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Report: ‘Fight club’ at Colo. jail rewarded deputies for use of force

Investigation only began after one official felt another had ‘cheated’ at the game


A 1,000-page report details the ‘fight club’ run by officials at Colorado’s El Paso County Jail.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

By Rachel Riley
The Gazette

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A rogue competition that rewarded participating deputies for using force on inmates at the El Paso County jail only spurred a formal investigation after a deputy became convinced that a fellow deputy had slammed a woman face-first on a cell floor just to boost his ranking.

The whistleblower deputy tried more than once to report the so-called fight club sport to his superiors — including to the Detention Bureau chief in 2015. He eventually told one sergeant that he had “lost faith” in the agency’s leadership after months of futile attempts urging supervisors to punish the deputies’ behavior.

But it wasn’t until late April 2016, when a now ex-deputy, 6-foot, roughly 250-pound Ryan Sanders, took down a 5-foot-2, 130-pound woman for ignoring his order to get on her knees that the whistleblower’s supervisors finally told him to document his concerns and a formal investigation ensued, according to hundreds of pages of documents provided to The Gazette by the Sheriff’s Office.

Dan Montgomery, an Arvada-based police practices expert, praised the Sheriff’s Office for completing an Internal Affairs investigation and later commissioning a consulting firm to review its use-of-force protocols.

By not acting immediately, however, supervisors who overheard conversations between participating deputies allowed the flourishing and festering of “cowboy subculture,” in which deputies feel they have “unfettered discretion to do what they please” and ignore protocols and policies, Montgomery said.

“As a supervisor, or as a watch commander, you got to jump on it, and you got to stop it — like right now,” said Montgomery, whose 55-year law enforcement career included serving as police chief in Westminster.

That didn’t happen.

By the time action was taken, what the informant called the “Mid-night Fight Club” — which had spanned four years from 2012 to 2016 and involved deputies on the overnight Intake and Release shift at the jail — had created a civil liability nightmare for Sheriff Bill Elder and would eventually contribute to the largest settlement ever by the county.

“You’ve got a roomful of witnesses. You’ve got a roomful of litigation,” Sgt. Robert “Bud” Perry later told sheriff’s staff assigned to the investigation, while describing his warnings to deputies to stop the open bantering about their rankings before nonparticipating colleagues and in front of inmates.

First-hand accounts from those deputies and their supervisors are among the revelations in the nearly 1,000 pages of documents that raise questions about the attempts by supervisors’ to halt the practice.

The reporting deputy — whose name is redacted from the documents — said talk of the competition had become “so common that no one believes it is something to be reported.”

The county had sought to keep the cache of court documents secret.

But a judge ruled that the records were public in court proceedings leading up to a $675,000 payout, finalized last month.

Former inmate Philippa McCully sued the Sheriff’s Office in U.S. District Court in Denver in 2016, two years after she suffered a torn ACL, broken knee and other injuries after jailers yanked her legs out from under her in an incident that, her attorney has noted, might have even given the deputies involved an advantage in the fight-club competition.

Supervisors were aware of the rankings to some extent and tried, as one sergeant told sheriff’s staff assigned to the investigation, to “resolve the issue internally” by rebuking deputies in back-room conversations and at daily briefings instead of documenting the transgressions and sending them up the chain of command.

Records show supervisors overheard jailers comparing their stats as early as October 2015, when Sgt. Jeanette Reid asked one deputy — who was later revealed as the unsanctioned scorekeeper for the rankings — to admonish two co-workers after they joked about their numbers.

Three months later, after witnessing a similar conversation between two deputies in the inmate booking area, Sgt. Christopher Klug pulled the jailers aside, warning, “This is the last time this type of conversation goes undocumented.”

The Sheriff’s Office acknowledged supervisors’ lapses in judgment in a statement issued to The Gazette on Aug. 16, saying that the matter should have been routed up the chain of command and addressed immediately.

“The Sheriff’s Office expects its supervisors, among other things, to accept responsibility in matters of procedure; to hold their personnel responsible for their own conduct and the conduct of their subordinates; and to report any incidents or observations of misconduct,” the agency said in the statement.

“Unfortunately, there were some supervisory failures in this particular matter and those failures were part of the internal investigation conducted into the inappropriate keeping of statistical comparisons on the use of force.”

The Sheriff’s Office had been exposed for years to heightened civil liability for what one supervisor had chalked up to “stupid boys doing stupid things,” according to the documents.

