Fort Collins has agreed to pay a combined $450,000 to Natasha Patnode and Kim Chancellor, who say they were victims of excessive force at the hands of police officers during separate incidents caught on video. And while neither the city nor Fort Collins Police Services has admitted that the cops went too far in either instance, attorney David Lane, whose law firm, Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP, represents the pair, sees an underlying message.
"There's no acknowledgment of wrongdoing ever in a settlement," Lane says. "But money talks in America, and they paid almost half a million dollars in two cases. That says a lot. And unfortunately, it's the taxpayers who are footing the bill."
In a statement provided to Westword, Fort Collins Police Chief Jeffrey Swoboda, who took over the department in April 2018, after the Patnode and Chancellor episodes had taken place, stresses that "Fort Collins Police Services takes use of force seriously. Our training and policies reflect this, and we have effective internal and external systems to ensure that individuals are held accountable if they operate outside of agency expectations."
In a story published in January, we noted that Lane and his colleagues had taken on at least five police-brutality cases against the Fort Collins department, including one involving Dakota McGrath, a third-degree-assault suspect who didn't hear an approaching cop in October 2016 because he was wearing earbuds. As a result, he was unprepared when the officer struck him in the head with a steel baton that the cop also used to bash his legs after McGrath went down in a heap.
The McGrath case was later settled for an undisclosed amount, but the other four were still pending at the start of this year. The best-known centered on Michaella Surat, thanks to the magic of viral video. A bystander had used a cell phone to capture the moment when Officer Randall Klamser body-slammed Surat in Old Town Fort Collins in April 2017, and the resulting clip wound up getting national play. Surat was subsequently convicted of resisting arrest and obstructing a police officer and sentenced to probation and community service; her lawsuit over the incident was filed in the spring of 2019.
Then there's what happened to Sean Slatton in December 2016. According to Lane, Fort Collins Officer Todd Hopkins, who's since parted ways with the department, followed Slatton out of a sorority party he'd been asked to leave, then whacked him with a night stick and pepper-sprayed him as he waited on a sidewalk for someone to pick him up.
As for Chancellor, one day in October 2017, she "was driving her car, and there was a guy on a motorcycle who became enraged," Lane explains. "It was a road-rage kind of response. She didn't know she'd done anything to cut him off or done anything wrong. He was following her, and she had no idea who he was or what he was all about. So she made her turn and parked her car where she was going, and he followed her and identified himself as a police officer."
The man in question turned out to be Fort Collins Officer Stephan Sparacio, but he was off-duty at the time, which may have contributed to Chancellor's confusion. According to Lane, "She wasn't sure he was legitimate, but she responded to him as if he was a police officer. He asked to see her papers, and she was going over to get them when he tackled her and just began to brutalize her for no reason...and the whole thing was caught on video."
So, too, was the March 2018 event involving Patnode; after she shoplifted at a Target store, Officer Hopkins — yes, the same one who pummeled Slatton — struck her an estimated sixty times in addition to tasing her three times.
The following compilation assembled by Killmer, Lane & Newman puts Patnode's experiences up front, with Surat's starting at around the 7:40 mark, followed by Chancellor's at approximately 8:50 and McGrath's at 9:45. (Warning: The clip may disturb some readers.)
In recent weeks, Fort Collins paid $125,000 to settle Chancellor's complaint, and on March 3, Lane revealed the city's offer of $325,000 to Patnode.
Fort Collins Police Services public-relations manager Kate Kimble delivered responses via email about both cases. Of Chancellor's, she writes: "Following the October 2017 incident, a full investigation was conducted and FCPS sent the case to the Citizen Review Board for external review. Appropriate internal action was taken to address the officer's decision-making in this incident."
Regarding Patnode, she notes: "The investigation into the March 2018 incident was initiated internally, leadership requested external assistance and reviews to ensure transparency, and the final disciplinary recommendation was severe. The officer involved in this incident voluntarily resigned before any disciplinary action could be taken. Following this investigation, FCPS conducted a comprehensive review of the agency’s use of force policies and training protocols to ensure they met or exceeded national standards. All officers also received training to reinforce agency expectations and appropriate tactical decision-making."
Kimble adds: "The FCPS Personnel and Training Unit continuously evaluates our tools, tactics, and training to ensure that they remain in line with national best practices. One-third of Fort Collins officers are certified in Crisis Intervention Team training (exceeding the national standard of 20 percent). The agency’s culture, policies, and training reflect a philosophy of de-escalation."
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Lane points out that Swoboda "met with Kim and apologized to her. Their position is that the culture in Fort Collins is changing under the new chief."
Nonetheless, there are no deals thus far in connection with the Surat and Slatton situations. "For some reason, they view Patnode and Chancellor as different from the other two cases, but I don't think there's a qualitative difference," says Lane. "Surat got convicted of some low-level misdemeanors, but the viral video shows that the officer clearly used excessive force. We're on offense, and I think a jury will agree with us about that. And Hopkins, the officer who brutalized Slatton, was also the cop who did the same thing to Patnode."
While the court process is already under way in both cases, Lane confirms that Fort Collins could bring it to an abrupt end by settling. "Hopefully," he notes, "regime change will be a good thing for the citizens of Fort Collins, who've been on the receiving end of the tender mercies of the local police department."
Click to read the Natasha Patnode settlement agreement.