A screen capture from a video showing a Fort Collins police officer on top of Kimberly Chancellor after hurling her to the ground. | YouTube
The lawsuit that Kim Chancellor recently filed after being roughed up by a cop is at least the fifth excessive-force complaint put forward against Fort Collins Police Services by Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, a Denver law firm. It's also one of the four incidents captured on video. And while a number of law enforcers face accusations of wrongdoing (with one, former Officer Todd Hopkins, who resigned last year, cited in two cases), attorney David Lane feels that higher-ups on the force deserve even more blame than those who allegedly did the damage.
"To allow this kind of brutality in their police department," Lane says, "it starts at the top."
A statement released by FCPS doesn't specifically address the Chancellor matter or the other incidents, focusing instead on policy and mission. It reads: "Officers are involved on a daily basis in numerous and varied interactions and, when warranted, may use reasonable force in carrying out their duties. The Agency recognizes and respects the value of all human life and dignity without prejudice to anyone. Vesting officers with the authority to use reasonable force and to protect the public welfare requires monitoring, evaluation, and a careful balancing of all interests. FCPS officers undergo regular training each year to maintain proficient [sic] in the use of defensive tactics and tools. Our Professional Standards and Training Unit also continuously evaluate our tools, tactics, and training to ensure that they remain in line with national best practices."
The best-known of the cases involves Michaella Surat, thanks to the magic of viral video. A bystander used a cell phone to capture the moment when Officer Randall Klamser body-slammed her in Old Town Fort Collins circa 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 what happened arrived in the spring of 2019.
The individuals at the center of the other cases are Natasha Patnode, Dakota McGrath and Sean Slatton — the only person whose encounter with Fort Collins police isn't on video. The following compilation assembled by Killmer, Lane & Newman puts the Patnode episode 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 videos may disturb some viewers.
Lane outlines the Chancellor scenario like so:
"Kim Chancellor was driving her car, and there was a guy on a motorcycle who became enraged," he notes. "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. "She wasn't sure he was legitimate," Lane allows, "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. I think it was still part of the road rage he was experiencing, and the whole thing was caught on video. It shows a pattern with the Fort Collins police of wildly excessive force, mainly on women."
Examples include Surat and Patnode, who shoplifted at a Target store in March 2018, after which Officer Hopkins struck her an estimated sixty times in addition to tasing her on three occasions.
However, men are also part of the mix. Take Dakota McGrath, a third-degree-assault suspect who didn't hear an approaching cop in October 2016 because he was wearing earbuds at the time. As such, he was unprepared when the officer struck him in the head with a steel baton that he also used to bash his legs after McGrath went down in a heap. The case was later settled for an undisclosed amount. And then there's what happened to Sean Slatton in December 2016.
"Sean was asked to leave a sorority party, so he did," Lane maintains. Officer Hopkins "followed him out of the party, and Sean had his phone in his hand; he was summoning an Uber. He stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and was no longer at the party. But this cop said, 'Get going.' He said, 'I'm waiting for my ride.' The cop turned around and said, 'Turn around and put your hands behind your back.' Sean said, 'I left. Leave me alone.' And the cop whacks him with his night stick and pepper sprays him."
Because Slatton personally filed his complaint against Hopkins and others before Killmer, Lane & Newman got involved, the firm didn't negotiate with the department in an attempt to resolve things before this step was taken. But Lane says attorneys have taken part in talks with the City of Fort Collins over the Patnode situation. In his words, "We'll file on that in federal court if we don't settle it," just as it's already done on behalf of Surat and Chancellor.
He points out that "this is the same police department that brought you Tim Masters," whose 1999 murder conviction was tossed thanks to DNA evidence. "That cost Fort Collins taxpayers $10 million. Until the citizens of Fort Collins demand change, nothing will change. Fort Collins will continue to write checks for large amounts of money."
Click to read Kimberly Chancellor v. City of Fort Collins, et al., and Sean Slatton v. Todd Hopkins, et al.