Colorado SpringsNewsPublic Safety

Court records reveal use of force “fight club” competition at El Paso County Jail

Author: Lance Benzel & Rachel Riley, The Gazette - July 16, 2018 - Updated: August 7, 2018

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Deputy Sandra Rincon poses for a photo as jail staff celebrate her 50th use of force in jail, sheriff’s officials confirmed. (Photo by Rachel Riley, The Gazette)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Wearing a tiara and posing for a camera, El Paso County sheriff’s Deputy Sandra Rincon smiled next to a cake with two candles on top displaying the number 50.

It wasn’t her birthday.

Instead, the Sheriff’s Office has confirmed, Rincon was being crowned champion of what one county jailer dubbed the “fight club” — an off-the-books contest in which deputies at the jail tracked each time they used force against an inmate, ranging from handcuffing to punching and kicking, and awarded bragging rights to the winners.

Rincon, a deputy since 2007, won top honors in 2014 for more than four dozen such encounters, said Darold Killmer, a Denver civil rights lawyer who revealed the practice as part of a lawsuit alleging excessive force by jailers. Along with Rincon’s cake came a gift bag and paper plate that read “Princess,” court records show.

“This exposed an entire culture of violence,” said Killmer, who credits the photo for helping to pave the way toward a $675,000 settlement for his client, Philippa McCully. It would be the county’s largest payout on record.

Allegations of the so-called deputy “fight club” spurred a short-lived kerfuffle for Sheriff Bill Elder last year, when the Colorado Springs Independent reported on his agency’s investigation, which chalked up the comparisons to deputies trying to monitor their own performances under an internal reporting system.

But sheriff’s staff depositions and an internal memo detailing that investigation — now part of a public court record — reveal a previously unknown level of dysfunction at the understaffed and overpopulated jail.

The documents also raise questions about the sheriff’s handling of the internal probe and steps the office took to shore up safeguards ensuring that deputies are appropriate in their use of force, a primary source of inmate complaints and lawsuits.

The tallying spanned four years, from 2012 to 2016, and involved nearly a dozen deputies, the investigation and staff depositions show.

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

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said he’s not convinced that the Sheriff’s Office has taken the necessary steps to change a culture where use of force once merited praise.

“It just cries out for further investigation for what is going on in the El Paso County jail,” Silverstein said after reviewing the memo detailing the investigation. “Officers pick up attitudes like that because of the culture of the institution. And the culture of the institution is not changed by handing out a few reprimands.”

The revelations come as Elder heads toward re-election in November, with a GOP primary win under his belt in a heavily Republican county.

Undersheriff Joe Breister said the disciplinary actions were punishment enough for the “bad judgment” of those deputies who chose to participate in the competition as a way to build esprit de corps among one of the shifts working the jail’s Intake and Release section.

“Nobody used force when it wasn’t warranted. Nobody baited an inmate into using force. They were doing their job and using force within the guidelines of the office,” Breister said. “Nothing in the investigation ever proved or ever showed that there was any type of force use that wasn’t reasonable or wasn’t necessary given the circumstances that they faced at that time.”

He downplayed the competition, saying the title of fight club “gives the perception this was something a lot worse than it was,” and that the moniker wasn’t used to describe the comparisons until another deputy complained to supervisors about it in April 2016, giving rise to the investigation.

In a memo documenting the investigation, a sergeant wrote that the use of force rankings began as one deputy’s seemingly harmless habit of checking an internal report and became “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.”

Gordon Vaughan, a Colorado Springs attorney retained by the county’s insurance carrier to represent deputies involved, echoed those arguments, conceding that while the deputies engaged in “inappropriate” humor, at no time were they motivated to be more forceful than necessary.

“These are good officers who work hard and put their safety on the line every day they go to work,” he said. “ There was no fight and there was no club.”

A few of the deputies who were investigated might have received points in the competition for the incident over which McCully sued, former detention Bureau Chief Mitch Lincoln said in his deposition for the case.

Deputies yanked McCully’s legs out from under her and shoved her to the floor, leaving the then Colorado College junior with a torn ACL, fractured knee and body covered in bruises, according to the lawsuit, filed two years later in 2016 in U.S. District Court in Denver.

