Isaiah Moreno paced the tiny cell, banged his head against the wall, paced some more, banged his head more, and so on.
Meantime, footage from another video camera shows a team of sheriff’s officials gathering outside his door with equipment to restrain him – presumably to prevent him from hurting himself and medicate him. They stood outside watching for several minutes as Moreno continued to slam his head into the cinder blocks. At one point, he touched his forehead to assess the extent of the bruises and cuts.
At one point, after an officer had asked him to stop hitting his head and Moreno responded, “I don’t give a fuck. No. Fuck you.” Moreno sat on the concrete bench that serves as a bed. Eight officers then entered the cell – two with taser guns pointed at him, even though he posed no visible sign of threat. Two of the officers tasered him with electroshocks before he slumped onto the floor. Officers strapped him into a restraint chair and then left him alone in the cell.
An investigation by Denver’s Internal Affairs Bureau determined that Sergeant Ned St. Germain — who has worked in the department since 1983 — broke the city’s use of force policies when he directly ordered the two deputies, Luke Swarr and Frank Romero, to taser Moreno in the Sept. 26, 2013, attack.
“Sergeant St. Germain gave the order when the inmate was not physically resisting at the time or immediately before the order was given. Moreover, he was not posing a threat to himself or others,” reads St. Germain’s discipline report. “Simply stated, there was no need to use the taser to gain compliance.”
The video is one of several obtained by The Independent and other news outlets showing excessive force in Denver’s jails. Most of the cases that have made headlines were triggered by officers’ short, violent tempers.
But the Moreno video – in which a whole team of officers responded to a suicidal inmate who was seated and had no weapon or ability to hurt them – has a different quality. St. Germain and his deputies had plenty of time to observe Moreno and assess his threat level. Electroshocking a vulnerable, mentally ill man smacks of a certain savagery that shocks the conscience of several people who have viewed the footage.
“Honestly, I’m disgusted by what I see here,” said Wanda James, a Denver restaurant owner who blogs about police misconduct. “What was the point of tasering a man in mental distress? He didn’t attack them. He didn’t come at them. Their lives weren’t in danger.”
“This kind of brutality reinforces the problem we’re having with law enforcement right now: That they don’t look at people they’re being paid to serve as humans. They treat them as animals,” she added.
After viewing the video Thursday, Mike Roque, executive director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, called the incident “unconscionable.”
“They went way beyond the force needed to handle a sick person who’s obviously confused and dazed,” he said. “How many times does this have to happen? How many videotapes like this have to come out before changes are made?”
Hancock promised reform on Monday when he demoted Wilson and announced a national search for a new sheriff to “change the culture” in the department. Still, the mayor’s message was mixed. In announcing Wilson’s ouster, Hancock praised him as a great leader and said, “Unfortunately, the department let him down.”
The footage of Moreno’s self-harm and of officers’ attack on him is troubling – even haunting. After obtaining the video through a public records request, The Colorado Independent edited the 40-minute video to splice out nudity when Moreno was forced to remove his clothing and change into an anti-suicide gown, also known as a “turtle suit.” The smocks are protocol for suicidal inmates so they don’t hang or strangle themselves with their clothing. The gown given to Moreno was far too small for him. Several times in the video, it becomes unfastened, he refastens it and it becomes unfastened again.
Under sheriff’s department’s rules, “Electronic Control Devices will not be used… as punishment, under any circumstances, or to effect compliance with verbal commands where there is no physical threat.”
Denver’s use of force policy states that, “It is important for officers to bear in mind that there are many reasons a suspect/inmate may be resisting or may be unresponsive. A person’s reasoning ability, including but not limited to a mental condition, mental impairment, developmental disability, physical limitation, language, drug interaction, or emotional crisis, are some examples.”
“An officer’s awareness of these possibilities, when time and circumstances reasonably permit, should then be balanced against the facts of the incident facing the officer when deciding which tactical options are the most appropriate to bring the situation to a safe resolution,” the policy reads.
In 2010, when street preacher Marvin Booker died at the hands of a gaggle of sheriff’s deputies who forcefully restrained and tasered him in the jail’s booking area, those officers were found not to have violated city policy. A civil rights lawsuit brought by Booker’s family is scheduled for trial in federal court next month.
In a meeting with then-Sheriff Wilson and other top department officials in April, Sgt. St. Germain described the Moreno attack as “a good situation” that was “cut and dry” because, he said, Moreno was cursing at officers, threatening to fight and not responding to orders. He cited Moreno’s “internal anger” as a danger to the staff.
He described the incident as “a very successful placement in the chair.”
“I thought it went very well,” he told his superiors. “I would have done this exact same thing again.”
In his disciplinary report, officials wrote, “The Department has great concern regarding your ability to act responsibly and to conduct yourself appropriately while on duty.” They added: “Your conduct has compromised the mission of the Department.”
For his misconduct, St. Germain was disciplined in April with a 10-day suspension without pay. He is appealing that decision. His hearing is set for July 29.
[The first video is a short summary of the incident. The second video is 39 minutes and has been minimally edited to remove some nudity at the beginning. Both videos contain graphic content.]