The facts seem straightforward enough. The Durango Police Department received a call on Valentine’s Day that a man wanted on a warrant for sexual assault out of Montezuma County was inside The Boarding Haus snowboard and skate shop on Main Avenue in downtown Durango.
The caller, a close family member, warned police that the man – 19-year-old Samuel Keon Potterton of Telluride – would resist arrest. And he did.
That’s the straightforward part. Then came the accusation of police brutality by a passerby on her lunch break who stopped on the sidewalk and watched as five police officers surrounded Potterton as he was led in handcuffs out of the shop and into the back of a waiting patrol car.
Christa Turnell sent an email to The Durango Herald shortly after witnessing the arrest.
“I see egregious police violence against maybe a homeless man who was inside the door of a business,” Turnell wrote. “... What the problem was is irrelevant. It was ONE man and there were five cops. They had his arms pinned elbows up in violation of the Geneva Convention and simple good policing.”
Turnell went on to question the need for five police officers to arrest one “little guy” and wrote, “I was yelling at them to stop because civilized people don’t beat people up ever.” She added that even if the suspect was wanted for murder, why should five guys beat the guy? Turnell ended the email by accusing the police of wasting tax dollars and called for the officers involved to either be cut from the force or “show” why it was happening.
The Durango Herald contacted the police department about the brutality accusation. The DPD responded by inviting the Herald to review and share with readers all of the bodycam footage collected from the officers involved while also explaining its reasoning for sending five officers to arrest Potterton.
“Obviously it’s a hot topic going on around the country right now with the Memphis incident and everything else, but every time, every single time we use force it’s going to shock the conscience and it’s going to look bad anytime you lay hands on another human being,” said Deputy Police Chief Brice Current. “If you have any humanity, it's not going to sit well.”
Bodycam footage from the second officer to arrive at The Boarding Haus shows one officer already in the store. A third and fourth officer arrive before they approach and advise Potterton that he is under arrest. Police manage to get one of his wrists cuffed before he begins to struggle. The officers then constrain him without inflicting or receiving any blows as they lower him slowly to the floor. Potterton curses and threatens to kill them as he continues to struggle. Police advise him to stay cool and calm and stop fighting as they work to reposition him face down and cuff the other wrist. Two police officers hold his legs while another holds his torso down with his hands. A fifth officer, a supervisor, has arrived to oversee the arrest.
One of the issues raised in the death of Tyre Nichols’ at the hands of Memphis police was that no supervisor was present, Current said.
Bodycam footage shows Potterton continue to struggle, cuss and threaten police before pausing to complain the handcuffs are too tight. The supervisor instructs the officers to loosen the cuffs, which can be a dangerous situation, Current said. The handcuffs are loosened, and Potterton asks to be stood up. The officers assure him they will stand him up as they continue to encourage him to stay calm. Then they lift him smoothly to his feet and escort him to a waiting patrol car while Potterton continues to struggle, curse, threaten and eventually spit on officers before he is seated in the back of the patrol car.
Potterton is cited for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct and booked into the La Plata County Jail. But if not for the warrant for sexual assault “overcoming victim against their will” – a no bond class 5 or 6 felony, Current said, Potterton would have been released.
The need for manpower in such an arrest, no matter the size of the suspect, is based on caution and concern for the safety of the suspect, the officers, and the employees and customers within the confined space of the store, Current said.
“And so people are asking for your help,” Current said. “You don't want to come and be part of the problem. You want to be part of the solution. The more officers we have the safer it is taking somebody into custody. And the person that called us also told us, ‘Hey, this person will fight you.’”
Current said the officers did a good job of doing everything they could to de-escalate the situation.
“He's yelling at them,” Current said. “And they're not even engaging him. They're speaking to each other as if he's not even there which takes a high level of patience, which is great and it's part of our culture.”
Turnell, the woman who accused police of excessive force, objected to Potterton being handcuffed with his hands behind his back. She said if police were responding to a warrant arrest they should have had a plan that didn’t involve “ripping his shoulder out of joint.”
She stood by her statement that police “beat the guy,” adding that “better police work would have had fewer cops and less injury.”
“Colorado has no obligation to do things the old fashioned way,” she wrote in an email to the Herald.
Police said Potterton suffered no injuries during the arrest.
Boarding Haus manager Jack Groenheim praised police for their actions during the arrest.
“It was resisting arrest,” Groenheim said. “And the police were so calm. I think (the guy) had an anger issue or something. I applaud the entire police department. They did the best they could in the situation they had and in a tight space. No one in the store at the time felt like there was any police brutality.”