Lawsuits allege excessive use of force by Cheyenne officer

CHEYENNE – Two lawsuits have been filed by local residents in federal court alleging repeated incidents of an excessive use of force by a Cheyenne Police Department officer.

The lawsuits, both of which were filed in U.S. District Court in recent months, focus on events that occurred in 2017 and 2018. Both suits allege the excessive use of force by CPD Officer Eric Norris, who has been with the department for about 10 years.

One of the lawsuits, which was filed jointly by three Wyoming residents, involves two separate incidents from the summer of 2017. Specifically, the plaintiffs argue that Norris unlawfully fractured a motorcyclist’s rib during a traffic stop, and wrongly arrested and assaulted a man at a Fridays on the Plaza concert.

In summary, the lawsuit states Norris has “engaged in a pattern and practice of unlawful and unconstitutional assaultive behavior against members of the public, including these plaintiffs and many others.”

The city of Cheyenne and CPD Officer C.K. Wood are also named as defendants in that lawsuit.

The second lawsuit focuses solely on actions taken by Norris in response to a bar fight in August 2018. In this lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged Norris punched him in the face without just cause or provocation.

When asked about the lawsuits and the events described below, Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak said internal investigations were conducted immediately after each of the incidents occurred.

“In both of those cases, we have not sustained the allegations against the officers on those calls,” Kozak said Tuesday. “We’ve done a thorough investigation, and those have been made available to the court.”

While copies of the internal investigations were not publicly available as of press time Tuesday, the police chief stood by the procedural actions taken by his officers.

“When we look at those, we look at, ‘In a use-of-force situation, was their action objectively reasonable? Would an average police officer believe their actions were objectively reasonable for that given situation?’” Kozak said. “So that’s how we judge these cases, and in both of these cases, we determined it was.”

The lawsuit, filed by three local residents, focuses on two separate events from summer 2017. The first of those incidents involved an interaction between Norris and Cheyenne resident David Harrison, who was pulled over by the officer while driving drunk on his motorcycle in the early morning hours of June 3, according to court documents.

Upon being pulled over, Norris asked for Harrison’s license and proof of registration. According to a probable cause statement given by Norris, Harrison had his driver’s license in his lap and refused to hand it to him.

At that point, Harrison attempted to lower his kickstand to retrieve the other documents in his saddlebag. When that happened, the complaint alleges Norris responded, “Don’t touch that fbag.”

Harrison then explained that without putting the kickstand down, he couldn’t obtain all of his required documentation. When Norris gave inconsistent directives, “Harrison sat there in fear, not knowing how to comply,” according to the complaint.

“Norris then walked toward Harrison and suddenly assaulted (him) without provocation, throwing him off of his motorcycle, and then either punching or kneeing Harrison in the ribs, as Norris rubbed Harrison’s face in the asphalt,” states the complaint.

The officer’s probable cause statement offers a slightly different perspective, but both documents confirm that Harrison was taken to the ground.

“I grabbed Harrison by his left arm, and he started to pull away,” Norris said in his statement. “I arm-barred Harrison off the bike and onto the ground.”

Harrison, who had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.18 and was later found guilty of a DUI, was diagnosed with a fractured rib as a result of the incident.

The second situation, which involved both Norris and another CPD officer, occurred a few months later, during a Fridays on the Plaza concert at the Cheyenne Depot Plaza on Aug. 25, 2017. Andre Torres, a retired Navy veteran, attended the concert with his wife and their two young daughters.

During the event, a young woman with prior conflicts with the Torres family approached them seeking “a verbal confrontation,” according to court documents, and the Torres family tried to avoid an exchange with her.

Norris, who was patrolling the scene, was then informed of a disturbance in the area. He spoke with the young woman who had sought the confrontation and then told the Torres family they would have to leave the event.

Upon those directions, Torres said, “We’re leaving, but I don’t think it is right that we are being punished for acts of this girl,” according to the complaint.

“Are you bucking up to me?” Norris responded, to which Torres said he was not.

The officer then approached and assaulted Torres “without provocation and without lawful basis,” the lawsuit alleges.

While Torres was on the ground, Norris restrained his arms behind him and “then punched Torres in the face while Torres was restrained.” A bystander, in a signed affidavit, stated he “did not personally observe the tackled man do anything that might warrant such treatment.”

A different bystander, Brian Kanzler, was also watching the scene unfold, and he quickly began to record a video on his phone of what was happening. According to the lawsuit, Norris then directed other officers to arrest Kanzler for recording the situation.

“Kanzler was promptly violently assaulted by Cheyenne Police Officer C.K. Wood and taken to the ground and injured,” the lawsuit states. “Kanzler’s head was bruised and bloodied from the assault.”

