The chair and the camera

Boulder County Jail installing video surveillance after complaints about inmate abuse

Photo by Jefferson Dodge

They call it “the chair.”

It’s a restraint seat used by many jails to subdue inmates who pose a threat to themselves or others. It has wrist straps, ankle straps, a lap belt and a harness.

The thing is, inmates don’t always go peacefully into “the chair.”

And when they don’t, deputies are authorized to use what at first glance might be seen as violent methods to force compliance.

In official police reports, those methods carry names like “infra-orbital pressure point technique” or “straight punch to the chest.”

But inmates describe it more along the lines of getting beat up by out-of-control cops.

And unfortunately, in cells and a common area of the jail where the chair is used, there are no video cameras to record the proceedings, so when inmates complain about excessive force, it’s their word against the deputies’ word.

However, that may be changing.


• • • •

By his own admission, Joshua Johnson became angry after he was taken to jail on Sept. 19, 2009, after being pulled over for a broken headlight. He felt he had been arrested wrongly, for violating an alcohol-related condition of a restraining order that he said had been lifted. In addition, he was supposed to pick up his daughter later that morning, but being incarcerated put a crimp in those plans.

Johnson, who had been placed on suicide watch, began kicking and pounding on his cell door. A deputy came and agreed to place a call regarding his inability to meet his daughter. But he continued being disruptive, yelling, pounding and covering his cell door with his “suicide smock,” keeping deputies from seeing inside.

They decided to put him into “the chair,” in a common room known as the “disciplinary day area,” where what happened was visible to other inmates.

Johnson says it was out of spite. The deputies’ reports say it was out of concern for his own safety. What happened next is disputed, since there are no cameras in the disciplinary day area, and therefore no video to corroborate either side of the story.

Joshua Johnson | Photo courtesy of Joshua Johnson

Johnson says they came into his cell five deep, the red laser light of a Taser target shining on him, and he put his hands up. He says they cuffed him and backed him out of his cell, his arm twisted back hard. He was placed forcefully into the chair. According to Johnson, his face was slammed against his knee after he dared to look backwards, and he asked why they were hurting him. Johnson admits he called the deputy a “fucking cocksucker,” and says the officer straddled him and said, “I’m going to show you what a cocksucker I am.”

That deputy then lifted the inmate’s upper lip, Johnson says, pulled it up to his nose, put his palm underneath his lip and repeatedly jammed his hand up forcefully against the base of his nose for more than 60 seconds. Johnson says he heard squealing and later realized he was making the noise himself. He says he thought about biting the deputy’s pinky finger that was in his mouth, but thought the better of it. Johnson claims he managed to gasp that he couldn’t breathe, and the officer replied, “Yes, you can, because I just heard that.”

As he was about to pass out, Johnson says, another deputy punched him in the stomach.

“I swear on my life I was fully cooperative the whole time,” he says, adding that he urinated on himself and then slumped over and blacked out.

At one point, Johnson recalls repeating one deputy’s name over and over, intending to report him. “He squatted in front of me, looked into my eyes and said that he’d seen the same thing happen ‘thousands of times,’ and that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it,” he says.

Johnson woke up with a something over his head, a bag used to keep inmates from spitting on deputies, and he found himself still in the chair, in the front of a cell, where he says he stayed for four hours. He says he was taunted by deputies who repeatedly asked if he was ready to cooperate. Finally, unable to walk, Johnson says he had to be carried to a cell, where he curled up into a ball, covered in urine and blood, with a broken nose.


• • • •

According to reports filed by the deputies involved, Johnson was not only verbally abusive, but was warned “during this tirade that it would not do him any good and might work against him if he continued to be disruptive.” Officers agreed that he represented a danger to himself with his pounding, punching and kicking against the cell door, and that they could not monitor his well-being since he was covering the door with his smock. When deputies decided to place him in the chair for his own safety until he calmed down, the reports said, he resisted, arching his back and refusing to sit.

According to reports that contain a varying degree of detail, at least three officers used their knees against his midsection to push him down into the chair. One deputy “applied an infra-orbital control hold,” the aforementioned blows to the nose, which by one account “had little impact and he continued to resist.” The reports say another deputy “attempted to take control of Johnson’s head using a mandibular angle pressure point technique,” which involves applying a knuckle between the jawbone and the ear. When those methods didn’t work, one deputy wrote, an officer “threw a straight punch to Johnson’s midsection, forcing him back into the chair,” and they were able to place the restraint straps on him.

Several minutes into the altercation, the reports said, one officer drew another’s Taser from his belt and held it to Johnson’s back and warned him he would be Tased if he did not cease resisting.

Because there are no cameras in that day room, there is no video that would back up either version of the events.

• • • •

Johnson is not the only inmate to share tales about abuse in the Boulder County Jail. Last August, Robert Kirkland filed a lawsuit alleging that deputies inflicted serious injuries after placing him in one of the cells, which also have no cameras.

