Prison interior. Jail cells, dark background.

A man has filed a federal lawsuit against Weld County alleging excessive force and a “custom of militarized violence and weaponry” in the sheriff’s office that caused him multiple head injuries.

On June 23, 2018, Tage Rustgi returned to his home for the Greeley Stampede. A student at the University of Colorado, he wrote that he “committed no crime,” but that the sheriff’s office put him in the jail’s detox area “allegedly due to having consumed an excess of alcohol during the festivities.”

Basing his narrative events from surveillance footage at the county jail, Rustgi noted that after employees took him to an intake area without incident, members of the Special Operations Group entered the jail dressed in green military fatigues. The sheriff’s office website does not contain a description of the organization, but Lake County describes its own SOG as a unit that uses “the least amount of force necessary to achieve a successful conclusion of an operation with minimum hazard to citizens, property, and Deputies under a variety of situations….SOG responds to emergencies requiring the use of special weapons and tactics that exceed the standard capabilities of Patrol Deputies.”

While an employee took Rustgi’s vital signs, the alleged members of the SOG donned ear protection. Five deputies and three SOG members purportedly took Rustgi to a cell with no surveillance cameras, where they had him lie facedown on the floor. A screen capture from the hallway surveillance camera at 12:26 a.m. on June 24 shows some employees plugging their own ears.

The SOG members then allegedly fired “concussion explosions” from their shotguns. “The force of the explosions was so violent that it shook a surveillance camera in another room and down the hallway some distance away, which is visible as the footage plays,” Rustgi wrote. In another screen capture included in the lawsuit, five employees plugged their ears at the other end of the hallway, with some hunched over.

Rustgi received 11 stitches resulting from a laceration to his forehead and a hemorrhage to his eye. Pointing to Sheriff Steve Reams, Rustgi alleged that in 2016, “Reams began to implement policies and training to turn the jail into a militarized environment in which pretrial detainees like Plaintiff, as well as inmates serving sentences, would be terrorized and brutalized.”

Rustgi alleges that Reams contracted with Joseph Garcia to train the SOG. The lawsuit points to Garcia’s marketing tactics employing militaristic imagery that “glorify the use of explosives in the jail setting,” and describes the training as condoning “intimidation, harassment, aggression, threats of violence, physical violence, and weaponry, to terrify pretrial detainees and other inmates in the jail.”

Garcia, who is not named as a defendant, did not respond to a request for comment through his company, C-SAU. A spokesperson for Reams said that he could not comment on pending litigation.

Claiming that the SOG members “patrol the jail constantly and do not only respond to ‘critical’ or especially hazardous incidents,” Rustgi wrote that this practice violates sheriff’s office policy. Furthermore, he alleges that “the conduct against Plaintiff in this case is typical of the deputies,” with explosions fired on a “near-daily basis.”

The case is Tage Rustgi v. Steve Reams, et al.

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