Torres and Kanzler, both of whom are plaintiffs in the federal case, were each issued citations for violations of three municipal ordinances: public intoxication, resisting arrest and interference with a peace officer. The two were then taken to jail until bond was posted, and a special prosecutor declined to pursue the charges against either of them.

In addition to the alleged violations of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights of the plaintiffs, the lawsuit also includes the city of Cheyenne as a defendant, arguing it “failed to properly train, supervise and discipline its employees with regard to lawful seizures and lawful use of force.”

The lawsuit also argued the city’s ordinances for public intoxication and interference with an arrest fail to set an objective standard to determine whether the statute has been violated.

The two officers, who receive representation from the Wyoming Attorney General’s office, had yet to file any responsive motions as of Tuesday.

Attorneys representing the city of Cheyenne, meanwhile, filed a motion to dismiss the claims against the city in mid-August, arguing the plaintiffs “do not even identify the city’s police officer discipline program, do not identify any deficiency in it, and certainly do not allege facts showing the city chose to retain a discipline program it knew was inadequate.”

“Plaintiffs do not plausibly state any claim, because they have failed to allege anything more than conclusory allegations against the city,” their motion states. “Moreover, plaintiffs’ allegations of constitutional deficiency of the city’s policies, practices, or customs fail both on the law and for lack of factual allegations.”

Another lawsuit, also filed this summer in U.S. District Court, centers solely on actions taken by Norris following an altercation at Alf’s Pub on Aug. 5, 2018.

That night, Travis Salway, the plaintiff in the case, had gotten into a fight with two other patrons of the bar and its owner, and his hand was broken during the scuffle.

Norris, along with other officers, then arrived on the scene. Upon their attempts to arrest Salway, he “kicked, attempted to bite and physically resisted putting his hands behind his back,” according to a probable cause statement given by another CPD officer.

Salway was then arrested for interference with a peace officer, among other charges, according to court documents. The complaint filed in federal court states Norris punched Salway in the face after Salway was handcuffed for the arrest.

“The relationship between the need to use force and the amount of force used was excessive,” states the complaint. “The severity of the circumstances was very low, and (Salway) was acting in a cooperative manner.”

Norris, in a response filed by his attorney earlier this week, admitted to punching Salway with a closed fist, but he denied that it was done after the man was handcuffed.

The officer also denied virtually every other allegation, including ones that state Salway was being cooperative and posed no threat to anyone. The response also denies any violation of Salway’s Fourth Amendments rights, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures.

No rulings from the presiding judges have been filed in either case.

The capital city’s police department has a fairly stringent training process, according to its chief.

Kozak said on top of the training that every Wyoming police officer must undergo, all CPD officers receive an additional two weeks of instruction on use-of-force standards. The department also has monthly and quarterly training on use-of-force and deescalation procedures.

“I’ve worked in three states total, and I can tell you the Cheyenne officers are going through the most training I’ve ever seen any police officer go through when it comes to use of force and constitutionally based policing measures,” Kozak said. “So that’s why I’m pretty confident in our officers’ ability to do things right.”

If an officer is found to not be following CPD’s standard practices and procedures, department leaders will require them to do remedial training and possibly take additional disciplinary action. Kozak said the department has not had to take any remedial or disciplinary actions with Norris.

Last year, CPD officers used force in 234 responses out of 72,468 total calls, or 0.32% of the time, according to the department’s annual report. Kozak said the department’s average annual use-of-force numbers are “fairly low,” compared to nationwide statistics.

While the residents involved in the federal cases turned to the courts, there is also a system through which complaints can be filed with the department itself. Twenty-six complaints were submitted to CPD in 2019, with 16 of those being “externally generated.”

“The ones that come from outside, a citizen will call to ask us to look into a situation,” Kozak said. “It’s very rare on use of force. It’s maybe just a couple a year.”

The investigations into the 2017 and 2018 incidents were undertaken on the department’s own initiative, Kozak said. Those incidents also occurred just prior to the installation of body cameras for all CPD officers in October 2018.

Soon, there will be slightly more oversight of CPD’s standard practices, as the department is about to launch a review board for use-of-force practices that will include civilians and officers. Kozak said the board members have been selected, and the board should become operational later this month.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that our officers are doing it right, and that they’re being held accountable to make sure that they are doing things right,” the police chief said.

With regards to the specific cases at hand, Kozak noted getting sued is “kind of part of doing business as a police agency.”

“We’ve been successful defending every lawsuit in the last 11 years,” Kozak said. “I expect these two will be the same.”