Kirkland, who acknowledges serving time in Texas for driving under the influence, claims he was arrested on a petty disorderly conduct charge and was taken to jail, where deputies yanked him out of the patrol car by his head and “pile-drived my head into a wall.”

Kirkland insists that all he was asked to do was to stay still, and he complied, but deputies pulled hair out of his head as they took him to a cell where he fractured his left leg when they threw him onto a bunk. When he screamed that they broke his leg, Kirkland says, one deputy replied, “Now we’re going to break your other one!”

His shoe came off, he says, and they turned his right ankle, fracturing his big toe in the process. Kirkland also claims a deputy tried to stuff his beanie cap down his throat to stop his yelling. He says his other injuries include a dislocated left hip and elbow.

“To this day, I have no feeling in my left two fingers,” Kirkland says, adding that he was denied proper medical treatment for more than a week and got admitted to the hospital only after using a razor to slash his own arms. He claims the leg injury left him using a wheelchair for four months and a walker for another four months, and he still uses a cane.

“I know when I’m being tortured; I learned that in the military,” Kirkland says, citing the recent elk killing in Boulder as yet another example of cops being out of control. “Now they’re blowing away the wildlife. They’ve got a crooked force going on up there, and I’m going to expose them. I’ll take it to the Supreme Court. I won’t settle in this case. I don’t give a dang if I don’t get a dime.”

He adds that his father was a police officer.

“I know what a good cop is, and I know what a bad cop is,” Kirkland says. “Don’t hand me a piece of shit and tell me it’s a cherry pie, because they smell different.”

Prominent Denver civil rights attorney David Lane took on Kirkland’s case, and he claims jail footage shows the inmate entering his cell without the leg injury, leaving only one explanation.

“We have videotape of him walking pretty much on his own steam into the cell, but then there’s no further videos provided to us about him after the fact,” Lane tells Boulder Weekly. “So we have called them out on that and demanded that they produce those videos too. … They should have done that right up front, and they didn’t. … They are required to give us any relevant documents, and so they gave us what they gave us, but come on, we’re claiming he got his legs busted in the cell, and they don’t think it’s relevant to see any videos of him leaving his cell?”

• • • •

Dea Wheeler, the assistant county attorney who handles cases involving the Boulder County Sheriff ’s Office and the jail, says lawsuits about excessive force in the jail are not common. She says an August 2012 complaint filed by Giles Locke was recently dismissed, and a claim filed by Daniel Hrynewycz in August 2011 was settled by the county about a month later. Wheeler declined to disclose the terms of that settlement.

As for cases like those involving Kirkland, she says, there may be a reasonable explanation for why certain video wouldn’t be provided: It doesn’t exist.

Administrative commander Jeff Goetz indicates the disciplinary unit on a model of the jail. | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

She explains that for privacy reasons, there are no video cameras in the cells, since that’s where inmates use the bathroom and change. And due to video storage space constraints, footage that is more than about a month old is recorded over. She declined to comment on the specifics of the Kirkland case because it is active litigation. But Wheeler says video records are not withheld.

“To the extent that we still have them, we produce them,” she says. “As we progress through these types of cases, it’s a protection for the deputy.”

And in the case of the disciplinary day area where Johnson was strapped into the chair, there are now plans to add video surveillance.

Jail Division Chief Bruce Haas, who replaced Larry Hank last September, acknowledges that recent complaints were a factor in deciding to have cameras installed in areas like the disciplinary day area where Johnson claims he was abused.

There were never cameras there because video was used primarily to assist deputies with real-time surveillance, not recording, he explains, and there is an observation area looking directly out onto the day room, so there was no need.

“Now, with more and more questions coming up and allegations being made, that is prompting us to say we have nothing to hide,” Haas told BW, acknowledging that it protects the deputies from false accusations as much as it protects inmates from abuse. “I think it’s just being responsive to what’s going on. I think it’s a good thing to protect us. One frustration, on our end, is that there are allegations made that are not necessarily true.”

He adds that it may seem like overkill, in the case of Johnson, for instance, to have four or five deputies subdue an inmate, but jail protocols call for several deputies to be involved to minimize injuries to officers or the accused.

“It’s not because we’re ganging up on the guy, it’s because we don’t want anyone getting hurt,” Haas says.

• • • •

Jeff Goetz, administrative commander for the jail, explains the processes used to evaluate, book and control inmates.

People booked into the jail are classified in one of three ways: cooperative, semi-cooperative and uncooperative. All are assessed for their medical condition before being incarcerated, he says, and if treatment is needed, the arresting agency is responsible for securing medical attention, so that the jail — and the taxpayers — are not on the hook paying for pre-existing conditions.

When someone deemed “semi-cooperative” or “uncooperative” is brought to the jail, he explains, additional deputies are brought in to ensure that officers — and the suspects themselves — are not injured.

