A 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office review found no wrongdoing by five Colorado Springs police officers in the May 24 death of a man who went limp and stopped breathing as he struggled with them during a psychotic episode.
Citing accounts by the officers involved and results of an autopsy, prosecutors concluded that 49-year-old Chad Burnett likely died of complications from a “severely diseased heart” brought on by the struggle as he resisted an arrest in his Broadmoor-area home. The officers’ tactics fell short of deadly force, and were justified given Burnett’s aggressive behavior, including an attempt to grab an officer’s gun, according to a four-page summary of prosecutors' findings.
“Because Mr. Burnett appeared to pose an ongoing, unpredictable threat to his neighbors, because he had been repeatedly uncooperative with officer requests and had threatened officers, and because of concerns about his access to weaponry, officers decided to take him into custody using force,” said the summary, released late Tuesday afternoon.
Terri Hurst, policy coordinator for Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, previously called Burnett’s death “a failure in the mental health care system,” alluding to his history of bipolar disorder and increasingly erratic behavior.
Burnett was gripped by “an acute psychotic episode” at the time, according to Burnett’s autopsy report, which listed his mental illness among his causes of death. Burnett was a longtime Colorado Cyclist employee who left the retail and mail-order bicycle shop in 2019 before opening his own bike-fitting business.
Friends described him as well-liked within the Colorado Springs bicycle industry and said they had never known him to be violent.
The District Attorney’s Office summary said police had been repeatedly contacted over threatening behavior by Burnett in the weeks before his death, and had made at least two earlier attempts to direct him toward mental health treatment.
Police involved in his death were responding to a report that Burnett — at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds — had threatened a neighbor with a knife, the DA’s office said. A police sergeant trained in crisis negotiations tried to coax Burnett out of his home, in the 2700 block of Ashgrove Street, without success.
After Burnett came out of his house and threw objects in officers' direction, several officers chased him inside, the summary said. That led to a confrontation in Burnett’s home that eventually drew five officers and lasted more than 10 minutes, according to the summary.
The officers deployed a Taser three times and used punches to his body —“compliance strikes” — along with handcuffs and leg restraints to place him under control. An autopsy found no evidence that officers had used choke holds or other asphyxiating measures, the summary said.
Dr. Daniel Lingamfelter, who performed Burnett’s autopsy, ruled his death a homicide, meaning it came at the hands of another person. But Lingamfelter told the DA’s Office that he “would not have expected a person with a healthy heart to have died from this incident,” the report said.
The summary of the district attorney’s findings downplayed effects of the Taser strikes.
“None of the taser shocks were effective at incapacitating Mr. Burnett, which is believed to be due to the taser prongs deploying too close together to cause an effective incapacitating shock and one prong having partially snagged in Mr. Burnett’s heavy clothing,” the report said.
Brett Lindstrom of San Diego, a longtime friend of Burnett, said the death shows that police “are too empowered to use deadly force.” He said that appropriate mental health care and better training for police could have averted the tragedy.
“Chad was a really good person. He just struggled with his inner-demons,” Lindstrom said. “I don’t think for a second that he was going to hurt anyone. There’s no report of him harming anybody. He had no police record of physical force against anybody.”
Authorities say that in the weeks before his death, Burnett had repeatedly tangled with neighbors and relatives in ways that raised questions about his mental state. Although he had in the past been prescribed mental health medications, an autopsy found no evidence had taken any recently.
Earlier in May, Burnett had told an acquaintance that he suspected a neighbor had killed his mother and “that he would take a knife over there if he had to,” the summary said. Later, he accused a different neighbor of killing her. Police say there’s no evidence that Burnett’s mother, who died in 2018, was the victim of foul play.
On the day he died, Burnett had left a voicemail for longtime family friend in which he allegedly threatened “to slit (his) throat” if he didn't return Burnett's call.
Burnett’s blood-alcohol level was .07 percent, within the legal threshold for drivers, and he also had marijuana in his system, the summary said.
Earlier in May, Burnett had received two visits from the city’s mental health community-response team, made up of a licensed social worker and an officer and a paramedic specially trained to handle mental health emergencies.
During their first stop at his home, on May 9, the team reported having a “brief” conversation with Burnett at his door, the District Attorney’s Office summary said. They later called to “advise him about available mental health resources.”
The second visit, on May 18, came after a relative called police asking them to check on his welfare. The team again went to his door and spoke to him briefly, but said he left them at the doorstep and didn’t come back.
“Officers tried calling his (recorded) numbers and left him voicemails, but he didn’t answer the phone and didn’t return those voicemails,” the summary said.
Burnett was still grieving the loss of his parents, who died within days of each other, and likely felt isolated, Lindstrom said. He also had been involved in a legal dispute over his inheritance, records show.