“The county undoubtedly became more fearful that their ship was sinking when the fight club allegations became public,” Killmer said. “I think once it became clear that there was a fight club that had been run for years in the jail, they knew they would lose this case.”

Vaughan said McCully’s injuries were the result of a miscommunication among deputies involved in restraining her. The deputy who swept her legs from under her believed that two others would catch her and lower her to the floor, but those deputies weren’t prepared to assist in the maneuver.

“The other thing I would say is that McCully’s conduct, which led her to incarceration and need to take her to floor and handcuff her, is a matter of record that speaks for itself,” Vaughan said.

McCully was arrested on suspicion of felony menacing, vehicular assault and reckless driving. However, all but one of the charges — felony menacing — were eventually dismissed. According to an arrest affidavit, she told an officer that she sped up and tried to hit four classmates who she suspected were making fun of her. She denies telling police this.

The county’s excess insurance carrier, OneBeacon, will pay the $675,000 settlement, set to be finalized later this month. Under the county’s insurance policy, once legal costs for a case surpass $250,000 — a limit reached early in litigating McCully’s claims — that case is referred to the insurance group and the county no longer has any say in the outcome, according to Senior Assistant County Attorney Lisa Kirkman.

The settlement does not resolve allegations against another defendant in the case, the county’s former jail health care provider, Correct Care Solutions, which is accused of failing to provide McCully with medical attention for her injuries.

The hefty $675,000 sum is more than half the roughly $1.1 million the county has paid out in the past five years to settle lawsuits or other claims. Included in that $1.1 million is nearly $35,000 in settlements to former inmates who alleged that they were victims of excessive use of force by jail staff.

Under the sheriff’s policy, deputies are required to record every time they use force via a software program, and those reports are regularly reviewed by supervisors to ensure that the actions were justified.

Records show that the number of incidents in which jail staff used force rose during the first two years of the competition, increasing from 261 in 2011 to 458 in 2014, according to a 2015 assessment prepared for the jail by a consulting firm. Sheriff’s officials say that in recent years they’ve bolstered training efforts for deputies related to use of force and de-escalation techniques and introduced new programs to provide staff guidance on handling inmates with mental health issues.

Data obtained by The Gazette show those measures have not diminished deputies’ use of force at the jail.

Nearly 900 uses of force were recorded at the jail in 2016, and that figure more than doubled in 2017, when nearly 2,400 uses of force were reported. Through July of this year, jail staff had logged more than 800 uses of force. Breister attributed the rise to a number of factors, including the jail’s growing population, as well as changes to what is considered a use of force and how those reports are counted.

Since the beginning of 2016, the Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs Unit investigated 16 of those reports to determine if the force used was excessive. Of those 16, nine were sustained and resulted in a range of consequences for the staff member involved, from a letter of counseling or written reprimand to a week-long suspension. In two cases, staff members resigned to avoid further disciplinary measures.

The sergeant who investigated the use-of-force competition, whose name is redacted from the memo, said it arose from deputies checking a report that catalogs the names of some sheriff’s employees and the number of incidents in which they’ve used force. The document, which is now only available to supervisors, was part of a Sheriff’s Office system meant to provide officers who might have behavior problems with additional training or supervision before resorting to formal discipline. Deputies’ names were added to the list if they were involved in a certain number of use of force incidents in a given period of time.

The competition began with deputies who were curious about where they stood, and supervisors knew — to some extent — about the rankings that the report spawned, the sergeant said in the memo.

Three Sheriff’s Office personnel who were investigated for policy violations related to the use-of-force competition — Rincon, Deputy Sean Grady and Lt. Lari Hanenberg — were named as defendants in the McCully case.

Grady said in his deposition in the McCully case that he was the one who began monitoring the document, and that he sent an email at the end of 2014 saying that Rincon was in the lead. Rincon denied in her deposition that it was a “fight club” or “competition,” instead calling it a simple “monitoring the use-of-force report.”

Lance Benzel & Rachel Riley, The Gazette