Goetz, who has worked in the jail since 1990, says inmates who are out of control, especially when under the influence of alcohol or drugs, may not be fully aware of their ability to do bodily harm to themselves or others. The metal restraint chair is used to subdue inmates that exhibit such behavior, for the safety of themselves and deputies, Goetz says.

“It’s not a comfortable situation, because you can’t move,” he explains. “It’s designed to restrain you and not hurt yourself or others.”

He adds that there are strict protocols for when and how to use the chair, and it can never be used as a punitive device or as an example to other inmates, as Johnson contends it was used when he was placed in the chair in the day area, in full view of the other inmates in the disciplinary unit.

“Just because you pissed me off, I can’t put you in the chair,” Goetz says, adding that inmates are sometimes placed in the chair in the common area because the cells that the apparatus fits into may already be occupied.

He acknowledges, however, that the scenario described by Johnson is not a unique one, since deputies periodically have to use force to place an uncooperative inmate into the chair.

Goetz also admits that injuries like Johnson’s broken nose do occur, because “if you ram your head forward, force on force, something’s got to give there.”

But he says the jail has never seen an inmate death due to an altercation with a deputy, and the Boulder County facility has a reputation for fairness and respect. In fact, Goetz says, under a previous district attorney, the jail “used to be known as the country club on the hill.”

• • • •

Maneuvers like the “straight punch” and the mandibular and infra-orbital pressure point techniques that Johnson describes as being abusive are methods that deputies are well-trained in, and are “pain compliance,” Goetz says, because they “hurt like hell.” They are part of the deputy’s arsenal, he explains, comparing them to tools used in other professions.

“You may need a hammer, a pair of pliers, a saw,” Goetz says, adding that deputies who have large hands can even employ the “C-clamp,” which is a combination of applying both the mandibular and infra-orbital pressure points using one hand.

When asked how an internal affairs investigation like the one initiated in the case of Johnson — which resulted in a finding of no violations by jail workers — can be definitive when there is no video evidence, Goetz says all deputies involved are interviewed.

“They’re under oath to tell the truth,” he says. “If they are lying, they’ll be held accountable.”

Goetz explains that if one deputy has a different story than the others, “we’ve got an issue,” and that “if you have a bad apple in there, it’s going to get you in trouble.”

He acknowledges that law enforcement can attract macho, aggressive individuals who might be tempted to abuse the power that comes with carrying a badge and a gun, but there are forces that reign them in — or kick them out. Bullying an inmate not only incites that inmate but sows discontent among the rest of the jail population, Goetz says, which endangers a deputy’s co-workers.

“If I’m that officer who’s going to go in and be the king of the roost, someone’s going to get hurt,” he explains. “That’s dealt with internally, amongst themselves. They’re going to police that amongst themselves.”

When asked whether the jail has ever had a “bad apple” deputy who has abused his or her power, Goetz says, “We’ve had that happen before, and they no longer work here.”

He adds that most “bad apples” are weeded out in the extensive screening/ interview process. In addition, prospective deputies have to pass a three-month training period, and the inexperienced ones are paired with seasoned veterans who show them the ropes.

• • • •

For his part, Johnson remains unconvinced. He started a “Tortured in Boulder County Jail” Facebook page and a petition on to call on the Boulder County Sheriff ’s Office to use video surveillance in disciplinary areas as a means of transparency for the methods used by deputies. The petition has garnered nearly 150 signatures in less than three months.

“I’ve been broadcasting how horrible the jail is, and I’ll do it the rest of my life until something changes,” Johnson says. “When it’s their word against ours, they win every time. All I’m asking for is a transparent jail system.”

The effort seems to have garnered results, with the anticipated installation of new cameras in the disciplinary day area where Johnson says he was abused.

“Our job is to be as transparent as possible,” Goetz says.

Sheriff Joe Pelle tells BW that cameras have historically been used “as an operational tool to see places where deputies couldn’t see, so they weren’t everywhere. But then, a few years ago, attorneys started making requests for video and we noticed it started multiplying and it became apparent that this was more than just a management tool, it was being used for prosecutions and lawsuits.”

He agrees that the disciplinary day area is a good spot to add cameras.

“That’s a tough area, that’s where the most difficult inmates go,” Pelle says. “The inmates that throw feces and urine and fight with the deputies, that’s where they go.”

He says the jail has only had a couple of substantiated claims of deputies using excessive force in his 10 years on the job, which is a tiny percentage considering the jail books about 10,000 people a year.

“I think we’re running a very progressive jail, in relation to the values and priorities that the people of Boulder County have, but the reality is, people come into our jail who are drunk or high, and they’re fighting and assaultive and they’re profane, and the deputies do have to use force,” Pelle says. “And it’s sometimes a tough job and not pretty. It’s just the reality of working at the jail. But we’ll do what we can to protect everybody.”