Use of Force in Crisis
In situations where an individual is in a medical or psychiatric crisis, law enforcement officers often are the first on scene. Sometimes the caller explains the situation, but in other cases, they simply report that an individual is disruptive and destructive.
When officers respond, they may find themselves pitched into a circumstance where getting information about an individual takes a back seat when responding to an immediately-dangerous situation, both for themselves and for the public. In recent years, several cases in Kentucky and the Sixth Circuit have provided guidance for officers.
A seminal case is Champion v. Outlook Nashville, Inc., 380 F. 3d 893 (6th Cir. 2004). Calvin Champion was a mute adult male with severe autism. He became violent in public and officers were summoned. His caregiver explained the situation, but did not indicate that Champion was nonverbal and unresponsive. Officers struggled with Champion, and he was subdued. Within a few minutes, he began to vomit and EMS was called. Officers rendered care to prevent asphyxiation. At trial, witnesses indicated the officers compressed Champion even after he was secured, which they denied.
The officers were held liable at trial. The Court noted that officers should take into consideration the diminished capacity of a subject who is unarmed (when making force decisions).
Another relevant case is Gaddis v. Redford Township, 364 F.3d 763 (6th Cir. 2004.) When officers tried to make a traffic stop, they found Joseph Gaddis holding the steering wheel but slumped to the side. Officers reasonably believed he was intoxicated. Gaddis was uncooperative but pulled his hands from his pockets, holding a knife, which he “wind milled” at the officers. He was shot, but survived. He was found to be mentally ill and his criminal case was set aside. He filed suit faulting the police response. The officers were dismissed from the lawsuit.
Following the precedent set by Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), the Court looked at the facts, specifically, the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat and whether he was actively resisting arrest or attempting to flee to evade arrest. Although Graham acknowledges that a person’s apparent mental state can be a factor in the evaluation, the officers only had fragmentary evidence that Gaddis was mentally ill, as his incoherent conduct was consistent with intoxication as well as mental illness. The Court upheld their dismissals.
This case can be contrasted with the much earlier case of Russo v. City of Cincinnati, 953 F.2d 1036 (1992). In Russo, officers shot Thomas Bubenhofer, who was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia. He escaped during a hospital pass, and Cincinnati officers were called. It was broadcast that he was “suicidal, homicidal and a hazard to police.”
A few hours later, family found Bubenhofer hiding under bedclothes at their home and called police. Karen Russo – Bubenhofer’s sister – told officers her brother was alone and did not have a firearm. When the officers made contact with him, Bubenhofer threatened to kill anyone who entered. After some “provoking language,” he opened the door holding knives. One officer fired a Taser, which had a momentary effect, and Bubenhofer rushed the officers. They fired a gun and he was fatally wounded.
The Sixth Circuit agreed that in hindsight, although the initial use of the Taser ultimately led to the use of lethal force, it was reasonable. The second use was a closer call, as the subject was already down at the time, Again, the officer used the Taser to avoid resorting to deadly force. Finally, with respect to the shooting, the Court ruled the situation deserved to be taken before a jury and more fully explored, as some 10 minutes elapsed between the Taser and firearm shooting, and he had apparently dropped the knives at some point in between.
Most critical in this case, and why it is a keystone case for such evaluations, is the discussion of the adequacy of police training in the area of recognizing the need for medical and psychiatric assistance.
Although the officers had some basic training in the area of interacting with the mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, the Court agreed it was appropriate at this state to deny summary judgment and allow the case to move forward to determine if the facts exhibited “deliberate indifference” under City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989).
However, even when officers clearly recognize they are interacting with a mentally ill person, the assessment for the need to use force does not change. In Sheffey v. City of Covington, 564 Fed. Appx. 783 (6th Cir. 2014,) Ruby Sheffey was quickly identified as either intoxicated or mentally ill. He was noncompliant to commands and making threatening gestures. He struggled with officers, who used a Taser several times, but that proved ineffective. Once secured, Sheffey went into medical distress and died from excited delirium. The Court agreed the officers were not at fault in his death.
In Haugh v. City of Louisville, 242 S.W.3d 683 (Ky. App. 2007), officers went to Dennis Haugh’s residence to serve warrants. When they arrived, Haugh refused them entry and armed himself with a frying pan and butcher knife. Ultimately, as the situation evolved, the SWAT team used OC spray, bean-bag rounds and a police K-9. Haugh stabbed the dog. Officers fired more bean-bag rounds and tear-gas canisters. One officer “literally shot the butcher knife” from the subject’s hand. Haugh was overpowered and taken into custody. He died several weeks later from injuries sustained during the incident.
The officers contended that they were unaware of the subject’s paranoid schizophrenia and that it was, ultimately immaterial, as it would have made no difference in their use of force. The Court agreed “mental illness does not exempt a person from the use of reasonable force by the police.”
In City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765 (2015), officers entered the room of a mentally ill individual, living in a residential care facility, who had threatened her social worker. Officers entered, retreated and then reentered her room. Teresa Sheehan lunged at them. Officers shot her multiple times; she survived. Sheehan argued that the officers violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate her known disability. The Supreme Court held that her mental disability was simply not a factor and the entries and use of force were reasonable under the circumstances known to officers.
Soon after Sheehan, the Sixth Circuit again ruled in favor of officers in Rucinski v. County of Oakland, 655 Fed.Appx. 338 (6th Cir. 2016). Officers were summoned to a welfare check and were aware that Jeremy Rucinski was schizophrenic, had not been taking his medication and that he had a knife in his possession. Officers entered with at least one Taser drawn. As he walked toward one of the officers, he was fatally shot. The Court agreed the use of deadly force was appropriate because Rucinski posed a significant threat to the officers and did not comply with commands. The fact that he was known to be mentally ill was irrelevant.
The most recent case on the matter is Roell v. Hamilton County (Ohio) Board of County Commissioners, 870 F.3d 471 (6th Cir. 2017). Gary Roell had stopped taking medication for schizoaffective disorder and paranoid delusions, which, “rendered him a danger to both himself and to others.” On the day in question, he damaged his condominium, then went to his neighbor’s home and broke her window. That triggered a call to law enforcement. Three deputies arrived and found Roell holding a garden hose with a metal nozzle. He was mostly naked and screaming. He approached deputies in an aggressive manner, swinging the hose. The deputies ordered him to drop the hose, but he did not. The deputies were able to grab him.
They struggled and fell to the ground, and the deputies lost their hold on him. He was tased and reacted, but still able to move. Roell was combative and thrashing, striking at the deputies. He was drive stunned, to no effect. They were finally able to get him on the ground and restrained. Roell alternated between going limp, snoring and thrashing. Realizing he stopped breathing, the deputies administered CPR, but Roell died. The coroner ruled that the cause of death was excited delirium, but natural, and there was no evidence of asphyxiation or compressive force.
The Court ruled in favor of the officers.
When an officer is faced with a sudden, violent and dangerous subject, force is reasonable. How much force depends upon the circumstances, and in particular, the immediate danger posed to the officers, to others and to the individual themselves. Although having information about a subject’s mental illness may prove useful in resolving the situation, it is not a factor, specifically, in using force when such force is legally permitted under the circumstances.