Lawsuit: Fully restrained suspect was taunted, threatened, tased

Posted at 5:42 PM, September 23, 2022 and last updated 12:41 AM, December 13, 2022

By Stephanie Butzer

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. (KMGH) — A federal lawsuit filed against the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office claims that deputies and a sergeant strapped a suspect to a chair — fully restraining him — threatened him, used a Taser on him, and then left him in the restraint chair for four hours.

The sergeant — identified in the suit as now-former Sgt. Christopher Mecca — later told his superiors that he opted out of other methods of force because the suspect “is a Black man,” the lawsuit reads. He was later convicted of assault and official misconduct.

Longmont officers brought suspect Travis Cole to the Boulder County Jail in the early hours of Sept. 23, 2020, where he was put on a restraint chair and, despite being unable to move, was tased by Sgt. Christopher Mecca, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday. (Courtesy: Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP)

The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday by Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP on behalf of Travis Cole. It lists out the following defendants:

  • Boulder County
  • Sheriff Joe Pelle
  • Cmdr. Lydia Mitchell
  • Cmdr. Geno Martinez
  • Sgt. Christopher Mecca
  • Deputy Clayton Domanico
  • Deputy John Finkbiner
  • Deputy Ammie Howlan
  • Deputy Joel Fundaro
  • Deputy Sean Metcalf
  • Deputy Jeremy McDaniel
  • Deputy James Long

According to the lawsuit, just before midnight on Sept. 22, 2020, Cole, who was 32 at the time, was arrested by officers with the Longmont Police Department on misdemeanor charges. He was brought to the Boulder County Jail for booking in the early hours of Sept. 23. At the time, the sheriff’s office said the Longmont officers noted that Cole was intoxicated, faced domestic assault charges, and was combative during his arrest.

In this screenshot from body-camera footage, Sgt. Christopher Mecca is seen using a taser on Travis Cole’s leg while Cole is restrained in a chair, according to the lawsuit. (Courtesy: Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP)

Deputy Domanico and Deputy Finkbiner brought Cole from the Longmont police vehicle to a mat so they could pat him down. Cole knelt on the ground and the two deputies decided to move him to a restraint chair, “which they accomplished without incident,” the lawsuit reads.

In addition to Deputy Domanico and Deputy Finkbiner, multiple other personnel surrounded Cole, including Deputy Howlan, Deputy Fundaro, Deputy Metcalf, Deputy McDaniel, and Deputy Long, who helped to secure Cole to the chair once he was sitting on it. This was completed under the direction of Sgt. Mecca, though Cole “offered some mild passive resistance” by moving his upper body, blowing raspberries and holding a spit mask in his mouth, the lawsuit reads. Two Longmont officers were also in the room, but were not involved in restraining Cole.

Within two minutes and 10 seconds, the group had secured Cole to the chair. They began to put spit masks over Cole’s head and he shouted in distress, the lawsuit reads.

Sgt. Mecca then started to “verbally taunt” Cole in an effort “to provoke aggression from the fully restrained arrestee by repeatedly challenging him to resist,” the document says. Sgt. Mecca also placed his Taser on Cole’s leg and threatened to turn it on, it continues. The others in the group just watched, saw the Taser, “yet did nothing to intervene, even though there was no conceivable justification for Defendant Mecca’s threat to tase Mr. Cole,” the lawsuit reads. Nobody took any action to de-escalate the situation.

The suit claims that Cole could not use any of his limbs or spit — he could only yell and shift his shoulders.

Christopher Mecca (20th Judicial District Attorney’s Office)

“Then, while continuing to taunt Mr. Cole, Defendant Mecca activated his Taser and electrocuted Mr. Cole, watching his restrained body shake and writhe for approximately five seconds — an act of sheer cowardly sadism with no conceivable legitimate law enforcement or penological purpose, and a certain infliction of excessive force,” the lawsuit reads.

Sgt. Mecca continued to allegedly taunt and insult Cole afterward, saying he would follow Cole to a holding cell “for the implied purpose of physically fighting,” the lawsuit says. It claims Sgt. Mecca followed Cole as he was wheeled into a cell “for no purpose other than to make a machismo-fueled proclamation that he wasn’t afraid of Mr. Cole.”

The defendants left Cole in the restraint chair in an isolation cell for four hours, the lawsuit reads.

It is illegal to tase a restrained inmate in Boulder County, something that the lawsuit claims Sgt. Mecca knew.

The Longmont officers present for this incident were “stunned” by Sgt. Mecca’s “cruel use of excessive force,” and decided to speak with their own sergeant about their concerns, the document says. Their sergeant found the report so concerning that he called Sgt. Mecca to ask for an explanation, but found that he was “defensive and offered no valid rationale,” it continues.

After this incident, Sgt. Mecca wrote an email to his superiors saying he “had chosen to tase Mr. Cole while he was fully restrained, and not use other methods of applying force, because Mr. Cole is a Black man. Had Plaintiff been white, Defendant Mecca would not have tased him,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims that Deputy Domanico, Deputy Finkbiner, Deputy Howlan, Deputy Fundaro, Deputy Metcalf, Deputy McDaniel, and Deputy Long stood just feet away during the incident, but “not one of the involved deputies took any action of any kind to prevent Defendant Mecca’s use of excessive force before it happened, or while it happened.”

Several of the deputies later reported they thought Sgt. Mecca’s use of the Taser was appropriate. The group agreed upon this in a debriefing Sgt. Mecca called following the incident, according to the lawsuit, and they did not believe Sgt. Mecca should be punished.

“They likely believed this because, in the past and in accordance with Boulder County’s and Defendant Pelle’s unwritten customs and practices, Defendant Mecca (and others) had not been disciplined for engaging in similar excessive uses of force and escalations relating to inmates,” the lawsuit reads.

