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In a news story first reported late Monday, February 27, by The Denver Post, a “Chaffee County man” filed an excessive force lawsuit against all three Chaffee County Law Enforcement Agencies along with 13 officers employed by those agencies.

The lawsuit stems from a September 8, 2022, incident where the Chaffee County combined agency tactical team commonly known in most police departments as a Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) Team executed what they refer to as a “high risk” traffic stop on county resident Ellis Athanas’ vehicle.

The court has sealed the documents surrounding this case, and no reason has been given.

According to the United States Tactical Officer’s Association a SWAT team is defined as: “A designated law enforcement team whose members are recruited, selected, trained, equipped and assigned to resolve critical incidents involving a threat to public safety which would otherwise exceed the capabilities of traditional law enforcement first responders and/or investigative units.”

Officers must pass and maintain additional rigorous training standards in order to be a member of the SWAT Team. It is unknown the specific additional training standards the Chaffee County Combined Tactical Team requires.

The Chaffee County Combined Agency Tactical team is made up of officers from all three local agencies, Buena Vista Police Department, Salida Police Department, and Chaffee County Sheriff’s office.

According to Athanas’ attorney, Kevin Mehr, the misdemeanor warrant he was arrested for did not justify the “high risk” stop and their use of SWAT-style tactics.

“High-risk” traffic stops usually include multiple officers and a tactical deployment and/or approach to the vehicle. Also known as “felony stops”, these kinds of traffic stops are used when the officers have reason to believe the suspect has committed a dangerous felony or is otherwise an active threat to them or the public.

The stop took place near Buena Vista after the tactical team had surveilled Athanas for a time while he went to the gym.

The misdemeanor arrest warrant was issued one day after Athanas was charged with child abuse and menacing. As The Denver Post pointed out, it is a fact that Athanas has a “very limited criminal history — one prior conviction for marijuana possession and false reporting.” There is nothing in his record that would appear to warrant a high-risk “felony stop” action.

Flash-bangs are intended for use when a suspect is an imminent threat to public safety, but should be deployed at least five feet from the person.

As seen in the body camera footage of the incident (see above), while approaching the vehicle, a Tactical Team Member deployed a “flash-bang” grenade. By definition, “A flash-bang, also known as a stun grenade, is designed to temporarily disorient the senses of the target person, without killing anyone. It does so by creating a very bright light – the flash – and a very loud noise – the bang.”

Like most less-than-lethal devices used by law enforcement and the military, there are dozens of sizes and types of “flash-bang” grenades. It is difficult to determine which kind was used in the video. However, in general, there are strict deployment measures by which law enforcement is instructed to use these grenades.

According to a Flash Bang 101 post on Police1, an online police policy and best practices database, and a police blog, there is a potential for “Death or Serious Physical injury, if there is “Civilian Contact during ignition” of a flash-bang device.

More importantly, in a tactical situation such as the incident involving Athanas, the Police1 post cites that deployment of a flash-bang should be at least a five foot distance from a suspect when deployed. In 2011 a North Carolina police officer and veteran SWAT officer was killed from injuries related to a flash-bang detonating inside his vehicle.

The body camera footage above clearly shows the flash-bang exploding inches from the driver’s window of Athanas’ vehicle.  There were other unidentified people in the car. Athanas, “later became nauseous, developed a severe headache, and collapsed on the way to jail. He was diagnosed with a concussion,” according to the Denver Post article.

Attorney Mehr described what happened to his client as “an alarming display of the militarization of the police in our country and a concerning lack of training on both dangerous weapon use by the police as well as the constitutional rights of the citizens they encounter.”

The Chaffee County Combined Agency Tactical Team. Image courtesy of the City of Salida.

As late as 2018 the Chaffee County Combined Tactical Team had a civilian as an active team member who participated in Tactical Team deployments. While this is not unheard of, it does create numerous liability challenges especially when force is used. It is unclear whether the civilian was present during this incident or is still actively involved in Tactical Team Deployments.

This incident comes on the heels of the recent apparent overreach of the Sheriff’s Department with the sudden closure of the early childhood program at The Schoolhouse. While not on the same scale it suggests that law enforcement does what it is trained to do – show strength first.

Ark Valley Voice has tracked a troubling pattern of incidents concerning local police over the past few years. It includes the case of another young man whose nose was broken and left untreated for several days by police during an overwhelming response by several local agencies. Yet all reports from the incident fail to show why or how he had sustained those injuries.

Another incident revealed a sheriff’s deputy at the local gun range with self-described right-wing militia members. Still another case documented the membership of seventeen local law enforcement officers in a Facebook group encouraging violence against minorities as well as Black Lives Matter protestors.