Utah man sues police, saying they used excessive force and caused brain damage by shocking him with stun guns

When her husband threatened suicide one day in 2016, Tabeththa Coronado called 911 hoping a few police officers would be dispatched to help stop the mentally unstable man from hurting himself.

But although she and her young son had left their apartment and were not in danger, the West Valley City Police Department responded with a heavily armed SWAT team and evacuated the entire complex.

After a few hours of coaxing, Fernando Coronado walked out of the apartment shirtless and unarmed, but two officers shocked him with Tasers, according to a federal lawsuit. The now-47-year-old man fell and hit his head so hard that he suffered brain damage that left him profoundly disabled, the lawsuit says.

Filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Utah, the suit alleges Officers Kenneth Olsen and Jacob Hill violated Coronado’s constitutional rights by using unreasonable and excessive force. The Tasing was recorded by police body cameras.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tabeththa Coronado turns her head away as attorney Robert Sykes plays the West Valley City police body camera video where two officers tased Tabaththa's husband Fernando Coronado after she called them concerned that he was suicidal. Coronado suffered brain damage when he fell and hit his head on a stucco wall and a concrete floor, as a result of being stunned. Sykes has filed a federal lawsuit against the two West Valley City police officers. The news conference was in Sykes offices in Salt Lake City Thursday January 25, 2018.

Interim West Valley City Police Chief Colleen Nolen said Thursday the city intends to vigorously defend the officers against the allegations.

“Mrs. Coronado reported that her husband was intoxicated, suicidal and making threats that he intended to kill himself and others,” Nolen said in a written statement. “Mrs. Coronado also alerted police that her husband had military training and had access to multiple weapons inside of their apartment. The threat to the safety of surrounding apartments and open spaces necessitated an evacuation of the area and the call-out of West Valley City Police Department SWAT officers.”

A police negotiator spent hours talking with Coronado to safely resolve the incident, Nolen said. When Coronado exited his apartment, he was ordered to get on the ground by SWAT officers, but refused to comply “and, in fact, rapidly advanced toward two officers who then deployed their tasers,” Nolen said.

Reports by responding officers included statements that Coronado was threatening to harm police if they came into the apartment, and that he wanted to commit “suicide by cop.” Coronado also was described as behaving aggressively and pounding his chest when he came out of his residence.

But Robert Sykes, one of the attorneys who represents the Coronados, said at a Thursday news conference that Fernando Coronado was not making aggressive moves.

“He was totally unarmed and they could see it,” Sykes said. “His waistband was clearly visible, he had nothing in his hands.”

Sykes called the SWAT response a “a gross overreaction.” Chad McKay, another attorney representing the Coronados, said teams of police were securing the area, snipers were stationed and there are more than 60 police body camera recordings of the confrontation

Tabeththa Coronado said police knew the situation did not involve domestic violence, but rather a threat by her husband, who was holding a knife to his own throat, to harm himself. She told a dispatcher that there was a gun in the apartment but that it was in a closet and the clip was out, she said.

Olsen and Hill, along with at least 12 other officers, including SWAT personnel, responded to the Coronado residence near 5800 West and 2600 South in West Valley City on Aug. 2, 2016, according to the lawsuit

Fernando Coronado said Thursday that he already had a bad back and started drinking to stop the pain after he ran out of medication. Body-camera footage shows officers repeatedly telling him that if he came to them, nothing bad would happen, according to the suit.

At 4:14 p.m., after speaking with an officer on his cellphone, Coronado came out of the apartment and was surrounded by police, who were blocking the stairwell exits. Officers are telling him to put his hands up and get on the ground, the footage shows, and he takes a few steps toward them.

Then, Tasers are deployed and Coronado falls against a stucco wall and cement floor. Sykes said Olsen and Hill fired their stun guns at the same time, sending 100,000 volts of electricity into Coronado — who, Sykes alleges, was never given a warning of the possibility of being shocked.

Coronado said he came out of the apartment without a shirt because “I didn’t want to get shot. I wanted them to see I didn’t have no weapons or nothing but a cellphone.”

He is deaf in one ear, Coronado said, and was hearing an echo as officers were yelling at him. He heard one of them tell him to put his hand on his head and get down, he said.

“When I started to do it, that’s it,” Coronado said. “They Tased me. But they didn’t only Tase me once, they Tased me twice, simultaneously.”

Coronado said his neck broke when he fell and he had burns on his stomach. His injuries were so bad, he said, that he was told to get his affairs in order while he was at the hospital.

The lawsuit says Coronado had facial reconstruction surgery and has racked up about $300,000 in medical bills. He has suffered extensive physical and neural problems that affect control of his bladder and bowels, his balance and his memory, according to the suit.

He also is unable to get in and out of bed, dress himself or cook food, Coronado said, adding that he always has a chemical taste in his mouth. In addition, he can’t play with his son because of his constant pain, he said.

Because he can’t work, Coronado depends on Social Security disability benefits.

Coronado was charged in 3rd District Court with six misdemeanors stemming from the confrontation, and he pleaded guilty to threatening people with a dangerous weapon in a fight. The other charges were dropped, according to court records, and he and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.

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