Boulder County and Sheriff Pelle promoted Sgt. Mecca to a supervisory position, and he was the supervisor on-duty on the night Longmont police brought Cole to the jail, so Sgt. Mecca “knew that he could escalate the situation with Mr. Cole, and use excessive force, without risk of any formal discipline,” the lawsuit claims.

Sgt. Mecca’s supervisors at the jail were on notice regarding his “inability to control his temper, his express anger and disagreement with the settlement of the (Lauren) Gotthelf matter for the exact same conduct,” the document reads.

A federal lawsuit filed against the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday claims that deputies and a sergeant strapped a suspect to a chair — fully restraining him — tased him, and left him in the restraint chair for four hours. Travis Cole is seen in the photo on the right. Lauren Gotthelf is seen on the left. (Courtesy: Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP)

Boulder County officials had used a Taser on Gotthelf on Nov. 25, 2017 while she was fully restrained and multiple officials stood by, and the county settled claims she brought forward — something Sgt. Mecca learned about on Sept. 22, 2020, the same day Cole was brought into the jail. Gotthelf settled with Boulder County for $400,000 and her case ended up changing policies and trainings. That included prohibiting the use of a Conducted Energy Device (CED), including a Taser, on an individual while they are restrained in a restraint chair and mandatory trainings on de-escalation, among other changes listed in the settlement.

The lawsuit also noted the case of Ryan Partridge, a mentally ill man who was tased multiple times without justification over the span of nine months in 2016, including once when he was fully restrained.

Sgt. Mecca was “well-known” for struggling to “separate personal frustrations from work performance and took a punitive and forceful approach to the slightest inmate disobedience,” the lawsuit continues. Despite this, agency leaders — including Cmdr. Mitchell and Cmdr. Martinez — did not formally discipline him, the document says.

One of Sgt. Mecca’s supervisors, Cmdr. Mitchell, told investigators after the incident that he had told her he “believed the jail should be operated in accordance with his military detention training rather than as a helping, social work-type environment,” the lawsuit reads. She added that Sgt. Mecca did not accept the county’s way of operating a jail, and he often disregarded counseling about his temperament and tactics. However, she never formally disciplined him.

Within a year of the incident involving Cole, Cmdr. Martinez had counseled Sgt. Mecca regarding a separate instance of him taunting an uncooperative arrestee, noting that Sgt. Mecca “needed to learn how to deal with people — a rather glaring deficiency in a jail sergeant,” the lawsuit reads. He never disciplined him.

“As the words and actions of both Defendant Mecca’s superiors and subordinates demonstrate, Defendant Mecca’s sadistic, unjustified assault on Mr. Cole was emblematic and symptomatic of Boulder County’s lax discipline, woefully insufficient supervision, subpar training, and especially of its reckless, dangerous tolerance for a defiant and intemperate employee in a position of lawful authority and ethical responsibility,” the lawsuit reads, and called on Sheriff Pelle to properly train officers and discipline them when necessary so both they and their peers can learn from their mistakes.

“Boulder County’s and Defendant Pelle’s failure to do so has led to its officers’ unconstitutional conduct and will predictably lead to more unconstitutional conduct in the future,” the lawsuit concludes.

Sgt. Mecca was ultimately fired and prosecuted. He pleaded not guilty to charges of third-degree assault and official misconduct on Dec. 3, 2020 and, exactly one year later, he was found guilty of the charges, according to Colorado court documents.

He was sentenced to two years of probation and community service. However, this is on hold because Mecca appealed the decision in January 2022.

The lawsuit against the county:

  • claims all the defendants violated Cole’s 14th Amendment rights due to excessive force
  • claims Sgt. Mecca violated Cole’s 14th Amendment rights by denying equal protection
  • claims Sheriff Pelle, Cmdr. Mitchell, Cmdr. Martinez, Sgt. Mecca, Deputy Domanico, Deputy Finkbiner, Deputy Howlan, Deputy Fundaro, Deputy Metcalf, Deputy McDaniel, and Deputy Long violated the Colorado Constitution, Article II, Section 25 – Excessive Force
  • claims Sheriff Pelle, Cmdr. Mitchell, Cmdr. Martinez, Sgt. Mecca, Deputy Domanico, Deputy Finkbiner, Deputy Howlan, Deputy Fundaro, Deputy Metcalf, Deputy McDaniel, and Deputy Long violated Colorado Constitution, Article II, Section 20 – Cruel and Unusual Punishment
  • claims Sgt. Mecca violated Colorado Constitution, Article II, Section 25 – Denial of Equal Protection
  • Lastly, the lawsuit requested the court award Cole declaratory relief and injunctive relief, economic damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages for all claims, pre-judgment and post-judgment interest, and attorney’s fees and costs.

On Thursday, Sheriff Pelle responded to the allegations in the lawsuit.

In a statement, he said:

“The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office had a policy in place prohibiting the use of a Taser on a restrained inmate at the time of this event, and our staff had been trained on that policy. The involved deputy, (Sergeant Mecca), was placed on leave within hours of the incident, and within a few weeks he was separated from our employment and charged with misdemeanor assault. The Sheriff’s Office acted quickly and with full public transparency in the handling of this misuse of force, and to hold the former employee accountable. The Sheriff disagrees with the allegations in the lawsuit alleging culpability on the part of our agency, and counters that the former employee acted outside of our policy and training, and bears responsibility for that decision alone.”

Mecca was hired by the sheriff’s office in March 2007 as a deputy and was promoted to sergeant in January 2018. He has no prior disciplinary record, including any allegations of excessive force.

This story was originally published Sept. 22, 2022 by KMGH in Denver, an E.W. Scripps Company.