Videos of alleged excessive police force have become all too common these days. But the ones at the center of a new lawsuit filed by Woodland Park resident C.J. Andersen are shocking, in part because of their setting — a Colorado Springs hospital room — and those present when he was tased not once but twice by police officers despite offering no resistance.
As seen in body-camera footage, the witnesses included Andersen's seriously injured toddler and his fiancée (now his wife), who was pregnant with their second child.
The incident took place in 2019, but Andersen says the effects continue to linger. "These cops know where I live, and I wonder to this day: Am I going to wake up in the middle of the night to somebody kicking down my door?" he asks. "Am I going to be harassed by these police officers when I go places? It was very traumatic, very stressful for me and my wife."
Adds attorney David Lane of Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, who represents Andersen: "It was a completely unjustified use of force — and tasing him twice was outrageous. He's an honorably discharged Marine combat veteran from Afghanistan, and he did absolutely nothing to make them believe he posed any threat to them. But the fact that he wouldn't do what they told him to do — give them his cell phone, which he wasn't required to do — caused them to lose their temper and tase him. So now we're hopefully going to teach these officers what the Constitution requires."
The lawsuit is filed against four individuals — Colorado Springs Police officers Vito DelCore, Todd Eckert and Carlos Sandoval, plus Teller County Sheriff's Office Detective Anthony Matarazzo — as well as the City of Colorado Springs and Teller County. Colorado Springs isn't commenting on the lawsuit; Teller County hasn't responded to our inquiries.
As Andersen tells the story, on April 17, 2019, his fiancée dropped off their then-nineteen-month-old daughter prior to leaving for an appointment, and as he was putting some of the child's belongings in his car, she wandered toward her mother as she was backing out. "She was bumped by the vehicle and had cuts on her face and a minor fracture to the back of her head — but we didn't know that last part yet," he notes.
The toddler was flown by helicopter to Memorial Hospital in the Springs for treatment. "While she was getting a CAT scan, we talked to the main neurologist, who told us everything that was going on with the fracture," Andersen recalls. "The only worry was that there was fluid leaking into her ear, which healed up a couple of days later; she's 100 percent right now. But at that point, after he let us know everything would be fine, some forensic nurses wanted to take pictures and ask her mother questions. And we told them, 'No, don't ask her any questions,' because she was still hysterical and in shock. But that wasn't good enough for them."
Indeed, the injuries apparently raised the (completely unfounded) prospect of child abuse for the nurses, and "they told the police we were a flight risk," Andersen continues. "While we were doing our final check-in about the insurance information, this man [Matarazzo] walks into the room and starts demanding that we hand over my wife's cell phone. He wouldn't tell us who he was, and he got right in my wife's face. I was about to throw him out of the room because he was being so disrespectful, when my father, who was there, too, asked, 'Are you conducting an investigation?' And he said, 'Yes, I am,' and dialed my wife's cell phone number."
When the phone rang, Andersen notes, "I picked it up and put it in my pocket. He said, 'Give me the phone,' and I said, 'Do you have a warrant?' And he said, 'I don't need a warrant.'"
Absolutely wrong, Lane contends: "You need probable cause to believe someone has committed a crime before you can seize property from them while you're arresting them — if you're arresting them. But they had no probable cause. They just wanted to fish around in that cell phone to see if there was anything there. A citizen doesn't have to hand over their personal property just because the police say, 'Hand it over.' C.J. had every right to say, 'I'm not going to give it to you. Leave.'"
Instead, Officer DelCore, who had been summoned by Matarazzo along with fellow officers Eckert and Sandoval, allegedly tried to grab the phone from Andersen's pocket. In response, Andersen said, "Excuse me, you do not grab anything from my pockets," prompting a threat from DelCore that "you're going to hit the ground real hard."
At that point, Andersen's father attempted to contact a friend who worked with Teller County in hopes of de-escalating the situation, but it didn't work. Andersen was shot in the back with a taser, then tased a second time when he was on the ground. In addition, officers took possession of two cell phones: his and his fiancée's.
Here's the first body-camera video of the incident....
...and a second one showing what took place from a different angle.
Afterward, the situation continued to spiral. Andersen says that officers "had a judge sign an emergency protective order after they removed me and told my wife that if she didn't sign it, she'd be removed from the room in handcuffs. They basically forced her to sign the paperwork to the Department of Human Services. We didn't actually have a court date until the following Monday — this happened on a Wednesday afternoon — and after I was taken away in handcuffs, we weren't allowed to see our daughter until Friday, when we had a one-hour visitation. They also let my wife and my mother-in-law stay in the hospital over the weekend, but I wasn't allowed to stay with her until Monday, after we had a hearing with DHS and they dropped the case and gave us back custody of our daughter."
That didn't end Andersen's journey through the criminal justice system, however. "They tried to charge me with resisting arrest and obstructing a police officer, even though you can see in the videos that I clearly wasn't resisting arrest and wasn't obstructing justice," he recalls. "The case didn't get resolved until last December, when we finally got the judge to tell the DA, 'You're going to lose this case. You need to drop it.' And they did drop it."
In the end, Andersen decided to file a complaint because "I want the police to be held accountable. They can't do whatever they want just because they have a badge. They need to be held to the same standard as the rest of society."
Lane adds, "The Colorado Springs Police Department is a frequent flyer on excessive-force cases — and the reason the lesson never gets learned is because no cop has ever lost a paycheck as a result of any settlement or verdict. The taxpayers of Colorado Springs keep paying and paying and paying, and the city council keeps clucking their tongues and doing nothing about this brutal police force."
A 2020 police accountability bill recently signed into law by Governor Jared Polis changes this liability standard, and Lane cheers the shift. But, he points out, "what happened to C.J. Andersen arose before the legislation went into effect — and until a cop loses a paycheck over something like this, police brutality is going to continue unabated."
Lane certainly has no shortage of other cases involving alleged police misconduct. One involves Dr. P.J. Parmar, owner and founder of Mango House, a gathering place for members of the refugee community; an Aurora police officer aimed his weapon at Parmar earlier this year while he was parked on his own property. The exchange was captured in a viral video, and Lane says Aurora "is interested in possibly resolving this case."
In contrast, he adds, the City of Denver hasn't made any move to settle a dispute over another matter caught on video: Denver cops pulling a gun on Naphtali Israel and his three stepdaughters in what appears to be an enormous overreaction to a 911 call. "In my opinion," Lane allows, "that's not a good case to take to federal court. But if that's what they want..."
Andersen, meanwhile, is still grappling with the fallout from what happened more than a year ago. "My wife and I are both from families that were very pro-law enforcement," he says. "This has really changed our perspective about how police treat people and what they should be allowed to do. And they shouldn't be able to treat people like that."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.