Those interviewed as part of the investigation said repeatedly that the practice resulted in no real harm to inmates.

The so-called fight club, which became a “pattern or practice” among deputies on the overnight shift, paved the way for what’s known as a “Monell claim,” brought by those alleging violations to their constitutional rights due to deficiencies in an entity’s policies or failures to punish violations of those rules, said Baltimore-based police policies expert Jerry “Buz” Busnuk.

The rankings gave inmates who alleged use of force during the fight club era a “stepping stone” for a lawsuit, and pinned the motive of bragging rights on any accused jailer, said Busnuk, a retired Baltimore police captain who’s spent nearly 30 years working in law enforcement.

Thanks to a two-year statute of limitations, claims of use of force against inmates during the four-year period of the rankings have likely expired, said Darold Killmer, McCully’s attorney.

Sheriff’s officials have downplayed the investigation, saying the “fight club” moniker, coined by the whistleblower deputy, made the practice sound worse than it was.

Supervisors have said they weren’t aware of a competition, only deputies that ribbed one another about their stats, according to documents from the investigation.

Several deputies also denied there was a competition, saying the rankings were lighthearted statistical comparisons made by checking an internal report that shows each sheriff’s employee and the number of uses of force incidents in which they’ve been involved in a given period.

In the wake of the probe, six Sheriff’s Office staff received letters of counseling and four received written reprimands, one of the lowest forms of disciplinary action.

Letters of counseling were issued to at least two supervisors, Lt. Lari Hanenberg and Sgt. Perry, because the deputies had participated in the competition on their watch.

No one was demoted, and no salaries were docked, sheriff’s officials confirmed.

Sanders has since left the agency, and Reid has retired, Undersheriff Joe Breister previously told The Gazette. But all others who were investigated for policy violations in association with the fight club remain employed by the Sheriff’s Office, although some are now working for different bureaus within the agency.

The Gazette attempted to reach several named employees for comment through a spokeswoman for the agency and through email, but was unsuccessful.

Even those who received written reprimands appeared to have faced just an administrative slap on the wrist and no real consequences, said Gregory Gilbertson, a former Georgia police officer and expert in police misconduct.

“I’m surprised that this, quite honestly, didn’t get the attention of the Justice Department and there wasn’t a major inquiry into this,” said Gilbertson, who’s now a criminal justice professor at Centralia College in Washington.

“The supervisory staff had to have known that this was going on. And for them not to be called to the carpet, for them not to be disciplined, it just defies logic and reason.”

In late 2014, a deputy sent out an email to three supervisors and about eight other jailers that featured a pair of “memes,” or pictures with text superimposed, showing a deputy spanking an intoxicated inmate who had mouthed off to her. “When you are wondering if the force you used was ‘reasonable and appropriate’ …?” the first image reads. Then, the second: “And your buddies are wondering, ‘Did she just spank him?’?”

Early in 2015, Deputy Sean Grady called the deputy featured in the meme, Sandra Rincon, “an inspiration to us all” and “the gold standard” in an email sent out to more than a dozen colleagues, including two sergeants and one lieutenant. Grady congratulated Rincon for hitting “the big 5-0” — a reference to both her birthday and the more than four-dozen instances she had used force on an inmate in 2014.

The whistleblower deputy told sheriff’s officials assigned to the internal investigation that one deputy would regularly reference adding to his count, the documents state. Another had once remarked to him that he hoped an inmate would give him the chance to release his “pent-up” energy.

At a Sheriff’s Office awards banquet in 2016, one deputy heard another deputy share their rankings with a television news reporter.

Initially, the deputies in the jail’s Intake and Release section took notice that their use of force numbers appeared higher than the figures for those who worked floor security at the jail. As Lt. Hanenberg noted in an interview with sheriff’s officials assigned to the investigation, the section deals with some of the most “volatile” inmates because tempers are high when people are first taken into custody — making use of force a natural topic of conversation during day-to-day operations.

But what started as monitoring an internal report documenting use of force later morphed into an “unhealthy” and “unsavory” competition that created a culture where “it seemed OK for deputies to embrace use of force as a ‘badge of honor’ and a part of everyday conversation,” one investigating sheriff’s staff member reported.

The deputies involved have denied that there was a competition, instead characterizing it as somewhat routine statistical comparisons. Sgt. Perry offered a different description in his interview with sheriff’s staff assigned to the investigation:

“Call it sh-t-talking,” he said.