SALT LAKE CITY — An inmate at the Utah County Jail with a history of mental illness is suing Utah County, claiming deputies used excessive force when they shot him twice in the knee from 6 inches away using a shotgun and nonlethal ammunition.
On June 28, 2017, Luis Carlos Prado, 31, of Orem, was being held in the mental health unit of the jail when deputies told him he needed to be transferred to a different cell. Prado did not follow the orders of deputies to place his hands behind his back so he could be handcuffed before his cell door was opened, according to the lawsuit filed by Prado and police reports of the incident.
Five deputies approached Prado's cell, all wearing gas masks, and again ordered him to place his hands behind his back near the cell door opening where food trays are delivered. The confrontation was video recorded by Utah County Jail staffers.
In the video, Prado is defiant and places his knee in the jail door opening while verbally challenging the deputies.
That's when a deputy shoots Prado's knee using a shotgun and less-than-lethal rounds, from about 6 inches away. When Prado doesn't even flinch, he fires a second time.
About four weeks after the shooting, Prado underwent surgery to have four shotgun pellets removed from his leg, according to the lawsuit. His wound was also "grossly infected" at that time, the lawsuit states.
On Thursday, civil rights attorney Robert Sykes announced that after months of failed negotiation with Utah County in an attempt to reach a settlement without resorting to legal action, he and his client had filed a lawsuit.
"This is really an outrageous violation of someone’s constitutional rights, of a prisoner who was confined, who is entitled to humane treatment. You don’t have to be nice to 'em. But you have to be humane. And you can’t use that kind of force on a person who is not a threat, not a risk, he’s not an escapee, he’s not holding someone hostage. It’s really an outrageous violation of his rights,” he said. "The first use of force should not have been as powerful as a shotgun at 6 inches."
Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who is now vice president of strategic partnerships for the Center for Policing Equity, was asked to review the case as an expert witness on the use of force. After reading the police reports and watching the video, Burbank said he agreed the level of force used was "completely inappropriate."
"The application of force in this circumstance was unnecessary, was punitive and unwarranted. There was no need. There was a better alternative,” he said.
Burbank said he "questions the thought process" that went into coming up with a plan to use a shotgun first. The former chief said even though rubber pellets are used, they can cause significant damage. The shotgun blasts are designed to be used from a minimum 3 to 4 feet away, he said. Once Prado put his knee right up next to the door, the shotgun shouldn't have even been considered.
Furthermore, after the first blast had no effect, Burbank said that should have been another indicator that something wasn't right.
"It has no effect on his behavior whatsoever, and yet they administer a second round. That tool is designed to move people in a certain direction, not simply to hurt them seriously enough that they comply with your action,” he said.
After the shotgun blasts, deputies deployed pepper spray into the cell. After about six minutes, Prado submitted to the deputies' demands and allowed himself to be handcuffed.
Burbank said no one is disputing that action needed to be taken against Prado, but all it took was pepper spray and six minutes.
"There was no expediency in this matter. There was no need to grab a shotgun and take the action that they did. They had a better alternative available,” he said.
Sykes added that for deputies to use a shotgun blast to the knee as a first course of action, they needed to "try a little harder. It’s inappropriate."
Prado, who as of Thursday was back in the Utah County Jail, was not present for the press conference.
Sykes admitted that his client has had a history of "significant" mental health and drug-related problems. But he said that does not give deputies the right to use excessive force.
According to a review of the shooting by the Utah County Sheriff's Office, Prado had been collecting old food and milk cartons in his cell, was eating moldy food and refused to shower for over a week.
"The cell was extremely filthy and smelled terrible," the report states. "The stench of the entire unit was overwhelming."
When deputies attempted to get him out of the cell, "he threatened to stab all deputies in the eyes and remove their eyeballs" and stab their children as well, the report states.
But according to a report written by the lieutenant who was over the group that fired the nonlethal shotgun and pepperball gun, she expressed concern that the weapon was used. She instructed the officers "not to use the less than lethal guns on Prado," according to the report.9 comments on this story
In a brief statement released in a tweet Thursday afternoon, Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said, "We are aware of the incident at our jail involving Mr. Luis Prado. It was investigated by an outside agency. An internal investigation was done as well. We have taken appropriate corrective action, but we disagree with the statements made by Mr. Prado's attorney."
All other questions were then referred to attorney Frank Mylar, who is representing the county in the lawsuit. A call placed by the Deseret News to Mylar was not immediately returned Thursday.