Craig settles one excessive force suit, while another moves forward
Both incidents involve Craig Police officers deploying Tasers
For the Craig Press
The city of Craig in January settled a lawsuit alleging excessive force against two officers over a 2018 tasing incident, the second civil rights complaint of its type filed against police force members since July.
Croix Orona’s federal complaint didn’t attract the level of publicity generated by another lawsuit with video exhibits of officers tasing a man purportedly experiencing a mental health crisis at his residence on Feb. 18, 2020.
The civil lawsuit by Orona, however, cast police in a similar light as the three officers being sued by another local resident, Grayson Dennis: law enforcement allegedly escalating a matter by tasing and hurting an individual at his residence. For its part, the city maintained in court filings its officers acted in good faith during the Orona incident, and in the case of Dennis, the police deployed the tasers in reaction to his “acts and conduct,” according to court filings.
On Jan. 21, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello signed an order dismissing Orona’s suit against Craig with prejudice, meaning Orona cannot sue the city again on the same allegations.
“Plaintiff and the City have reached a resolution of all claims against the City,” said a joint motion from the parties seeking dismissal of the case, which stemmed from an incident on July 18, 2018, when officers — while responding to an anonymous call of a break-in — encountered Orona sitting on his porch before tasering him multiple times.
Details on the settlement and whether it involved the city admitting liability or making a monetary payment to Orona were not available Thursday. City attorney Heather Cannon declined comment and Denver attorney Eric M. Ziporin of of the Denver-based civil litigation defense firm SGR LLC would not discuss the settlement.
“Given that litigation is pending against the City of Craig, we decline to comment,” Ziporon said in an email.
The Denver firm representing Orona, Civil Rights Litigation Group PLLC, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
For the city of Craig, the settlement came three weeks before Police Chief Jerry DeLong resigned Feb. 9 from the force after he and City Manager Peter Brixius clashed over DeLong’s hiring of a new school resource officer without consulting with Moffat County School District Superintendent Scott Pankow, based on Craig city emails obtained through a Colorado Open Records Request. Michael Cochran currently is the interim chief of police.
DeLong’s name surfaced in a Monday proposed scheduling order — which is a set of deadlines for motions, evidence collection, witness disclosure and other matters — in Dennis’ lawsuit against Craig officers Grant Laehr, Joshua Lyons and Daron Hasir.
The Denver firm suing the officers on Dennis’ behalf — Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman LLC — placed DeLong’s name on a list of witnesses it plans to depose about the incident. Other witnesses the plaintiff’s attorneys plan to depose include medical professional, the three defendant officers and other law enforcement personnel.
The defense team for the Craig government listed Dennis, as well as his father and girlfriend, as witnesses it plans to query, as well as multiple physicians and expert witnesses, according to court papers.
In court filings, Dennis’ attorneys said he was a victim of excessive force by police officers responding to his residence after he called 911 reporting he was experiencing a mental health crisis. When police arrived on the scene they initially spent time outside of the residence talking to Dennis’ father before entering the home, based on video footage from a police officer’s body camera. Dennis told officers he wanted their help because he believed he had taken cyanide and other substances, but became combative with authorities when they tried to detain him.
“Predictably, having been subjected to grossly excessive force and being tased at least five times, Mr. Dennis was by then experiencing a medical crisis on top of a mental health crisis,” said Monday’s filing. “He was transported to Memorial Hospital in Craig, where he was intubated and diagnosed with acute respiratory failure before being flown via Flight for Life to a Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit. When he woke up Mr. Dennis had tubes coming out of his mouth, a catheter, and was unsure where he was or what had happened. All he knew was that he had called 911 for help and ended up seriously brutalized and in fear for his life.”
Attorney John Holland, who filed the complaint with Rachel Kennedy, said Thursday they were aware of Orona’s case and settlement, yet it has no bearing on how the one from Dennis will unfold.
“It’s interesting to us in terms of a pattern, that there is a widespread problem in Craig with CIT (crisis intervention team) training,” Holland said.
Dennis hasn’t recovered from the incident, the attorneys said.
“This case has had a significant impact on him,” Kennedy said. “He called for help in the midst of a mental health crisis, where he just needed some support and medical assistance and ended up being brutalized, and he’s dealing with the emotion and the impacts of it.”
Holland said, “They turned this into a police case instead of a mental health case.”
The police officers were not disciplined, as far as the attorneys could tell. Craig’s attorney Cannon declined comment when asked about whether the officers were disciplined or remained employed with the CPD. She cited personnel reasons for not providing the information.
As well, Ziporin would not comment on Dennis’ pending suit against the city.
The suit by Dennis was filed in the U.S. District Court of Denver in October. In July, Orona took two Craig officers to the same court over an incident two years ago on July 23, 2018.
Police on that date were in Orona’s neighborhood looking for what was described as a tall bearded man wearing a hoodie who may have tried to break into a home, the suit said. Not having an exact physical address, the two officers saw Orona sitting on his porch, the suit said.
Though Orona did not fit the description, police asked him several questions, which he declined to answer, the suit said.
“Without any provocation, Defendant Officers drew their Tasers and aimed them at Plaintiff,” the suit said, adding Orona raised his empty hands and asked police to leave his property.
“As the officers continued to approach, Plaintiff slowly attempted to open the door of his residence to get away from the threats surrounding him,” the suit said. “Annoyed and perturbed at Plaintiff’s refusal to submit to the officers’ unwarranted show of authority, and angry that Plaintiff was attempting to get away from them, the Defendant Officers fired their Tasers at Plaintiff and chased him inside his home.”
Officers then tackled him, pinned him down and continue to taser him, the suit alleged.
“The Defendant officers did not relent,” the suit said. “Instead, the Defendant Officers used their Tasers on Plaintiff numerous times during a span of about a minute, while Plaintiff had his hands up and in a position of surrender and while officers were on top of him. Plaintiff cried out for help as Defendant Officers stunned him again and again. Suddenly, Plaintiff went completely quiet and unconscious.”
Police took Orona to a medical center before he was transported to jail on obstructing justice and resisting-arrest charges.
“The District Attorney for Moffat County eventually dismissed the resisting arrest and obstruction charges against Plaintiff because there was not sufficient evidence to support the charges,” the suit said.
The suit claimed police violated Orona’s First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourth Amendment right protecting him from unlawful search and seizure.
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Police say a Craig man, who is a registered sex offender with a lengthy criminal history, advanced on officers with knives in both hands before being tased by police Tuesday afternoon.