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Black man shocked with stun gun while restrained in jail files federal lawsuit

Travis Cole was strapped into a chair and immobilized when a Boulder County, Colorado, sheriff’s sergeant pressed a Taser on his leg in September 2020.
Boulder County Sheriff's deputies strap Travis Cole into a restraint chair before putting "spit sock" bags over his head Boulder County Sheriff's deputies strap Travis Cole into a restraint chair before putting "spit sock" bags over his head and using a stun gun on him.
Boulder County sheriff's deputies strap Travis Cole into a restraint chair before putting "spit sock" bags over his head and using a stun gun on him. Boulder County Sheriff's Office

DENVER — A Black man who was fully restrained in a chair when a white sheriff’s sergeant in Boulder County, Colorado, used a Taser on him alleges race was a “motivating factor” in the decision to use excessive force, according to a newly filed federal lawsuit.

The plaintiff, Travis Cole, says the incident on the night of Sept. 21, 2020, at the Boulder County Jail has left him traumatized and distrustful of law enforcement.

“I had a fine respect for officers of the law, but now I have a fear,” Cole, 34, told NBC News on Monday. “I don’t feel they’re here to protect and serve.”

The sergeant who deployed the stun gun, Christopher Mecca, resigned in the wake of the incident in lieu of termination and was arrested on misdemeanor counts of third-degree assault and official misconduct. A jury convicted him in December 2021 and he was sentenced to probation.

Cole’s attorney, Mari Newman, said it was a failure of training on the part of the department and Mecca’s superiors for allowing “unconstitutional” conduct to occur.

Mecca “made a conscious decision to use force in a way that he thought he could get away with,” Newman said. “He took Travis’ race into account when deciding what kind of excessive force to use against him.”

Before his encounter with law enforcement, Cole, of Rogers, Arkansas, said he had been drinking to celebrate his birthday with his then-girlfriend in Longmont, northeast of Boulder. At the time, he was considering moving to Colorado. But when the pair began arguing that night, police were called. Cole was arrested on a domestic violence charge and transferred to the Boulder County Jail. (Newman said that the charge in his case was later dropped.)

The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office had said that Cole was intoxicated and had been “physically combative” with the arresting officers that night. At the jail, he was strapped in a chair. He told NBC News that the officers started being “rough” with him by pulling and grabbing his neck, and that Mecca looked at him strangely and provoked him with name-calling.

In an edited three-minute security video provided by Newman and taken from inside the jail, deputies can be seen placing a mask over Cole’s face in order to protect against spitting, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Mecca taunted Cole as the other deputies restrained him in the chair.

Cole could be heard in the video saying “Let’s go!” repeatedly, with Mecca responding, “You want to go?”

At that moment, according to the suit, 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.”

Cole continued to sit in the chair for four hours, and deputies refused to unstrap him to use the bathroom, according to the suit. The suit also alleges the other law enforcement officers at the scene “did nothing to intervene” and did not tell Mecca to stop or “take any action to de-escalate the situation.”

Cole’s suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on Sept. 21, names Mecca as well as Sheriff Joe Pelle and several other deputies as defendants. Mecca did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pelle said in a statement that the agency at the time already had a policy in place that prohibited the use of a stun gun on any restrained inmate.

“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 statement said. “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.”

While the department said Mecca self-reported the incident, the suit contends that officials became aware only after two Longmont police officers who witnessed the use of force notified their supervisors.

Cole’s lawsuit also alleges that Mecca reported to his superiors that he decided to use a Taser on him because of his race. Newman clarified the comment was made in an interview following the incident and that Mecca said, “I didn’t think it would look good on camera with deputies using brute force on an African American male.”

Newman said the entire department should also be held accountable for a practice of “improper conduct,” given that there was a prior incident in 2017 in which a woman named Lauren Gotthelf was placed in a restraint chair with her hands cuffed behind her and then Tased.

Gotthelf filed an excessive force lawsuit that was settled with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office for $400,000 that same week as the incident involving Cole took place.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, the sheriff’s office said it had “factual disagreements” with the allegations made, but later agreed to change certain policies, including banning the use of a stun gun on someone already placed in a restraint chair.

Cole said his lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified damages, was filed “because this has been happening so often around the world and a lot of people don’t know that they can speak out.”

“They can’t continue to get away with it,” he added.

Deon J. Hampton reported from Denver and Erik Ortiz from New York.